Review- “Maras”

Posted: April 11, 2012 in Book Reviews

In Maras, a wide range of scholars comes together to trace the emergence of Central America’s “gang problem,” from its purported beginnings in the Pico Union housing projects and youth penitentiaries of 1980s Los Angeles to the urban war zones of 1990s San Salvador and Guatemala City. Seeking to dispel many of the sensationalized accounts of Mara Salvatrucha Trece (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (Mara 18) propagated and proliferated by tabloid journalists and opportunistic public officials, these essays underscore the social, political, and economic realities that contribute to soaring rates of urban violence and crime in Los Angeles, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, and Managua.[1] They contextualize the emergence of maras alongside broader international phenomena like neoliberal reforms, narcotrafficking, immigration, and civil war while also drawing attention to local conditions that explain, for instance, why Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti, has largely avoided the gang problem that currently plagues its neighbors.

Most important, these researchers argue that heavy handed anti-crime policies in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have only exacerbated corruption and gang violence. Former presidents like Antonio Saca of El Salvador, Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala, and Ricardo Maduro of Honduras exploited the moral panic surrounding gangs to push populist, draconian mano dura laws through the legislature that galvanized their political bases. Meanwhile, mass arrests of suspected mareros have only stratified gang hierarchies, intensified street warfare, and crystallized relationships between relatively autonomous MS-13 and Mara 18 cliques, while also bringing them into regular contact with drug traffickers and crime lords in overcrowded Central American prisons. Finally, these essays assess the effectiveness of the Plan Mérida Initiative signed by President George W. Bush, Felipe Calderón of Mexico, and Central American leaders in 2007 to promote regional security cooperation and collective efforts to identify and apprehend transnational gang members and narco-terrorists. So far, programs like the FBI administered Criminal History Information Program (CHIP), Central American Fingerprint Exploitation (CAFE), and Transnational Anti-Gang units (TAG) have stalled amid congressional spending cuts in foreign aid to Latin America and the reallocation of Plan Mérida funds to meet the urgent demands of the Mexican military in its hot war against drug cartels in Sinaloa and Juárez.

Maras is an urgent, original study that seeks the perspectives of researchers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including sociology, political science, criminology, journalism, and anthropology. Its contributors are of both U.S. and Latin American origin, facilitating a critical dialogue on transnational youth gangs between the two academies. Moreover, essayists like Sonja Wolf, Elin Cecile Ranum, and José Miguel Cruz draw from the groundbreaking studies of the late social psychologist Fr. Ignacio Martín Baró, S.J., a Jesuit priest and researcher of youth violence who was murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1989, as well as the early histories of gangs produced by historian Deborah Levenson and the Guatemala City based Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales (AVANCSO). Levenson’s preliminary study of gang violence in the Guatemalan capital entitled “Por Si Mismos” informs many of Maras findings, historicizing the gangs phenomenon by tracing its origins as far back as the 1954 coup and the reactionary authoritarianism and civil strife that followed.

Maras’ most provocative thesis contends that gang violence and organized crime in Central America and Los Angeles thrive in collusion with the state rather than in opposition to it.[2] José Miguel Cruz argues that gangs have transformed themselves in order to deal with the harsh conditions created by state and government anticrime sweeps, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.[3] Gangs in Central America became more violent and better organized because zero-tolerance policies and suspensions of due process compelled them to strengthen, as well as provided the opportunities and resources for gangs to expand through the spaces of illegality and the networks of crime broadened by shortsighted policymaking.[4] Anti-gang initiatives like Plan Escoba (2000) in Guatemala, Mano Dura (2003) in El Salvador, and Libertad Azúl (2005) in Honduras produced higher homicide rates. For instance, in El Salvador, the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants increased from 37 to 56 between 2002 and 2006. In Guatemala, they climbed from 36 to 47, while in Honduras they remained constant in the mid-40s.[5] Meanwhile, gang activities now operate predominately within the overcrowded jail cells of Central America’s prisons, spaces of anarchy and violence where correctional officers and gang members interact openly and where crime lords contract incarcerated mareros to carry out assassinations of their opponents.

Moreover, these researchers temper the hyperbolic claims made by the state and media that liken maras to international crime syndicates such as the Mexican and Colombian cartels and even al-Qaeda. Miguel Cruz explains how MS-13 and Mara 18 are classified as organized crime not because they are involved in international drug-trafficking activities-several cliques certainly are-but first and foremost because they have been able to develop complex networks of protection rackets that enable their survival as groups.[6] In 2012, the key element of mara activities remains what is called la renta-namely, extortions. According to various sources, Central American gangs collect most of their money by extorting the local population, collecting “taxes” from individuals who wish to receive protection against threats or to avoid any harm perpetrated by the same members of the group.[7] Guatemalan gangs, for instance, collect around $4 million annually just in the suburb of Villanueva outside Guatemala City, while in El Salvador, according to the police, 70% of the extortions are committed by gangs who tax transport unions, convenience stores, and informal businesses on the street.

While Maras is an admirable first effort to provide much-needed scholarly insight into the gang phenomenon in Central America, this volume lacks historical perspective and framing. None of the contributors to this volume are historians. Admittedly, few historians outside of Deborah Levenson have tackled the subject due in part to the precarious and indeed perilous nature of conducting field research of violent crime organizations that exist on the fringes of Central American urban centers, lack identifiable leadership, operate in shadowy, illicit economies, and wield terrorist tactics against local populations and themselves. Nevertheless, further inquiries into the emergence of Central American maras demand the contributions of skilled and eager historians who can explain how, when, where, and why disaffected, impoverished youth formed criminal gangs in the first place. In particular, historical research should investigate the origins of the moral panic surrounding the so-called “gangs pandemic” that swept Los Angeles and Central American capital cities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, paying particular attention to how state and media have scapegoated maras to deflect attention away from less visible but far more nefarious sources of violence in the Americas: grinding poverty, lack of government services, crippling unemployment, organized crime, police brutality, political corruption, and institutionalized violence.


[1] Thomas Bruneau, Lucía Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner, Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2011).

[2] Enrique Desmond Arias, “State Power and Central American MarasA Cross-national Comparison,” in Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America, ed. Thomas Bruneau et al. (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2011), 123.

[3] José Miguel Cruz, “Government Responses and the Dark Side of Gang Supression,” in Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America, ed. Thomas Bruneau et al. (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2011), 139.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 151.

[6] Ibid, 152.

[7] Miguel Cruz, 152.

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