Honduran Maras gangs: Destroying everything in their path

The prevalence of gangs in Honduras creates a desperate situation. Photo: Honduran gangs or "Maras"

HONDURAS, March 16, 2013 - Clinging precariously to the hillside are several houses built with different materials.  They stand out among the grass scorched by the constant burning and the few shrubs that refuse to disappear, the arid epidermis of the mountain.

Families that emigrated from the countryside in search of better living conditions once lived there.  Their old communities did not even have the most basic services, despite visits every four years by politicians promising fabulous riches, who then are disappear after securing votes.

Now, the mountain is “no man’s land” housing the major gangs, the “13” and the “18”, and a slightly smaller area is controlled by the “Revo” and “Ultrafiel”, who inspired by the Hooligan dominate the soccer atmosphere.

All play to be the absolute conquerors and, therefore, are constantly in struggle to wrest the territory of rival gangs. These gangs are highly organized; any political party might envy the loyalty of its members, ranging from 9 to 35 years old.

Every day “The Turk” drives through the middle-class neighborhood he considers his territory.  “The Turk” is short and swarthy, his shaved head shaded by a stubble of thick hair that struggles to grow.  He is not more than 19 years old, although he seems that he have lived for a long time.

His body is covered with tattoos.  The coffins that decorate his body represent police officers he has killed.  His inseparable companion, “a chimba” (homemade firearm), takes refuge in his waist, ready to act when the owner decides.

Is not only his appearance that causes fear in people who scatter away from his presence, but also his indescribable cruelty.  He has claimed the lives of many people, regardless of gender, age or authority, who offended the gang member with a trifle he judged as a great offense.

He is just one representation of the hundreds of youth at risk, and a society at risk.

A series of situations created this breeding ground for gangs.  Children come into the world in the middle of not poverty, but misery, to parents consumed by ignorance, domestic violence, bad habits, alcoholism, lack of employment opportunities and education, and promiscuity.

Woefully inadequate social systems provide no relief.  To make matters worse, most of the resources of these social programs are further depleted by the political employees’ salaries that administer them.

The gangs are financed by criminal enterprises.  Approximately five thousand Hondurans have been recruited by international drug dealer to serve as kidnappers, assassins, extortionists, robbers, drug dealers, money launderers, and weapons and cars smugglers. These criminals are responsible for an average of 20 brutal deaths per day in Honduras.

The efforts of organizations like UNICEF and the Catholic Church have been insufficient to reform this segment of the population. Gang members feel more comfortable and secure within these criminal organizations than outside them. The alternative they see is an uncaring society or neglect in their dysfunctional families.

For many of them, families are nonexistent. Parents often migrate to other countries looking for economic opportunity, leaving their offspring with family members who generally do not take proper care of the children.  Many children are abandoned when they prove too much of an economic or emotional load on the family members.

Studies indicate that in 14 cities in Honduras, which has a total population of 8.2 million, there exist five gangs or “Maras.”  The name “Mara” is derived from a type of ant, “Marabuntas,” that destroy everything in its path.  That these Maras have approximately 4,728 members. The great majority of these gang members belong to “Mara 18”, “Mara Saltatrucha” and “Mara 61” (or “West Side Gangster”), with “The Revo” and “Ultrafiel” bringing up the rear with a much smaller membership.

These organizations gain more and more popularity among young dropouts and children coming from dysfunctional homes, and once inside, they find it very difficult to quit.

Government is doing very little to address this problem.  Those trying to find a solution or at least a palliative are NGOs, churches and international organizations. They are waging a battle of David against Goliath. There are paramilitary groups that perform their “justice” after sunset, leaving behind a trail of bodies in lonely places.

This problem is growing rapidly and the government does not seem to care. Those most affected are the members of the middle class that feel helpless and don’t see any solution in the horizon.

For many in Honduras, the future seems bleak.

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Carmen Stella Van den Heuvel Almonacid

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