El Salvador gangs big headache for new president

SAN SALVADOR, (Reuters) – Scrubbed clean and  wearing long sleeves to hide their tattoos, members of El Salvador’s internationally feared street gangs blended in with  the general public to vote in Sunday’s presidential election.

The Mara 18 and rival Mara Salvatrucha gangs make up a  huge criminal network that runs from Los Angeles, where a  diaspora of Salvadoreans lives, down through chunks of Central  America.

While they terrorize San Salvador’s poorly lit streets at  night, the gangsters mostly lay low during daylight when their  trademark tattoos can get them arrested or killed by rivals.

Some were coaxed out to vote in the country’s presidential  election by a group working to bridge the gulf between normal  society and the gangs, who have made El Salvador one of the  world’s most murderous places.

“They were pretty scared but we covered them up and got rid  of the ‘Mara’ look,” said Luis Romero, a former member of the  “Mara 18” gang who works for the international “Homies Unidos”  organization working to curb gang violence.

“It was only a few dozen but it’s so important that they  vote and think about the world outside theirs,” he said.

With an economic slump squeezing an already limited job  market, gangs will be one of the most pressing headaches for  leftist Mauricio Funes, who won Sunday’s election.

“It should be one of his primary concerns,” said Rice  University political science professor Mark Jones. “The gang  problem has been stable for a while, but it’s stable at a very  bad level and the economic crisis will make it worse.”

An estimated 25,000 gang members in El Salvador are behind  many of the 10 to 12 daily murders in a nation of just 5.7  million people. They sell drugs, run errands for drug gangs,  rob illegal migrants and extort businesses.

Children as young as 7 join them and quickly become adept  with a gun and fiercely loyal to their adopted families.

Nightclub owner Raynaldo Salinas, 60, said he hands over  $100 a month — equivalent to a factory worker’s monthly wage  — to two tattooed youths that come knocking on his door.

“It’s unpleasant and it hurts me because I could give this  money to someone who really needs it,” he said. “But I couldn’t  bear anything to happen to my children or my grandchildren.”

The “iron fist” policy of El Salvador’s outgoing right-wing  government rounded up gang members and packed them into jail  cells where they only honed their criminal skills.

Funes has pledged new social welfare programs that could  help more youths to finish school and keep families together.

“The kids packed in cells like sardines are paying for the  problems of the country,” said Romero, who left behind a life  of drug abuse and gang assaults in Los Angeles, where he was  sent at 14 during El Salvador’s civil war as an illegal  immigrant and quickly ended up on the street.

“In the U.S. prison system I got my school certificates, I  got my health seen to. If you have all that as a kid, why would  you go out and rob people for a living?”

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