How common is gang activity in Alabama


From Maja Hess

Although a 10-year bloody civil war in El Salvador between the right-wing extremist ARENA party and the left-wing guerrilla organization FMLN ended with the Chapultepec peace agreement in 1992, the dead that appear on El Salvador's streets and alleys, in houses or garbage dumps are not become less. On the contrary, their number is steadily increasing. In 2009, 1,785 people were murdered in the first five months. That's 13 murders a day. Hundreds of them are women, girls, and toddlers. The women's organization Las Melidas speaks of a "Femicid", that is, of targeted series of murders against women. The murders are blamed on the maras, the youth gangs, and the government's response to the increasing violence is repression.

Years before the civil war broke out, there was a climate of fear and violence in El Salvador. Those who resisted dictatorial power and exploitation, who denounced social injustices and organized themselves, were systematically threatened, intimidated, persecuted and not infrequently killed. This terror was not only a message to those affected, but also always a threat to the whole population, which said: If you perk up, the same will happen to you. That digs into everyone's consciousness.

The right-wing extremist state apparatus had already created countless paramilitary organizations before the war, such as the death squads founded by the former dictator Roberto d'Aubisson, the Patrulleros, elite battalions such as the notorious Atlacatl, secret police, secret dungeons, torture centers, etc. The war began with this legacy over.

After the war, the so-called adhoc commission uncovered the structure of the death squads and subsequently dissolved them. However, many of the paramilitary structures still exist. With the general amnesty, the "impunidad", impunity, was sealed for the actors. Many of the former killers and torturers joined drug rings and other criminal gangs. They initially found refuge in the Policía Nacional Civil, which was founded after the war, and later in the countless private security companies that are springing up like mushrooms.

Where do the maras come from?

It is said that one of the notorious youth gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha, was built up by Salvadorans in Mexico to make it easier for their compatriots to do the “Paso al Norte”, or “slip through” from Mexico to the USA. The word “Mara” is a positive term and means: my buddies, my scene. The term Salvatrucha also refers to the origin of the migrants who should be defended against Mexican attacks on their journey. The Mara is financed through such protection orders. An important, but not the only, scene of the development of gang activity appears to be Los Angeles in the United States.

The other significant gang is typically called Pandilla 18. "Pandilla" is the Mexican term for the word "Mara". “18” refers to the 18th district of Los Angeles and its patron saint, the Virgen de Guadelupe.

There is war between the various gangs, a territorial war marked by machismo. The neighborhood, the street, the gang are defended with their own lives. "Por mi madre nací, por mi barrio voy a morir ..." (I was born for my mother, I will die for my part of town), says a Maras proverb. The gang offers its members an identity, the tattoo - a label, a secret sign language - creates trust and mimics unity, initiation rites and other rituals bind fear and increase the willingness to die for the gang.

In Los Angeles there is a war between the gangs and whoever is proven to have committed a crime will be expelled from the USA after serving their imprisonment. Airplanes full of deported Salvadorans land in San Salvador every day, and quite a few of them have been brutalized in the USA and only really learned what gang crime is there. Thanks to the returnees, the maras in El Salvador are very popular. The members are young, have a high willingness and capacity to organize themselves, network across Central America, form a society in society and challenge society.

Where does the violence come from?

The gang kids did not learn violence alone in Los Angeles. 9 years ago there were around 500,000 young people in El Salvador without training, without a job and without prospects. Born and raised in marginalized neighborhoods, they almost absorbed structural as well as so-called domestic violence with their mother's milk, if they ever got it at all. They are characterized by cramped and poor living conditions, without intimacy and privacy and by devaluing and violent communication. The majority have no or dysfunctional contact with a father figure. Hunger and neglect are part of everyday life.

At the same time, migration to the north is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous. Hundreds of migrants are kidnapped on their way through Mexico and their relatives are extorted large sums of ransom in the USA, a huge business. Those who take part in a mara, on the other hand, will find identity, protection from attacks and a kind of perspective there.

However, there were maras in El Salvdor even before the end of the war. As early as 1989, during the so-called final offensive of the FMLN in San Salvador, members of the Mara integrated themselves into the offensive and pulled their not exactly functional “Pistolitos” out of hiding. They dug trenches and provided courier services. For the time being, many of them identified themselves well with the guerrilla fight, but most ran away after two weeks.

The maras have always had something socially rebellious about them and they allowed themselves to be mobilized. In Los Angeles, for example, they took part in the Rodney King Riots after street battles broke out and department stores were looted after the brutal police violence against the young African American Rodney King. In addition to the coveted sports shoes, they also had essential survival items for the family, groceries or diapers for the little ones. This is one reason why the maras in the slums of San Salvador are protected by the local people. They move there like fish in the water, because they are not only brutal, but also provide many families with food, clothes and other things necessary for survival. In addition to the informal sector, membership in a mara is one of the rare opportunities for young men to earn an income.

Stigmatization of young men

Investigations by two recognized human rights organizations in San Salvador - "Tutela legal" and FESPAD - have shown that in the 1990s only about 30% of the murders were caused by the maras. In addition to the “usual” crime, death squads, former members of the Atlacatl elite battalion and the police were responsible for the remaining 70%. Targeted torture and murder fell victim to left-wing activists and personalities, as well as members of the maras. More than half of all murders are part of targeted state repression and amount to actual social cleansing.

Nevertheless, under the leadership of Flores and later Saca, the state responded with the concept of “mano dura”, the hard hand. Anyone who was young became suspicious. Anyone wearing a tattoo belonged to the Mara. A couple of youths standing together formed a gang. They all went to prison, where they were locked up and tortured. Had they really carried weapons, they might have been able to defend themselves. Thousands of young men have been cruelly stigmatized in this way. Even judges snubbed such a practice and they resisted sending young people to prison for years just for a few tattoos. Meanwhile, a tightening of the gun law or stricter gun controls were strictly rejected by the state, because the arms trade was in the hands of Avila, the 2009 presidential candidate for the right-wing extremist party ARENA. The government circles had no real interest in improving the security situation. The uncertainty of the middle and upper classes is very profitable, as Avila owns the largest security company in the country.

Are the actors perpetrators, victims, or both?

The situation is not easy to understand. According to an analysis by the women's organization “Las Melidas” of the targeted murders of women and girls, gang members are hastily blamed for many crimes. Many murders of women were not committed by maras, but some were. Overall, the level of impunity is appalling. Nobody in the police and judiciary seems to be interested in solving the murders. A perpetrator was identified in only 10% of the cases. It often remains unclear whether the accused are really the perpetrators. The majority of the undiscovered cases speak a clear language - for the perpetrators as well as for the relatives of the victims.

The emergence and strengthening of the maras harbors great social dangers. As illegitimate institutions of violence, they are often networked with state structures and participate in the drug and arms trade on a large scale. Machistically they defend their territory and kill whoever crosses this border. They collect protection money in the markets and in poor neighborhoods and use it to finance their friends in prison and their families. At the same time, they are victims of brutal repression, torture and murder, and actual social cleansing. Overall, they serve as a pretext for the increasing militarization of society, although it remains unclear who retains control over the state's means of coercion.

The violence has different faces. It is practiced by criminal gangs, ex-killers, torturers and mafia-like structures, in which the Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) is entangled. The police and the army also contribute to the escalation of violence, and not just the maras. The violence is structurally anchored and a consequence of the exclusion of a large group of society from any social and economic perspective and participation. This form of violence eats its way into people's souls like a caustic acid and increases the willingness to use violence in the struggle for survival, especially among men. Survival in the periphery A change may require a clear perspective with social and economic development opportunities. These have to be fought for; this requires supporting social networks, clear visions and real hope for social change. The psychosocial projects supported by medico international Germany and Switzerland also serve this path.

It takes a new moral. A new form of social commitment, different from that which prevails in the maras. Clear boundaries, taboos and new rituals are required. The FMLN called this: "La Mística Revolucionaria" - the revolutionary mysticism. We could perhaps call it a new beginning today, a new vision and hope. After all, it also takes a certain amount of repression in order to limit the massive violence. But there is no need to militarize the poverty zones.

Maja Hess is senior physician and president of medico international Switzerland