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AQ Feature

Demystifying the Maras

Central America's murderous youth gangs have become handy media symbols for a new transnational threat. A closer look suggests the media may be wrong.

VIolent and aggressive bands of young criminals, tattooed from head to toe, have become the symbols of a new, supposed national security threat in the hemisphere. Grouped together as maras, the Central American slang term for “gangs,” they have been the subject of countless profiles in influential media outlets, from The New York Times and Spain’s El País to National Geographic. As a result, the word mara has entered the North American English lexicon as an easy shorthand for a particularly virulent form of cross-border organized crime. Governments in some of the maras’ favorite theaters of operations, notably in Central America, have burnished the stereotype with get-tough policies that treat the gangs as the main source of the upsurge in crime in their region.

It’s time to take a second look. While some of the gangs are indeed vicious, and do pose worrying threats to public order, they don’t represent the entire picture. Interviews conducted with present and former gang members in the U.S., Mexico, Nicaragua, and Central America’s Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) reveal that these youth gangs are a far more complex phenomenon than commonly assumed.

According to local police estimates, the total number of youth gang members spread across Mexico and Central America is approximately 60,000. But this number can be misleading. Figures vary widely according to country, ranging from as few as 2,227 in Nicaragua to as many as 35,000 in Honduras. The best way, actually, to understand the maras is as a series of very different responses by troubled and disenfranchised young people to particular national conditions, and to their often different personal odysseys. Gang members in Mexico and Nicaragua are considerably less violent—and less organized—than their counterparts in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala...

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: El Salvador, Demystifying the Maras, Rafael Fernandez de Castro, Gema Santamaria, ITAM, Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, Maras, Violence in Latin America, Panza Loca, Barrio 18, El Clown, Mano Dura, Super Mano Dura, Escoba, Libertad Azul

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