TAPACHULA, Mexico -- On a Monday morning last November, police in this southern Mexican city received a tip that violent youth gangs, known as maras, were planning to invade a local junior high school to avenge the arrests of 20 of their members in a brawl at a school parade.
A patrol car was sent to the school, and within minutes, word of the threat had spread across the city like a brush fire. Thousands of parents, terrified of the tattooed, extremely violent gang members, rushed to pull their children out of class. Most schools in the city of 300,000 abruptly closed, and many stayed shut for a week.
Mexican police officers in Tapachula examine a man for the distinctive tattoos that would identify him as a gang member.
(Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)
"Everybody is scared," said Federico Perez Alvarado, president of the parents' association at the threatened school. "The maras are all over, even right here in this neighborhood. It's like having the enemy inside your own house."
The panic that paralyzed Tapachula illustrates how swiftly and deeply the maras -- which originated in the Central American immigrant communities of California and then migrated to Central America as their members were deported -- have moved into Mexico.
Several major gangs, particularly those involving Salvadoran youths, have also proliferated in Latino communities in Washington and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, where the number of gang-related murders, assaults and other crimes has grown over the past several years.
As Central American governments enact tough laws against the gangs, often empowering police officers to pick up suspected members on sight, authorities said, the hoodlum groups are increasingly moving northward.
The Mexican government, responding to public anger about growing gang activity, in November deployed 1,200 agents in a multi-region sweep that led to the arrests of about 200 gang members. Eduardo Medina Mora, head of the government's Center for Investigation and National Security, said nearly 1,100 gang members had been arrested in Mexico in the past two years.
The two major gangs are the Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, and the Mara 18, which first appeared in the early 1990s in Los Angeles neighborhoods where Central American immigrants had settled. Over the past decade, U.S. officials have deported thousands of mara members to their native countries, where they are blamed for soaring crime rates.
In what officials suspect is the latest horror committed by the gangs, 28 people, including six children, were killed Dec. 24 when gunmen opened fire on a bus full of passengers near the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula. A note left at the scene said the massacre had been carried out by an obscure revolutionary group, but suspicion immediately fell on the maras.
Police have no solid count of youth gang members in Mexico, but they agree the numbers are rising. Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, the nation's top organized crime prosecutor, said recently that drug cartels based in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border were hiring gang members as assassins.
Tapachula, a tropical city near the Guatemalan border, has become a major new base for gangs, officials said. It is a traditional gathering spot for illegal immigrants -- and increasingly, for violent groups that prey on both travelers and residents.
After the schools shut down, more than 5,000 people marched through city streets protesting gang activity. Some carried signs demanding that Mexico, which does not have capital punishment, establish the death penalty for gang members.
"They're robbing us of our freedom," said Dulce Viviana Soto Martinez, 18. "You feel like you can't go out for a walk because something might happen to you on the corner, or in the park. It's like you're practically locked in your house."
Other teenagers in Tapachula said some young Mexicans, particularly those from poor or broken families, idolized the gang members' appearance and lifestyle. But Ireliz Trujillo Verdugo, 14, said the gangs were "horrible." Two years ago, she said, gang members strangled one of her friends and stuffed the girl's body in a well.