Guatemalan gangs: swagger, tattoos but no rules

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Sandra doesn’t go outside after dark anymore. She lives in one of this city’s most notorious areas, where rival gangs have turned streets into war zones.

“It was like fireworks: pop, pop, pop everywhere,” Sandra, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of her safety, said of gunshots on one particularly busy night a few months ago.

The next day, bodies were found strewn throughout the city and her neighborhood, El Limon, a collection of ramshackle concrete block homes. At least 50 people, mostly gang members, were killed over two days that August weekend. They were shot, strangled and beaten to death.

For comparison, that would be the equivalent of 170 murders in New York City, which has three times as many people but averages about four murders per weekend.

It turned out to be the deadliest day of the year in a city that has become synonymous with crime. And it was also the last time Sandra went out after dark.

The gangs are central players in a crime wave that has paralyzed the country. Residents, like Sandra, are left powerless and frightened by the gangs' lack of propriety. Heinous crimes are accepted, even encouraged by the gang culture here.

The gangs are particularly dangerous these days because they are in their infancy, said Luis Rodriguez, author of “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” and a former member of East Los Angeles gangs.

Compared to L.A. gangs, those in Central America are operating without rules, said Rodriguez, who has done research in Sandra’s neighborhood.

“They have all the swagger of an L.A. gang, they have all the symbols, the tattoos, the signs, but they have none of the structure. They’re still too young to have developed any type of structure,” he said. “In the early days of gangs in L.A., raping a woman was a good way to develop your reputation. I knew a guy who raped dozens of women.”

Rodriguez said that as the gangs in L.A. developed, they learned that brutal tactics tarnished their reputations. “It was bad for business. So they stopped. The gangs in Guatemala haven’t gotten to that point,” he said.

Many Guatemalan gangs have roots in Los Angeles. During the 1980s — with civil wars being fought in Central America — Salvadorans fled to Hispanic neighborhoods of Los Angeles. They established gangs, "maras" in Spanish, with names to honor their home country. The most notorious were Mara 18 (a reference to 18th Street in San Salvador) and Mara Salvatrucha 13 (a reference to the gang founders who said they were as wise as a trout or trucha).

Members of those gangs were deported from Los Angeles and quickly began to spread in Central America. While much of the country’s crime spike has been blamed on Mexican drug cartels, observers say other Guatemalan criminal elements are responsible for many of the crimes.

Diego, a 14-year-old with slicked back hair who lives in a neighborhood with a growing gang presence, said the more brash the crime, the better it serves your reputation.

Diego said gangs — he lives in an area where Mara 18 and MS 13 both operate — were recruiting him but he hadn’t joined.

“If you do the worst thing, you are known,” he told a GlobalPost reporter before being hushed by a friend who sat next to him.

Guatemalan authorities have set up task forces to take down gangs, focusing on arresting leaders. They’ve captured and imprisoned leaders known by nicknames such as “The Devil,” “Smiley” and “Psycho.”

But throwing gang members in jail often does little to hamper their operations. Instead, prisons — in particular the one located near Sandra’s home in Zone 18, where members of the Mara 18 gang are jailed — act like call centers from which orders are carried out.

“The jails are so porous that gang members can operate their criminal organizations from within them. Their members bring them food, money, cell phones, maybe even women,” said Harry E. Vanden, a Florida Southern University professor who has studied Central American gang culture. “The guards in these prisons are horribly corrupt. You can get nearly anything in.”

Sandra was one of those things. At the age of 16, she was taken against her will into the prison and raped.

“They took me from the street a few blocks from my house and told me that they’d kill my family if I didn’t go with them,” Sandra said. “They took me into the jail, and they raped me. Two guys, one after the other. I don’t remember all of it. I think I stopped remembering.”

Sandra’s story is not unique. A doctor in a clinic in the neighborhood told GlobalPost that she has treated girls as young as 14 who said they’d been raped inside the prison.

“We get women, or girls, here, that have come from the prison. They’re victims of rape, and they feel powerless. They don’t want to report the crimes because they’re worried,” said Maria Oliva, a psychologist who works with rape victims in a clinic near the jail. “It’s very common.”

Oliva said she’s treated dozens of women and girls in the past year who were raped in the prison, a walled-off structure that sits in the middle of the neighborhood. Others within the prison system say the number of rapes is likely in the hundreds.

GlobalPost obtained a December 2008 letter from a high-ranking prison official to the head of the system. It said a minor had been raped inside of the jail and that the head of the prison guards did nothing to prevent it.

Prison system officials said they are investigating claims of rape but have found no witnesses. “It’s a very difficult thing to verify because if the girls are going in under coercion but not telling guards, then how can we find out if it’s happening?” said Leida Juarez, a prison system spokeswoman. “It’s complex because it involves the gangs outside the jail. We have no power there, no control.”

Juarez said that prisoners have been found to be able to control their groups from within their cells. Earlier this year, the government blocked cell phone signals around the jails to prevent prisoners from making calls. Authorities had found that by way of those calls gang members were ordering hits and directing drug operations.

Then, earlier this year, they transferred some of the most dangerous inmates — including “Smiley,” “The Devil” and “Psycho” — to the new prison, located outside the city.

Their imprisonment gave Sandra little comfort. “They can get to anyone. They’re evil,” said Sandra, a plump, smiley teenager. “They don’t care who they hurt.”