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The assasination of Christian Poveda , the Maras gang , and the Merida Initiative.


Assasinated French Spanish photojournalist Christian-Poveda.

Assasinated French Spanish photojournalist Christian-Poveda.

Last weekend, a french-spanish filmmaker whose documentary about the violent street gang of the Maras in El Salvador provoked controversy earlier this year has been found shot in the head.

The body of Christian Poveda, 52, was discovered in a car in Tonacatepeque, a poor rural area 10 miles outside the capital San Salvador. Police say that Poveda was driving back from filming in La Campanera, an overcrowded ghetto that is a stronghold of the Mara 18 gang, when he was apparently ambushed.

Poveda first came to El Salvador in the early 1980s to cover the decade-long civil war as a photographer for Time magazine. He also reported from wars in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries. He returned to El Salvador in the 1990s and dedicated himself to documentary work, concentrating on Salvadoran gangs.

Photos of La Vida Loca documentary about the Mara 18 gang

Photos of La Vida Loca documentary about the Mara 18 gang

His killing has provoked anger and revulsion in many countries around the world. I deplore this repugnant and reproachable criminal act and the authorities in El Salvador should work tirelessly until they find Poveda´s killers. Mauricio Funes, the former Marxist guerrilla who became President of El Salvador in June, spoke of his shock in a statement and ordered a full investigation.

La Vida Loca (Crazy Life), Poveda’s latest film, focused on the hopeless and brutal lives of various fantastically tattooed members of the gang Mara 18. The film is critical of the heavy police crackdown on the Maras gang members, which Poveda felt failed to take account of the hopeless poverty and personal tragedy that drive young Salvadorans to turn to crime.

The assasination of Poveda shows that the Maras are in control of the crime in the region. They are able to kill anybody who is in their way.

Members of Mara Salvatrucha, since 2008 many new mara members have no more tatoos to difficult the work of the police

Members of Mara Salvatrucha, since 2008 many new mara members have no more tatoos to difficult the work of the police

The Mara 18 and ad its rival Mara Salvatrucha MS gangs form part of a huge criminal network that runs down through Central America from Los Angeles, where there is a large community of Salvadoran expats.

Members of Mara Salvatrucha – Since 2008 many new Mara members have no more tatoos, to difficult the work of the police.

In fact the origin of the Maras gang is in the USA. Many of the gangsters were deported from the United States after serving jail terms there. Mara Salvatrucha (commonly abbreviated as MS, Mara, and MS-13, is a criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles and has spread to Central America, other parts of the United States, and Canada. The majority of the gang is ethnically composed of Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans.

Only in El Salvador, authorities estimate there could be as many as 30,000 so-called mareros, who sell drugs, rob illegal migrants or extort money from businesses in the tiny, impoverished country of 5.7 million people. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.

Mexican drug cartels 2008

Mexican drug cartels 2008

The Maras had ties to the former salvadoran guerrilla FMLN. According to Dr. J. Michael Waller, a Latin America expert with the Center for Security Policy, Mara Salvatrucha-13 has provided services to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (known by its Spanish acronym, FMLN). “MS-13 began when demobilized FMLN guerillas moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s and early 1990s,” Waller said. “MS-13 provided the muscle for the FMLN election campaign.” Former Presidential advisor Patrick Buchanan also stated in his book “State of Emergency” that many FMLN sympathizers were part of the formation of MS-13.

Their activities have caught the eye of the US agencies Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who in September 2005 initiated wide-scale raids against suspected gang members, netting 660 arrests across United States. In May 2005, ICE expanded Operation Community Shield to include all transnational organized crime and prison gangs. ICE’s Operation Community Shield has since arrested 7,655 street gang members.

In the United States, the gang’s strongholds have historically been in the American Southwest and West Coast states. Membership in the U.S was believed to be as many as about 50,000 as of 2005. MS-13 criminal activities include drug smuggling and sales, arms trafficking, auto theft, carjacking, home invasion, assault, aggravated assault, assault on law enforcement officials, drive-by shootings, contract killing and murder. Thanks to this police activity in the US, many Maras after doing time in prison were expelled to their countries in Latin America. This has expanded the presence of the Mara gang in Central America.

FBI seal

FBI seal

Today the MS is a TOC organization (Transnational organized crime). The Maras is organized across national borders. The activities of the Maras, plus other latin TOCs like the Mexican Mafia and the Mexican Drug Cartels are ´provoking serious distortions in Latin America. It can undermine democracy, disrupt free markets, drain national assets, and inhibit the development of the latinamerican societies. In doing so, these international criminal groups threaten the security of all the region. Undirectly, the latino TOCs are benefiting from the US internal repression of the gangs.

The Maras are getting international now. In that sense they are major beneficiaries of globalization. They take advantage of increased travel, trade, rapid money movements, telecommunications and computer links, and are well positioned for growth. We can now say that the US latin gangs are taking Central America and Mexico. During the last 10 years , the United States has exported its gang problem, sending Central American-born criminals back to their homelands, without warning local governments. The result has been an explosive rise of vicious, transnational gangs that now threaten the stability of the region’s fragile democracies. As Washington sleeps, the gangs are growing, spreading north into Mexico and back to the United States.

Last December, a bus driving through the northern city of Chamalecon in Honduras was stopped by gunmen. The assailants quickly surrounded the bus and opened fire with their AK-47s, killing 28 passengers. The attackers, police later revealed, had been members of a notorious street gang known as Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and had chosen their victims at random. The slaughter had nothing to do with the identities of the people onboard; it was meant as a protest and a warning against the honduran government’s crackdown on gang activities in the country. U.S. officials subsequently arrested Ebner Anibal Rivera-Paz, thought to be the mastermind of the attack, in February in the Texas town of Falfurrias.

MS means Mara Salvatrucha

MS means Mara Salvatrucha

The attack and the subsequent arrest were only the latest sign of the growing power of Central America’s gangs and their ability to shuttle between their home countries and the United States. In the past few years, as Washington has focused its attention on the Middle East, it has virtually ignored a dangerous phenomenon close to home. Ultraviolent youth gangs, spawned in the ghettos of Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, have slowly migrated south to Central America, where they have transformed themselves into powerful, cross-border crime networks. With the United States preoccupied elsewhere, the gangs have grown in power and numbers; today, local officials estimate their size at 70,000-100,000 members.

The marabuntas (big deadly ants), or maras, a now pose the most serious challenge to peace in the region since the end of Central America’s civil wars. Nor is the danger limited to the region. Fed by an explosive growth in the area’s youth population and by a host of social problems such as poverty and unemployment, the gangs are spreading, spilling into Mexico and beyond — even back into the United States itself.

Tatoos all over.

Tatoos all over.

With them, the maras are bringing rampant crime, committing thousands of murders, and contributing to a flourishing drug trade. Central America’s governments, meanwhile, seem utterly unable to meet the challenge, lacking the skills, know-how, and money necessary to fight these supergangs. The solutions attempted so far — largely confined to military and police operations — have only aggravated the problem; prisons act as gangland finishing schools, and military operations have only dispersed the gangs’ leadership, making bosses harder than ever to track and capture.

Central America has seen few improvements in the last years, since the end of the cold war. Today the region’s seven small republics, rather than exhibiting the new harmony and prosperity that were expected to come with peace, bear only the scars and open wounds of traumatized societies: rampant corruption, gang warfare, drug smuggling, intense urban poverty and overpopulation, and neglect from the international community.

Something must be done to correct this situation, and the United States has a major responsibility on what is going with the export of the latin organized crime to Central America. .

The Merida Initiative (also known as the Mexico Plan) and the new development of the Colombia Plan gives the US a chance to design a specific Plan for Central America and the Caribbean. The 65 million dollars included in the Merida Initiative for Central America is far from being enough. In fact the war against the cartels in Mexico and the weakening of the FARC in Colombia could provoke the migration of these criminals to Central America. These criminal organizations are natural allies of the Maras.

Central America has become a key pipeline for drug shipments from Colombia northward.

According to U.S. law enforcement officials, 60 percent of the cocaine that entered the United States last year passed through Central America, concealed in small aircraft, fast boats, and trucks. This represents a three fold increase since 1993, and the chaos that the burgeoning drug trade has wreaked on the region has given rise to a new fear, the potential “Colombianization” of Central America.

The mexican-american Merida Initiative MI is not enough to fight against organzed crime in Central America. This Plan was and will allways be a mexican plan. The 65 million are not enough to fight the threats of drug trafficking, transnational crime and money laundering in Central America.

MS member without fingers is a common sight.

MS member without fingers is a common sight.

The weak US assistance includes some training, equipment and intelligence. The US govenment says that the Merida Inititative in Central America will be equipping and training local police, supporting judicial reform plans, building prosecutorial capacity, and cooperating with other key agencies–including border security, corrections, customs, and when appropriate, the military. The Initiative also addresses a broad range of needs outside of law enforcement and the judiciary–including funding drug treatment centers, gang prevention activities, education, and public outreach.

I am sorry to tell the US Department of State that the Merida Initiative is in a dead end, and has too little money for Central America. This is not a myth.

The other thing that shows how questionable is the instrumentalization of the Merida Initiative in Central America are the Letters of Agreement signed by the US and some central american republics.

The Letter of Agreement Signed between the US and the Dominican Republic is only funding with 2 million dollars, focusing on providing equipment and technical consulting services to the Financial Analysis Unit of the dominican government , a few bucks for National Police Reform Projects; Anti-Money Laundering Assistance ($300,000); to the National Directorate for the Control of Drugs Reform Projects($750,000) Development of a National Digital Criminal Database ( $550,000); Equipment for the Navy Intelligence Unit ($250,000) and a lousy sum of U$150,000 to organize a Joint Haitian-Dominican Border Security Program. Nothing concrete is said about how to fight the action of the transnational gangs, how to target the young criminals and the youth at risk, how to deal with the Us expelled dominican criminals, etc..

The Letter of Agreement signed with Costa Rica is even worse. The gangs are not a serious problem in Costa Rica, but in spite of that the US government signed an agreement with the “ticos” funding them with one million US dollars (frist year). Funding what? Well, 75% of the money goes to equipment for the police.

The Letter of Agreement with Nicaragua will provide them with $1.5M in assistance (2008), almost 50% of it to equipment for the Nicaraguan National Police.

Gang Brotherhood

Gang Brotherhood

Until now, the signed Letter of Intentions show that the tactics of the Merida initiative has no direct connection with the goals and strategy of the Initiative. The mother of all Letter of the Intentions should be the one to be signed with El Salvador. The problem of the Maras should be the center of this agreement. On the other hand, most part of the effort of the US agencies are focusing in the US Southwest border (El Paso Intelligence Unit-EPIC).

The FBI has showed some good results in the cooperation with law enforcement agencies in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico (the TAG). In September 2008 TAG investigators arrested five MS-13 gang members who were transporting a cache of anti-tank weapons and military small arms.

Also, FBI agents from Charlotte, N.C., worked with TAG investigators in actions that led to the indictment of 26 MS-13 gang members in June 2008, including Manuel Ayala, who allegedly directed gang activities in the United States from his jail cell in El Salvador.

Some Maras are very young.

Some Maras are very young.

The Central American Fingerprint Exploitation Initiative (CAFÉ), a criminal file/fingerprint retrieval initiative, is also a good initiative. The CAFE was developed by the MS-13 National Gang Task Force and the mexican Policia Nacional Civil (PNC) to store criminal fingerprints of gang members from Chiapas, Mexico, and the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

This information is incorporated into the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services database and is available to all U.S. local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. By incorporating these records into a searchable database, law enforcement agencies like the PNC can access the data through their own Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems.

The question here is if this gang information is accesible for central american law enforcement agencies.

Since 2006, the FBI has searched, processed and incorporated more than 72,000 criminal records from El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and Chiapas, Mexico, into the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

But as I said before. the Merida Initiative should have a separate central american chapter. Or the best solution is to have a specific Plan for Central America, independent from the more mexican Merida Initiative. The US can not continue to export latino criminals to the weakened region of Central America. On top of all these plans, the law enforcement agencies of the US, Mexico, Colombia and Central American governments should coordinate efforts.

3 Responses to The assasination of Christian Poveda , the Maras gang , and the Merida Initiative.

  1. united health care

    March 18, 2010 at 10:57 pm

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  3. Mireya Zona Libre

    February 21, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    I Will have to come back again when my course load lets up – however I am taking your RSS feed so I can read your site offline. Thanks.