Young people in Nicaragua who migrate to Honduras and El Salvador for work have been influenced by powerful street gangs MS13 and Barrio 18, leading to the development of local groups modeled after these gangs. A radio broadcast examines the phenomenon.
Ten gangs have interrupted the peace in the municipalities of Somoto and San Lucas in Madriz province. Their leaders are young men who have come under the influence of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 when they cross the border to do agricultural work in Honduras and El Salvador.
"They came to me at five in the morning, saying that he was over there in the stadium. They left him there and I found him naked, seriously beaten and hurt, his face, well ... it was unrecognizable, it was very swollen. They had etched a letter in his chest, the letter Z."
The following are excerpts from a Noticias ABC radio broadcast. The broadcast was published on Connectas and has been transcribed and translated with permission. Listen to the original broadcast here.
Miriam Antonia Lopez told the story of a violent attack committed by gang members against her son Henry Bayardo Lopez, 22, when he was returning home from his job as a security guard. Cases like this are not very common in Somoto, a city of 35,000 people near the border with Honduras that is known as the capital of friendship. Nevertheless, most violent acts there in the last few years have been related to gang activity.
In the last 10 years a growing number of gangs, or youth groups (grupos juveniles) as they are called in Nicaragua, have gained territory in neighborhoods and rural areas in Somoto and San Lucas. These groups are involved in constant clashes with each other. They carry out armed robberies and attacks, and extort pedestrians, taxi drivers and truck drivers who supply small businesses.
SEE ALSO: MS13 Profile
Inspector Oscar Garcia of the National Police's division on youth issues -- created in 2003 to develop a plan to prevent young people from joining gangs -- said the foreign influences on youth had led to the formation of gangs in Nicaragua, but that the phenomenon had not reached the level of violence seen in neighboring countries.
"Here in Nicaragua we do not have groups known as maras. But we also cannot blind ourselves to the fact that some young people have become involved with these gang members from other countries and have brought this type of influence to our country. At least in San Lucas, young people identify as members of MS13 and Barrio 18.
"One could say [there is direct contact with gangs from neighboring countries], but we have been strengthening our efforts to monitor and detect this when it happens. That is also the objective of the youth division. What we are fighting against and trying to prevent is a mara cell gaining power here, or a gang leader of the sort found in neighboring countries."
According to reports, in 2003 then-National Police Director Edwin Cordero warned of the possibility that Nicaraguan gang members were training in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador with the aim of returning to their home country and putting into practice the knowledge they acquired abroad. Although violence levels have not risen in the last 10 years, Somoto reporter Cesar Paez pointed out that gangs were developing in a similar manner to the way they did in El Salvador and Honduras, where young people who migrated to the United States learned from the gangs there and started their own branches of those criminal organizations.
"Ten years ago I was the boss of the Mara 18 in Ocotal, it was called the Tres Puntos (Three Points). The group had a lot of connections with gang members in Honduras, the Barrio 18. We lived in a neighborhood where 180 to 200 kids had drug addictions, everyone was an alcoholic, and at the time I was the one with the most influence."
Angel Sanchez is a former gang member in the city of Ocotal, close to Somoto, who took the opportunity to change his life for the better. However, the lack of attention paid to youth in Somoto -- where young people make up 56 percent of the population -- pushes them into contact with gangs in neighboring countries, who they communicate with via some 13 unguarded border crossings.
To learn more about the gang situation in rural communities, we traveled to the community La Manzana. There the inhabitants, who we will not name, in order to protect their identities, stated that there were between 250 and 300 organized gang members.
As in the city, gang members in rural areas identify with the MS13 and Barrio 18, and they have rivalries over territorial control. They gather along roads in order to steal goods purchased by people returning from the city. The only safe place citizens have is public transport to rural areas. However, this has also been the target of attacks.
SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 Profile
The young people we talked to confirmed that in Somoto and San Lucas, there are two gangs fighting for territory: the MS13 and the Barrio 18. Both have a presence in rural and urban areas, and there are as many as 800 organized gang members.
To Evelio Obando, the Interior Ministry's representative to the province, the gang problem cannot be resolved by throwing them all in jail.
"It worries us that we have these grupos juveniles in rural communities, but we already have a diagnostic for each neighborhood, each community. This has a lot to do with young people who migrate to El Salvador to work, then return here influenced by gangs in that country. As a government, we have made an effort to combat this by offering these young people alternatives such as education through technical scholarships, in technological institutes and on vocational courses. This way, not only do they learn a trade, they also integrate themselves into the workforce of their neighborhood, their community. For example, we hold soccer and basketball tournaments, as well as other activities that help them look for work, and integrate them into society."
NGOs have made considerable efforts to rescue gang members who want to leave the gangs or maras -- though authorities in Nicaragua, considered the safest country in Central America, deny that these groups exist.
*A version of this ABC Noticias broadcast originally appeared on Connectas and has been transcribed and translated with permission. See the original broadcast here.