Safely away from the ‘maras’ in Central America

Wed, 24/07/2019 - 16:13


Refuge. The blight of the ‘maras’ is one of the main causes for requests for international protection among people from Honduras and El Salvador. But why are these requests systematically rejected?

Marabunta: a large population of a certain type of ant that razes everything it comes across. This is the origin of the word ‘mara’, used to describe the violent gangs blighting countries such as Honduras and El Salvador. Along with poverty, the fear of losing one’s life is the main reason people flee these countries and explains the mass exoduses occurring. Some of the people escaping the violence reach Spain: among Hondurans it’s the most common destination, while people from El Salvador choose Italy first and Spain second. Even though the criminal extorsion of the ‘maras’ is well known, prior to 2017 the Spanish state systematically rejected applications for international protection from people fleeing these criminal gangs. Since then, Spanish institutions have been more willing to grant them refugee status, but there are still too many cases being turned down considering the enormous danger of going back.

Extorsion, threats, murders

The violence committed by the maras has many faces to it: from economic extorsion, kidnaps and forced recruitment, to murders, disappearances and rape. The common element is the terror caused among the populations where they operate.

There are also multiple causes for their existence. Poverty and the lack of future prospects, chronic corruption and the fact that these countries have lived with war for generations are key factors in explaining the phenomenon. Everyday life in areas controlled by the gangs can be a nightmare, and states barely provide any safety for the population: quite the opposite in fact, as in many cases institutional intervention can generate even more fear. Denouncements often lead to threats and even more dangerous situations. In lots of cases flight becomes the only option for survival.

Just ten of the 160 requests for refuge from Hondurans in 2018 were granted, while all 120 requests from people from El Salvador were rejected

Obstacles to gaining asylum

Most people from Central America who request international protection in Spain have been directly threatened or have experienced the violence of these gangs in their family circle: in 2018 there were 2,410 people from Honduras and 2,275 people from El Salvador in this situation, according to the figures from the latest report by the Spanish Refugee Aid Commission (CEAR). But the figures for people granted refugee status are very disappointing. A look at the number of requests in 2018 shows that just ten of the 160 requests for refuge from Hondurans were granted, while all 120 requests from people from El Salvador were rejected. The same report explains that UNHCR directives from 2016 relating to the evaluation of international protection requests from people from El Salvador had a certain impact, probably leading to 10 positive resolutions as a result, but the reality is there are still deficits in the evaluations made by institutions when it comes to granting refugee status. According to expert Alba Hernández Lacoma, the reasons cited for rejecting an application of this type are highly dubious, such as comparing the violence of the maras with common delinquency (as it has been clearly proven that this is organised crime against certain social groups): the supposed capacity of states to protect their populations (even though the majority of accounts from applicants place in doubt the protection capacity of the authorities because of corruption and the impunity they enjoy) and insufficient proof provided (even though it is well known how difficult it is to prove extorsion and that denouncements are inefficient). Another argument for denying asylum is the existence of an internal flight option, even though the gangs are known to have a countrywide and even an international influence.

“I had to pay money to men from the maras, who threatened to kill me if I didn’t”

The fear continues

In an effort to include a first-hand account in this article, we tried contacting people in Barcelona who have reached our country fleeing the maras in Central America. It proved practically impossible to find anybody willing to talk, out of fear for being located, but more than anything out of fear for reprisals against relatives still living in their country of origin.

Finally, Anita from Honduras agreed to tell us her story, but under a false name. Anita is a member of the Asociación Mujeres Migrantes Diversas and arrived in Barcelona two months ago to request international protection. “I started being harassed by a man who had designs on me and when I rejected him he set everything in motion with the mara gang he belonged to. I had to pay money to men he constantly sent to threaten me, even with death, if I didn’t. I left home for a time, but when I came back the extorsion continued. I would have reported it in Honduras but everyone knows the police are working for the gangs. People keep quiet because we know they won’t help us and that it could make things worse”, explains Anita.

Anita knows it will be difficult to prove she has been threatened and persecuted. As she has no record of having denounced it and there are no traces of extorsion (she had to change her telephone and leave everything behind when she decided to flee), the Spanish decision-making bodies might ignore the danger awaiting her if she goes back to her country.

“Young people arriving in Spain from maras are those who avoid contact with other groups here the most”

Internationalisation of the maras: are they present in Barcelona?

According to Marià Gàlvez, coordinator of the Team for Intervening in Organised Groups (EIGO) at Barcelona City Council, “in 2015 there was just one group in Barcelona, the mara Salvatrucha (MS13), based in the district of Nou Barris”. Gàlves adds: “an intervention by the Spanish Civil Guard as part of a case in Alicante, the base for one of the main clicas (term used by mara member to refer to the group concept) led to it disappearing. In general, young people arriving in Spain from maras are those who avoid contact with other groups here the most”.

The maras are still active in the rest of the state, particularly in Alicante and Madrid, but the Civil Guard keep track of them and so their members don’t run the risk of deportation and also try to avoid getting sent to prison.

The EIGO, whose mission is the preventative and comprehensive treatment of all groups and community needs of teenagers and young people belonging to organised groups, is currently focusing on promoting the personal transformation of individuals linked to gangs such as the Latin Kings, the Ñetas, the Trinitarios, the Dominicans Don’t Play, Los Menores and the Golden Boys.

Another notable project is Transgang (Transnational Gangs as Agents of Mediation: Experiences of Conflict Resolution in Street Youth Organizations in Southern Europe, North Africa and the Americas), headed by the Pompeu Fabra University and professor Carles Feixa. The project has the goal of developing a revamped model for the analysis of transnational youth gangs in the global age.

However, the blight of the maras is not dealt with much and not addressed well in the states in question, in Honduras and El Salvador. As noted by journalist Roberto Valencia, author of Carta desde Zacatraz, an account of a leader of the mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador, the future is pretty uncertain and it’s likely to take a few generations to put an end to the violence of the maras.


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