Words of Power #3: Gangstas = Child Soldiers Without A Country
UNICEF concludes that more than half the children in the developing world are severely deprived of one or more of the necessities essential to childhood:
- 640 million children do not have adequate shelter
- 500 million children have no access to sanitation
- 400 million children do not have access to safe water
- 300 million children lack access to information
- 270 million children have no access to health care services
- 140 million children have never been to school
- 90 million children are severely food-deprived
From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the townships of Cape Town; the housing projects of Chicago to the rural provinces of the Philippines, more and more children and youth are dying in increasing numbers due to gun violence. While some die in gang disputes, some in organised crime, and others in direct conflict with state security forces, increasing firearms-related mortality reflects the growing involvement of young people in organised armed groups that function outside of traditionally defined war zones
Neither War nor Peace, COAV, June 2005
“The majority here have killed people. It's basically a requirement to be in the gangs." Julio Cesar, now in his thirties, relaxes back in his chair, revealing a slight paunch bulging underneath his t-shirt. He was once a lithe and dangerous youngster who helped to found one of the most notorious gangs in Central America - the "Mara Salvatruchas". It began in Los Angeles in 1980. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadoreans had fled to America to escape the brutal civil war back home. Their displaced children banded together. Sitting nearby is his old friend, Ernesto Miranda, who opens his shirt to reveal the initials of the gang, "MS" emblazoned across his chest... "We had to start the group to defend ourselves," Ernesto says. "In the beginning there were 30 of us. We were around 11 years old."
Of all the serious, self-inflicted wounds of the human species, the most appalling is the plight of children, on a planetary scale. And, of all the aspects of their dire plight, the most woeful is their subjection to systematic violence and exploitation, whether through war or criminal enterprise.
In 1996, at the request of the UN Secretary General, Graça Machel, widow of the former President of Mozambique, and wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, delivered “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children,” a damning report on the global scope of the problem:
“Millions of children are caught up in conflicts in which they are not merely bystanders, but targets. Some fall victim to a general onslaught against civilians; others die as part of a calculated genocide. Still other children suffer the effects of sexual violence or the multiple deprivations of armed conflict that expose them to hunger or disease. Just as shocking, thousands of young people are cynically exploited as combatants.
“In 1995, 30 major armed conflicts raged in different locations around the world. All of them took place within States, between factions split along ethnic, religious or cultural lines. The conflicts destroyed crops, places of worship and schools. Nothing was spared, held sacred or protected -not children, families or communities. In the past decade, an estimated two million children have been killed in armed conflict. Three times as many have been seriously injured or permanently disabled, many of them maimed by landmines. Countless others have been forced to witness or even to take part in horrifying acts of violence.”
The Machel study quantified the psychological suffering that such children experience:
“In Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 55 per cent of children had been shot at, 66 per cent had been in a situation where they expected to die, and 29 per cent felt "unbearable sorrow." In Angola, 66 per cent of children had seen people being murdered, and 67 per cent had seen people being tortured, beaten or hurt. In Rwanda, 56 per cent had seen children kill people, nearly 80 per cent had lost immediate family members and 16 per cent had been forced to hide under dead bodies. More than 60 per cent of the Rwandan children interviewed said they did not care whether they ever grew up.”
Machel not only documented the tragedy, she articulated its moral and spiritual implications:
“These statistics are shocking enough, but more chilling is the conclusion to be drawn from them: more and more of the world is being sucked into a desolate moral vacuum. This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped, and maimed; a space in which children are exploited as soldiers; a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality. Such unregulated terror and violence speak of deliberate victimization. There are few further depths to which humanity can sink.”
And yet, a decade later, as the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers’ Global Report for 2004 affirms, the insanity continues:
- Between 2001 and 2004, armed hostilities involving children less than 18 years old – “under-18s” – occurred in Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, India, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Indonesia, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.
- Governments using child soldiers in armed conflict included Burundi, DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, Myanmar, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and the United States of America. Government-backed paramilitaries and militias, were using under-18s across the world, including in Colombia, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Government forces and authorities also made informal use of children as informants, spies or collaborators in conflicts, including in Israel, Indonesia and Nepal.
“Hundreds of thousands of children around the world are being used as soldiers, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a report, describing the situation as ‘grave and unacceptable.’
Despite international initiatives to protect children in conflict zones, Annan said ‘atrocities against children and impunity for violators continue largely unabated on the ground.’
In his annual report to the U.N. Security Council on child soldiers, Annan recommended sanctions against groups who use them. These could include travel bans on leaders, arms embargoes and a ‘restriction on the flow of financial resources to the parties concerned,’ he said.
The U.N. special representative for children in armed conflict, Olara Otunnu, told reporters that Annan's report marked a turning point for ‘transforming words into deeds.’ He said the international community needed to move its focus from developing standards on protecting children to ensuring they are enforced on the ground.
‘The report represents the launch of a comprehensive compliance regime to ensure the protection of millions of children who have been brutalized in situations of conflict,’ he added.
Otunnu said 54 groups, including state and rebel forces, use children as soldiers.” (Associated Press, 2-9-05)
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers welcomes the recent European Union (EU) agreement that Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) delegations will no longer be received in EU member states. It calls on the LTTE to halt all recruitment of under-18s and to demobilize all children in its ranks. The EU decision was made in the wake of EU condemnation of the killing of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, along with many other killings in recent weeks. The EU statement emphasizes its concern at the continuing recruitment and retention of children by the LTTE, a practice it describes as “abhorrent.” LTTE political head S.P. Tamilselvan reiterated the organization’s position that it does not recruit under-18s, following the EU statement. “LTTE denials are belied by consistent evidence of abductions of children for military training. Child recruitment has increased since June 2005 and is ongoing” said Casey Kelso, the Coalition’s international director. (Asian Tribune, 10-4-05)
Chief of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal Ian Martin has urged the Maoists to immediately stop the forceful recruitment of child soldiers in the eastern region and to respect child rights...On the occasion, security authorities claimed that 20 percent of the Maoist combatants in the eastern region were child soldiers. (Kantipur Online, 9-30-05)
Gulu District local government has embarked on a massive campaign to sensitize the local councilors against recruiting young children to joining the army ranks. The sensitization campaign has attracted several legal practitioners advocating for the rights of children. The district labor officer Mr. John Bosco told Uganda-CAN that a lot of children have joined the forces because of lack of work and education. The forces give them jobs. Uganda-CAN talked to one man from Atiak sub-country about the campaign. He remarked that they initially never understood the rights of children and normally recruited children because of the massive unemployment. (Uganda-CAN, 10-1-05)
According to “conventional wisdom,” the guesstimate for the worldwide number of child soldiers is approximately 300,000. But that number is, of course, unrealistically low--particularly when you factor in the “gangsta,” i.e. the child soldiers without a country. In the U.S. alone, in 2000, the National Youth Gang Center estimates 772,500 youth in 24,500 gangs, which amounts to an eight-fold increase over two decades.
Consider “Neither War Nor Peace: International Comparisons of Children and Youth in Organized Armed Violence,” a recent study conducted by Children in Organized Armed Violence (COAV).
The COAV report draws parallels between the way armed groups, i.e. “gangs,” use children and the recruitment of child soldiers. The groups have strict command structures, pay salaries and often enforce discipline with death. Their young members perform military-style functions, such as manning checkpoints, serving as bodyguards, and assassinating opponents. Despite the similarities, the report also draws a clear distinction between armed urban youth and child soldiers. With encouragement from the UN, governments are increasingly prepared to accept that child soldiers who commit war crimes deserve rehabilitation due to their age and the coercive nature of their recruitment. There is no such subtlety in their response to armed groups.
COAV concludes that governments are encouraging the growth of organized armed groups, i.e. “gangs,” by imprisoning and even executing their members, instead of helping young people to rise above the poverty and social disintegration that is pushing them to join gangs in the first place. Governments are using lethal force, imprisonment and even summary execution. Rehabilitation programs are under-funded, and juvenile justice systems are hopelessly inadequate. Terms like “juvenile delinquent” and “gang member” brand group members as criminal and irredeemable. Indeed, many governments collude with armed groups even as they try to suppress them. In the Philippines, politicians hire vigilantes as private armies. In the townships of Jamaica, corrupt local leaders arm adolescents and use them to gain votes. Officials sell guns to children, take bribes from them, extort money, and sell them confiscated drugs – while declaring a crackdown on their “criminal” behavior. The report warns that this ill-conceived response is producing a serious backlash. Most of the groups, like the Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs) in the Philippines, started as legitimate community protection groups. Like the majority of the other groups interviewed, they have become increasingly violent as a result of their “growing involvement in the illicit drug trade, increased access to small arms and persistent and often violent state repression. Instead of using “zero tolerance”, says the report, governments should address the social decay that is pushing young people to join the gangs. Some of the best solutions are local. For example, communities can work together to identify the risks, develop projects, strengthen families, invest in local schools, build leisure facilities and provide psychological support for children affected by violence.
Mara’s Army: Blow Back Squared?
“Mara” is abbreviated form of "marabunta,” i.e., large South American "killer ants," that destroy everything in their path and are sometimes featured in horror movies. But, of course, Mara is also the name of the demon who assailed Lord Buddha as he sat, on the verge of enlightenment, under the Bodhi Tree. Mara’s army consisted of lust, aversion, hunger, thirst, craving, sloth and torpor, cowardice, doubt, hypocrisy and stupidity, false glory, and conceit.
Consider some recent news stories about this post-modern Mara’s Army.
MS-13 is suspected in the massacre of twenty-eight bus passengers in the northern Honduran city of Chamalecon, 200km (125 miles) north of the capital, Tegucigalpa. Six children and sixteen women died. The bus surrounded by gunmen while passing through a busy neighborhood. The bus was forced to the side of the road by cars that pulled up at its front and back. The attackers got out of the cars and sprayed the bus with bullets from AK-47 rifles. (BBC, 12-24-05)
There was one distinguishing feature common to many of the 103 charred bodies of the victims of a fire that swept through a wing of an overcrowded prison in San Pedro Sula, in northern Honduras, on May 17th. Most of the bodies were heavily tattooed. The dead were all members of youth gangs, most imprisoned for the mere act of belonging…The prison at San Pedro Sula, Honduras's second city, was designed to hold 800 inmates but was crammed with 2,200…In Honduras, the police were ordered to haul youngsters off the street and straight to prison just for having the distinctive gang tattoos. Since August, more than 1,000 have been jailed. Many Hondurans applaud this tough stance. But the fire shows the fatal weakness of the policy. Though its cause may have been an electrical fault, survivors claimed that prison warders added to the death toll by refusing to open cells for up to two hours after it started. A year ago, 68 prisoners, most of them gang members, were killed during a riot at another Honduran prison; many were shot by guards. (The Economist, 5-20-05)
Nineteen suspected members of the violent Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 street gang were charged in an operation aimed at halting violence that has terrorized an area near the national capital the past three years…The indictment attributes six murders, five attempted murders and a kidnapping to the gang, whose operations have penetrated the Maryland communities of Silver Spring, Langley Park and Hyattsville…Earlier this summer, the government announced the arrest of more than 500 gang members, many of whom were targeted because of their affiliation with MS-13…MS-13 surged to prominence in Washington, D.C., last year, when a gang member was implicated in a machete attack on a 16-year-old boy in Alexandria, Va. Other members were later tied to the slaying of a pregnant, 17-year-old government informant. Although the gang's violence is indisputable, Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association, recently told USA TODAY that MS-13 has captured a disproportionate share of attention. McBride suspects that the gang's membership is half the federal estimate and is dwarfed by a Los Angeles-based gang known as 18th Street, which is one of the largest and oldest Hispanic gangs in the nation. McBride estimated that 18th Street's members number 8,000 in Los Angeles alone. (Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY, 8-25-05)
In a recent clash between Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13), at least twelve youths were killed (including two who had their heads blown off), and at least ten others were wounded, when MS-13 gang members armed with grenades and assault rifles launched a “commando style” raid on a youth detention facility in Guatemala City to attack Mara 18 gang members held inside…In August, thirty-five people were killed in clashes between the two gangs at a number of prisons…Guatemalan authorities acknowledged that the prison system was close to collapse. (BBC, 9-20-05) Next day, Guatemalan police arrested seventeen Mara 18 members suspected of planning an attack to revenge the prison massacre by MS-13…Police made the arrests after a raid on a house in the Carolingia shantytown at the edge of Guatemala City turned up assault rifles, a shotgun and several pistols, along with a plan of attack. (Reuters, 9-21-05). Less than two weeks earlier, approximately six hundred sixty suspected gang members (mostly Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha) were arrested in five countries (162 in Honduras, 98 in Guatemala, 90 in Mexico and 73 in the U.S.) in an international operation that involved U.S. FBI agents and approximately 6,400 police in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the U.S. A month earlier, U.S. law enforcement announced the arrest of 582 gang members in a two-week nation-wide series of raids. U.S. officials say more than 25,000 gangs are active with 750,000 members. In the U.S., MS-13 has been identified in 33 states, and Washington, D.C. The estimated membership of MS-13 is over 10,000 in the United States with the largest concentration in Los Angeles, Northern Virginia, Maryland, and New York. Central America counts at least MS-13 50,000 gang members often in contact across borders and with others in Mexico and the U.S…Many gang members start as disaffected teenagers who see no other way out of a life of poverty than to join a gang, often marking themselves with tattooed gang symbols. "We need work," said Mara 18 member Blazer as he was loaded into a police van in the capital San Salvador. (Reuters, FBI National Press Office, 9-8-05)
The problem of Mara’s Army is painfully poignant, and harshly illuminative.
Kelly Richter of University of Chicago elucidates:
“Salvadoran gangs, of which the notorious MS-13 is the largest, have established a significant presence in the US over the past two decades. The gangs originated in Los Angeles during the early 1980’s amongst Salvadoran youth fleeing civil war. They have since developed a pan-Latino membership and expanded into East Coast cities and American suburbia over the past decade, with a national membership that numbers tens of thousands in over 30 states.
“Over the past decade, the phenomenon has taken on transnational dimensions. Salvadoran American gang affiliates deported from the US are arriving on the violent streets of urban El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and most recently in rural Central America, the Mexican borderlands, Canada and other Latin American countries...
“The current Salvadoran-American gang phenomenon is, in part, traceable to the long and tainted history of US intervention in Central America...El Salvador, roughly the size of Massachusetts with a population of 6.5 million, was the largest hemispheric recipient of US military aide during the Cold War – including over four billion dollars during the 1980’s..The early 1980’s saw a massive influx of Salvadoran refugees and illegal immigrants entering the US to escape death squads, the military, the FMLN, economic desolation, and other trappings of guerilla war. However, the United States refused to acknowledge the extent and often, existence, of a humanitarian crisis. Salvadorans were categorically denied amnesty in favor of refugees from communist countries…Salvadoran gangs have gained notoriety for their immigrant composition and unusual violence which has included for example, the use of machetes in killings.
The civil war placed intense stress on Salvadoran youth, many of whom witnessed the torture and murder of their families, or who were recruited by the army as child soldiers. In the name of protection, many parents sent their children alone or with distant relatives to the US…The earliest and most extensive case of Salvadoran youth gang culture in the US took shape in East Los Angeles, the largest Salvadoran immigrant settlement center in the country…Mara Salvatrucha was the one of the first major gangs to emerge around 1984. MS-13 soon grew into the largest and most notorious Salvadoran gang in the city; as early as 1990 it had 500 members. Alongside MS-13 came a proliferation of smaller Salvadoran crews. Some groups organized around socializing and graffiti tagging, others around violent contestation for control of local turf or localized trade in drugs, arms, and other illicit goods. As Salvadorans began to associate more closely with other Latinos further, many youth began to join the Mexican American Calle 18 gang, which became the avowed foe of MS-13, fostering a surge in violent gang conflict. (Campus Progress, 3-15-05)
Is the bitter irony of all of this misery lost on you? What more evidence of the interconnectedness of everything would you require? Children who fled violence in Central America only to meet more violence on the streets of East Los Angeles now threaten both societies with greater violence.
But there are two more agonizing turns to this screw.
“Human rights groups report the existence of death squads that have been killing suspected members of youth gangs in Honduras and Guatemala. They also criticise the increasingly strong-arm crackdown by the authorities, which they say is not the answer to a problem with deep socioeconomic roots…An average of six people a day are murdered in Honduras (a country of six million), eight a day in El Salvador (population 6.2 million) and 14 a day in Guatemala (population 12 million). Authorities blame most of the murders on the maras, but human rights groups say many of the killings are the work of off-duty police officers operating in death squads carrying out a sort of "social purge"…In Honduras, organisations like London-based Amnesty International and Casa Alianza have also reported that death squads are killing youngsters suspected of belonging to gangs, often merely because they sport tattoos…Honduran society has viewed the deaths of these children and youths with indifference and apathy, some newspapers even suggesting it as a possible solution to the problem of public insecurity." At night, the "death squads" patrol the neighbourhoods frequented by gang members, seize suspects and take them to the outskirts of the cities to kill them...Guatemalan human rights prosecutor Sergio Morales has also repeatedly complained of a social purge, reflected by the frequent killings of suspected gang members in that country as well…The causes of the spiraling violence are social and economic, say activists and legal experts, who argue that a short-term, exclusively penal approach will not eradicate the problem. They point out that at least half of Central America's total population of 38 million lives below the poverty line, a proportion that rises as high as 70 percent in countries like Nicaragua, according to unofficial figures. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala rank at the bottom of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) human development index in Latin America. In the communities where the maras recruit their members, social safety nets and state support are extremely weak…(Manuel Bermudez, Inter Press Service, 9-6-05)
In “Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency,” Max Manwaring, writing for the U.S. Army War College, postulates that the Mara phenomenon is indicative of a disturbing evolution in criminal enterprise.
“Youth gangs from California began moving into all five Central American republics in the early 1990s. The main impetus came as a result of convicted felons being sent from prisons in the United States back to the countries of their parents’ origins...In the early stages of their development and through the present, virtually all the Central American gangs have flourished under the protection and mercenary income provided by larger criminal networks. The basis of
this alliance is the illegal drug trade that is credited with the transshipment of up to 75 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States…In addition to drug smuggling, second and third generation gangs in Central America are known to be involved in smuggling people, arms, and cars; associated murder, kidnapping, and robbery violence; home and community invasions; credit card fraud; and other more petty criminal first generation activities…
“First generation gangs, or traditional street gangs, are primarily turf-oriented. They have loose and unsophisticated leadership and focus their attention on turf protection to gain petty cash and on gang loyalty within their immediate environs (designated city blocks or neighborhoods). When first generation street gangs engage in criminal enterprise, it is largely opportunistic and individual in scope and tends to be localized and operates at the lower end of extreme societal violence...
“Second generation gangs are organized for business and commercial gain. These gangs have a more centralized leadership, and members tend to focus on drug trafficking and market protection. At the same time, they operate in a broader spatial or geographic area that may include neighboring cities and other nation-states. Like other more sophisticated criminal enterprises, they use the level of violence necessary to protect their markets and control their competition. They also use violence as political interference to negate enforcement efforts directed against them by police and other security organizations. And as they seek to control or incapacitate state security organizations, they often begin to dominate vulnerable community life within large areas of the nation-state. In this environment, second generation gangs almost have to link with and provide services to transnational criminal organizations.
“Third generation gangs continue first and second generation actions as they expand their geographical parameters, as well as their commercial and political objectives. As they evolve, they develop into more seasoned organizations with broader drug- related markets, as well as very sophisticated transnational criminal organizations with ambitious political and economic agendas. In this connection, they inevitably begin to control ungoverned territory within a nation-state and/or begin to acquire political power in poorly governed space…The gang leader, then, acts much the same as a warlord or a drug baron. That is, once a gang leader has achieved control of a specific geographical area within a given nation-state and takes measures to protect the gang’s turf from the state, that leader effectively becomes a warlord or drug baron…”
(Dr. Max Manwaring, Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency, March 2005)
Ah, but now for the last turn of the screw, the irony of ironies…
“Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a key al Qaeda cell leader for whom the U.S. government has offered a $5 million reward, was spotted in July in Honduras meeting with leaders of El Salvador's notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, which immigration officials said has smuggled hundreds of Central and South Americans — mostly gang members — into the United States…The Salvadoran gang…is thought to have established a major smuggling center in Matamoros, Mexico, just south of Brownsville, Texas, from where it has arranged to bring illegal aliens from countries other than Mexico into the United States…El Shukrijumah, born in Saudi Arabia but thought to be a Yemen national, was spotted in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in July, having crossed the border illegally from Nicaragua after a stay in Panama. U.S. authorities said al Qaeda operatives have been in Tegucigalpa planning attacks against British, Spanish and U.S. embassies. Known to carry passports from Saudi Arabia, Trinidad, Guyana and Canada, El Shukrijumah had sought meetings with the Mara Salvatrucha gang leaders who control alien-smuggling routes through Mexico and into the United States. El Shukrijumah, 29, who authorities said was in Canada last year looking for nuclear material for a so-called "dirty bomb" and reportedly has family members in Guyana…”(Jerry Seper, Washington Times, 9-28-05)
Yes, Al Qaeda and the Maras—blow-back squared!
Third generation gangs, in general, and the Maras, in particular, are serious law enforcement issues. They are even to some extent military issues. But they are also much more. They are an urgent, irrefutable reason for all governments, and all organizations in position to pressure their governments, to not only embrace the UN Convention on the Rights of Children (only the U.S. and Somalia have not yet signed it, although many of have signed it are not complying with it), as well as its Optional Protocols (which strengthen the edicts against the exploitation of children), but also achieve the UN Millennium Goals, in particular, Millenium Goal #2, i.e., to “ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling.”
“Education affords children a sense of security and continuity even when they are surrounded by chaos engendered by armed conflict,” as Graça Machel’s report stressed almost a decade ago. “Schools should be kept open as long as feasible and that informal classes should be established as soon as possible in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons. Schooling should be flexible, with lessons held in the safest place at the safest time. Lessons can be held in caves or under trees, for example. Humanitarian assistance should include such flexible approaches to education. Keeping children in class is particularly important for adolescents who are at risk of being recruited into armed forces, prostitution or drug abuse. The report indicates that one of the best ways to protect older children is to involve them actively in community activities, including their own personal development programmes.”
You cannot have security without understanding its interconnectedness with sustainability and spirit. Do we have a sustainable species? And what is at its spiritual core? Unless we answer these two questions, there will be no real security, nor any reason to strive for it.
Richard Power is the founder of GS(3) Intelligence and www.wordsofpower.net. His work focuses on the inter-related issues of security, sustainability and spirit, and how to overcome the challenges of terrorism, cyber crime, global warming, health emergencies, natural disasters, etc. You can reach him via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, go to www.wordsofpower.net.