Sunday, September 26, 2004

Dissecting the gang issue in Central America

The New York Times' Ginger Thompson -- with reporting from Dan Alder (with whom I shared office space in the early 1990s, when he was with UPI and I with Americas Watch) -- has a 4600-word piece today on gangs in Central America .

It's one of the best and most thorough pieces I've seen on the transnational phenomenon of gangs. Although it focuses largely on Honduras, it describes the issue in a comprehensive and engaging way. These few grafs serve as a primer on the subject:

They are gang members, known here as "maras," after a species of swarming ants. Indeed, over the last decade gangs have spread like a scourge across Central America, Mexico and the United States, setting off a catastrophic crime wave that has turned dirt-poor neighborhoods into combat zones and an equally virulent crackdown that has left thousands of gang members dead, in hiding, in jail or heading to the United States.

The authorities estimate there are 70,000 to 100,000 gang members across Central America and Mexico. In the last decade, gangs have killed thousands of people, sowing new fear in a region still struggling to overcome civil wars that ended just a decade ago. Gangs have replaced guerrillas as public enemy No. 1.

The presidents of Honduras and El Salvador have called the gangs as big a threat to national security as terrorism is to the United States. They have revived old counterinsurgency strategies and adopted zero-tolerance laws known as Mano Dura, which loosely translates as "firm hand," that bypass basic rules of due process and allow them to send young men to prison for nothing more than a gang tattoo.

Instead of offering reassurance, official campaigns inflame public fear. And in the last year, human rights investigators have begun to report alarming increases in the numbers of young men killed by the police and vigilantes.

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