Peru’s government says there are some 13,000 members of youth gangs inside the country. But the situation can hardly be described as a crisis, so long as the Andean nation avoids the “mano dura” gang policies which exacerbated the problem in Central America.

Peru’s government says most of the 13,000 gang members, known as “pandillas,” are based in Lima and the adjoining municipality of Callao. Most members are aged under 18, according to official estimates, and confrontations between them reportedly left 13 dead and 29 injured in the capital in 2010.

In terms of sheer numbers, Peru’s gang problem can be compared to those of Central America’s Northern Triangle; there are an estimated 36,000 gang members in Honduras, 14,000 in Guatemala, and 10,500 in El Salvador, though Peru’s population is between two and six times bigger. The notorious youth gangs in the Northern Triangle are known as “maras,” and bear some of the responsibility for the high rates of violence and lawlessness in these countries, which are among the world’s worst, with Honduras on track for perhaps the world’s highest murder rate in 2011.

These maras are involved in the international drug trade only to a limited extent, acting as guards for drug shipments and dealers on the local level rather than as full-fledged players. Even the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18), perhaps the biggest and most famous Central American youth gangs, have only limited links to transnational groups, and little contact between factions in different countries. Their concerns are primarily local, based on control of a neighborhood rather than a region or trafficking route.

However, the lawlessness fostered by mara gang culture and the existence of these pre-existing criminal networks have helped to facilitate the entry of Mexican trans-national criminal groups into these countries.

Similarly to South America, in Peru, the gangs are thought to be primarily neighborhood-oriented. These gangs appear to be relatively small-scale and local, without significant links to Peruvian traffickers, and much less to transnational criminal groups. Sociologist Jose Jaimes Montero, who worked with Lima police in a program to stop youths getting involved in crime, told Peru 21 that the city’s gangs tend to specialize in extortion, robbery, kidnapping, and hired killings. Some analysts have described Lima’s gangs as having “sporadic contacts” with organized crime. In Peru, like in the Northern Triangle, it is foreign criminal groups that control the drug trade — namely Colombian and Mexican groups, rather than local organizations.

However, there is reason to think that Peru will be able to keep a handle on its gangs. For one thing, it is much wealthier than the Northern Triangle countries where gang culture is at its most serious, and will be able to invest more resources in policing. It also appears to be taking a prevention-based approach to gangs, as opposed to the “mano dura” or iron fist that has been imposed by governments in that region. According to Lima’s head of public safety, Gabriel Prado, while there is still some emphasis on repressive methods, the city is increasingly gearing towards prevention and social reinsertion programs. He gave the example of the Chicos Chamba program, which intends to reinsert 3,000 young people back into the labor market, alongside another scheme, “From gang members to social actors,” supposed to provide social support for ex-gang members from Lima neighborhoods.

The growth of gang culture is likely tied to mass immigration into Lima; the city’s population has boomed in recent decades, almost doubling in the last 20 years to 8.5 million. Much of this growth was made up of migrants from the countryside, with informal settlements spreading on the outskirts of the city, which have gradually been formalized and recognized as part of the metropolis. Most of the districts identified as centers of gang activity by Prado originally sprung up as shanty towns, or “pueblos jovenes,” which often lack proper access to public services.

Community-based, preventative schemes like this have been credited for helping Nicaragua, which is poorer than the countries in the Northern Triangle but has far lower levels of violence, to control the spread and the aggression of youth gangs. 

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