Central America: Anti-Gang Agreement

September 25, 2007

As Guatemalan President Oscar Berger signed an agreement with three other Central American leaders to coordinate regional anti-gang efforts on January 15, gang members in Guatemala City killed and beheaded a man and left the body with a note addressed to the newly elected president. Imitating the tactics of gang members in Honduras, the note protested against the repressive measures Central American governments have implemented to combat gangs and promised more violence.

Under the agreement signed by El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, gang-related arrest warrants issued in one country will be shared with law enforcement agencies in all four countries. Berger also announced his intention to introduce stringent domestic anti-gang laws similar to those recently passed in Honduras and El Salvador, which criminalize gang membership. The Honduran and Salvadoran laws give police the authority to arrest anyone suspected of being a gang member. Since August, police in Honduras have arrested over 910 suspected gang members, while Salvadoran police have apprehended more than 8,467 suspects in recent months.

Amnesty International has criticized the harsh anti-gang laws in El Salvador, noting, “It is ironic that legislation designed to curb high levels of crime contravenes international human rights standards to which the country is a signatory, and the national Constitution itself.” Amnesty and other human rights advocates critical of Central American anti-gang laws argue that the repressive measures against gang members do not address the roots of the problem.

Casa Alianza, a children’s advocacy organization based in several Central American countries, has called for prevention and outreach efforts. Casa argues, “The crackdown on gangs [does not] offer any viable options for gang members who wish to leave gang life, an action punishable by death in the gang culture. Many young gang members have expressed interest in leaving their gangs if education and employment were available as an option.”

With no large-scale alternative programs in place, critics say the laws actually foster, rather than curb, violence. While in prison, for example, young gang members are likely to become more deeply involved in the gang lifestyle. And according to Casa Alianza, giving police permission to hunt down gang members has led to extra-judicial killings of young people in Honduras and El Salvador.

The two largest gangs in Central America—Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Mara 18 (M-18)—originated in Los Angeles, California, spreading to El Salvador with the deportation of gang members from the United States. A U.S. law allowing the deportation of immigrants convicted of crimes carrying sentences of a year or more has resulted in some 500,000 immigrants being deported to their home countries since 1996, with 80% of them repatriated to Latin America. As a result, there are now tens of thousands of MS-13 and M-18 members in Central America.

Berger has blamed rising levels of violence on the spread of gangs, but a recent United Nations report asserted that “clandestine structures dedicated to organized crime” also pose a significant problem for Guatemala’s security. During his campaign, Berger pledged to address Guatemala’s security problems and implement portions of the peace accords that human rights activists say have been ignored. Berger, only the second democratically elected president since the civil war, immediately moved to address the country’s security issues by signing the regional anti-gang agreement on his first day in office. Meanwhile, the new human rights minister Frank LaRue says he plans to work closely with the newly created Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Organizations in Guatemala (CICIACS). As a show of good faith, Berger appointed human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú as a “goodwill ambassador” to monitor implementation of the peace accords and government efforts to end human rights abuses. Berger apparently sees no contradiction between his pledges to protect human rights, and simultaneously launching a new “war on gangs” that could compromise the human rights of thousands of young people.

About the Author
Sarah Garland is NACLA's editorial assistant.


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