Three young people are murdered every day in Honduras. Rory Carroll reports on the rise of the 'maras' youth gangs that form a chain of drugs, extortion and violence stretching from Los Angeles to the country's capital Tegucigalpa.
Merlin Rodriguez was never convincing as a gangster. She
had the tattoos and affected the swagger but was too slight, too fragile, to
really look the part. Troubled by rows at home, the 15-year-old drifted through
the slums of Honduras and hung out with members of the "Dieciocho",
one of the most feared gangs in central America.
Merlin adopted the slang and body language, all slouch,
loose limbs and attitude. Her dream was to be an actor, she told friends, and
playing an apprentice gang member felt like a role. It was her first and last.
One humid October night Rodriguez disappeared and a week later her body, near
those of two other girls, was found half-submerged in a stream in the
Manzanales mountains. Fish and vultures had destroyed her features; she was
identified by her jeans and underwear.
Merlin's brutal end was an authentic gangster's fate:
murdered and dumped, the corpse bagged by police and transported to the
judicial morgue in the capital Tegucigalpa. Even for a place of death, it is
grim. The morgue's fridge is a battered, grubby container surrounded by rusting
vehicles and weeds in a hospital junk yard. It seeps desolation. Inside the
container yellowing feet poke from grey-white sheets. The faces are clammy
masks, a shocking number are teenagers.
"I don't know why my daughter died," whispers
Merlin's father, Milton. "I don't even know how she died." He tries
to answer questions but his voice cracks and lapses into silence. Friends said
Milton was a devoted father who tried to broker peace between his strong-willed
daughter and his second wife, Merlin's stepmother. When Merlin ran away, he
would find her, bring her home, try to start anew. Now his child's remains were
in a fridge filled with dead strangers and he had no words.
What are the words for what is happening in Honduras?
Slaughter, tragedy, waste? On average three young people are murdered daily –
more than 1,000 a year. The annual death toll is almost 6,000, an
extraordinarily high number, which makes this central American backwater of 7
million far more murderous than Mexico. "We are burying kids all the time,"
says José Manuel Capellín, the head of Casa Alianza, a charity for street
children. "It's horrific, the figures are going up and up and up."
Part of the explanation for the death toll is political.
A rightwing coup that ousted president Manuel Zelaya last year is still being
played out via assassinations of activists and journalists. But most are purely
criminal and linked to the phenomenon known as "maras" – youth gangs
that form a chain of drugs, extortion and violence stretching from Los Angeles
to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Central America faded from the international news radar
when its civil wars wound down in the 1990s but the gangs, with membership
estimated at 70,000 to 200,000, are fuelling death rates to match the years of
guerrilla and counterinsurgency slaughter.
Maras revel in a reputation for feral bloodshed and
self-destruction. Nihilism permeates their rap songs and copious tattoos,
including one with three points, symbolising hospital, prison, morgue. With
those the destinations on offer, outsiders can wonder why anybody signs up.
"Drugs, guns, girls: it's not a bad package,"
grins Jorge Medina, a rake-thin, fidgety 17-year-old gangster. He is affable
but hyperactive, or maybe he has consumed too much white powder. His eyes seem
to track an invisible fly. "You may only last one or two years, but it
makes you someone."
Even for Latin America, Tegucigalpa's slums are a sight –
glue-sniffers sprawled on rubbish dumps, children begging amid potholes and
sewage – but gangs rule turf like prized kingdoms. They levy a toll known as
"peaje" on pedestrians and motorists and extort a "war tax"
In addition to peddling drugs, they rob buses and raid
rival fiefdoms. "That's when the rifles and Uzis come out," says
Medina, forming his hand in the shape of a gun. Medina is not his real name: he
is on the run after stealing 1.5kg of cocaine from the Dieciocho. "If they
catch me, this," he says, drawing a line under his throat.
Initiation rituals involve a group beating if the recruit
is male, or having sex with everyone if she is female. Studies suggest 3% to
15% of youths in gang-affected communities join a gang, with ages ranging from
seven to 30. An El Salvador study found that 61% joined to "hang out"
with gang member friends, and 21% to escape family problems.
Machismo, narco-trafficking, social exclusion, plentiful
weapons and the aftermath of war all sustain the mara phenomenon, but it landed
with plane-loads of gangsters deported from the US. The two main groups,
Dieciocho (Spanish for 18) and Salvatrucha, originated in LA and exploded in
central America when Con Air dumped 46,000 convicts between 1998-2005.
Nicaragua was lucky: its emigrants headed for Miami,
where black and Cuban gangs shunned central Americans, and the country remains
an oasis of relative calm. LA's more culturally open-minded gangs, in contrast,
recruited the children of immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Many had never set foot in central America until being deported.
With no family restraints, the arrivals proved much more
brutal than traditional local gangs known as pandillas, says Dennis Rodgers, a
University of Manchester anthropologist and mara expert. Rival gang members
have been beheaded and burned – notably during prison riots – and bus-loads of
civilians have been massacred to intimidate authorities and extort money from
drivers. Suspected gang members dumped human heads in front of Guatemala's
congress along with notes telling the government to halt a crackdown on
Successive governments responded with "cero
tolerancia" and "mano dura" (hard hand), which means sending
soldiers and police on raids into the slums, shooting gang members who
"resisted arrest" and jailing others for long stretches. Mara members
responded by hiding tattoos and wearing merely baggy as opposed to extra-baggy
jeans but otherwise continued robbing and killing as before.
Briefly it seemed El Salvador would try something new.
Mauricio Funes, a young progressive, swept to presidency last year promising
change. Authorities would reach out to the maras and offer education, social
welfare, jobs, hope, he said. A year later, in the wake of public uproar over
mara violence, the experiment seems to be over and it is back to the mano dura.
A post-coup government in Honduras has also set aside talk of "social
development" and put Oscar Alvarez, a former justice minister with a
hardline reputation, back on the job.
Casa Alianza estimates that in Honduras inter-gang
clashes account for 40% of killings. Imagine Lord Of The Flies with cocaine and
Glocks. Private security guards are estimated to account for 25%. These are
poorly paid men – in some cases moonlighting police – who guard buses, liquor
stores, supermarkets and other gang targets. In the crime-weary capital,
shooting a suspect is more likely to earn applause than prosecution, so guards
tend towards the trigger-happy.
Contract assassins – "sicarios" – account for
15%. For just a few hundred dollars, sometimes less, they will pump bullets
into your problem. Some are gang members, some are police. Targets range from
wealthy businessmen who have crossed a colleague to drug-sniffing kids
bothering a neighbourhood. The fundamental problem, Capellín says, is the
state's inability to deter and investigate crime. "There is total
impunity." Of the thousands of youth murders in the past decade, fewer
than 50 had been solved.
From Mexico down to South America, senior politicians and
police commanders say the maras are links in the narco-trafficking chain and
must be eradicated. But critics argue that the heavy-handed deployment of
police and soldiers is a strategy that has failed across the region. "They
talk about insecurity but tackle the symptoms and not the causes,"
Capellín says. "What about families' insecurity about food, health care,
"Gangs have become convenient scapegoats on which to
blame the problems," says Rodgers, "and through which those in power
attempt to maintain an unequal status quo."
He accused authorities of hyping the mara phenomenon.
"I don't think there is much coordination between them. They are local
foot soldiers, hired guns for the cartels." Rodgers scoffs at papers from
US military colleges branding them a strategic threat and a Honduran government
claim linking maras to al-Qaida. Roberto Barrios, an anthropologist of South
Illinois University Carbondale, says despite their undoubted brutality, the
maras had been turned into a "fetishised evil" to disguise states'
Hyped or not, it was the mara phenomenon that ended
Merlin Rodriguez's young life. As a supposed "marera", she could be
deemed, according to some authorities' self-serving logic, as one less gangster
rather than one more murder victim. The cynicism is grotesque. Merlin,
nicknamed Cumbia by friends because of her love of dancing, was not the type to
inspire dread. After drifting through the slums of Danli, her home town, she
migrated to the streets of Tegucigalpa and was taken in by Casa Alianza in
February 2008. For a few months all went well. Rodriguez mixed with the
shelter's 150 other youths, helped paint a mural – friends point out her brush
strokes – and was visited by her father. "Cumbia wasn't loud or shouting
for attention, but she always wanted to dance and sing," says Patricia
An independent spirit – or maybe drugs – lured her back
on to the streets, each time for longer stretches before she was reeled back
in, each time more haggard. "She was emotionally unstable and had low
self-esteem," says Irma Benavides, a doctor who treated her. Members of
the Dieciocho mara appeared to offer the companionship she craved. "I
don't think she was a full-fledged member, more a hanger-on."
She drifted out of the shelter for the last time in
summer 2009. By autumn she was spotted in a slum in Danli looking gaunt. By
October she was dead. Exactly who killed her, and why, remains unclear. Her
father did not know. Nor did Casa Alianza, though it had heard that two
suspects were caught. Calls to the police did not shed light.
"I can't tell you about her death, just about the
girl I knew," says Nelly Garcia, a social worker who tried to keep her off
the streets. "Merlin was so young, so expressive." Garcia slowly
flips through a thin yellow folder with a few loose sheets detailing Merlin's
life. She gazes at the photo – a child with brown eyes and the trace of a smile
– then snaps the folder shut. "We lost her."