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Central America's Gang Crisis

Prison Riots Reflect Widening Violence in Poor Nations

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page A01

SAN SALVADOR -- Homemade grenades started exploding midmorning on Aug. 18 at La Esperanza, El Salvador's largest prison, and the 3,200 inmates locked inside the overcrowded cage stampeded to escape the blasts and the fireballs.

A battle between 400 members of a notorious street gang, Mara 18, and the rest of the inmates had erupted after weeks of tension. Hundreds of inmates took up shivs and shanks fashioned from broken wooden chapel benches and steel bed frames. When the killing was over, 31 inmates lay dead, some scalped and mutilated beyond recognition.

La Esperanza inmates mill around the yard Aug. 18, shortly after the riot. El Salvador's prison population has doubled in the past five years. Forty percent of the prisoners are gang members. (Luis Romero -- AP)

The deadly riot was Central America's fourth major prison uprising in 20 months. The riots, in which 216 inmates were hacked, decapitated, burned or shot to death, are the latest evidence that violent street gangs are overwhelming the poor countries of this region. From neighborhoods where menacing, tattooed youths extort money from fearful residents to out-of-control prisons where gang members fabricate grenades, street gangs are the top security concern.

"People are scared. It's having a big impact on society," said Wilfredo Avelena, a top Salvadoran police official. "You never saw this before: When leaders in the region get together, they have meetings dedicated to discussing gangs."

The use of crack cocaine is blamed for driving up the level of violence and the savagery of gang crimes in the past two years, and several Central American governments have responded with massive law enforcement operations. Salvadoran President Tony Saca has deployed more than 1,000 heavily armed soldiers on the streets to aid the national police in arresting gang leaders, most of whom come from the two main groups, Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.

The gang problem in Central America has a long history shared with the United States. Many people fleeing the region's civil wars of the 1970s and '80s settled in Los Angeles, where they joined or formed street gangs. In the 1990s, the United States stepped up the deportation of Central American immigrants who were convicted of crimes.

Last year the United States deported nearly 2,000 people with criminal records to this country of 6.5 million, officials said. Many had spent much of their lives in the United States; stigmatized and estranged from families here, they quickly fell in with the local chapter of their gangs.

In the Washington area, which has the nation's second-largest Salvadoran population after Los Angeles, gang activity has been growing. Instead of the large body tattoos that identify gang members in Central America, many in the United States mark their affiliation more discreetly, such as tattooing the number "18" or "MS" inside their bottom lips. Police in Northern Virginia have estimated that 2,500 youths belong to street gangs, primarily Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

In El Salvador, "the prison system is pushed to the limit," said Rene Figueroa, the country's interior minister. He said the government was considering a plan to open work farms for some gang members.

El Salvador's prison population has doubled in the past five years, to 12,000, and 40 percent of inmates belong to street gangs. Thousands of inmates sleep on prison floors because the beds are full, according to human rights activists and gang members interviewed in prison. In La Esperanza, prisoners spend much of the day in the open air washing their clothes and chatting, until they are locked down at dusk in small, dark cells. Some sleep underneath the beds of others.

Because gang-related prosecutions have clogged the court system, officials said people charged with misdemeanors are often held for a year or more before trial. According to prison records, most of those killed in the riot at La Esperanza were not gang members, and four of them were awaiting trials.

One of those killed at La Esperanza was Jaime Antonio Sanchez, who officials said was about to be released for good behavior. He was not a gang member.

Sanchez's aunt, Maria Ophelia Ortiz Quinteros, said her nephew, who was convicted of drug possession, was worried about his last days behind bars. "He told me, 'I have to stay away from gangs. I am scared of them. They taunt me,' " Ortiz recounted him as saying. "The violence of the gangs never ends, not even when you lock them up."

Figueroa, the interior minister, said the government needed to build new concrete-and-steel prisons, in part because gang members often fashion weapons out of wood torn from the structure of prison buildings. But he said prison construction meant "money being taken away from hospitals and schools. We are stretched to the last dollar."

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