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Guatemalan gangs: swagger, tattoos but no rules

With Guatemalan gangs in their infancy, heinous crimes — including rape — are accepted, and even encouraged.

Passengers on a moving bus look at a crime scene in Guatemala City, Feb. 16, 2009. (Daniel LeClair/Reuters)

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.