Plunge into the ultra-violent
underworld of Guatemalan gangs.

Gangland hell

Over 20,000 youths belong to gangs.

Deprived of prospects for the future, youths from Guatemala City’s slums flock to what they call maras or pandillas: the ultra-violent gangs that terrorize the country.

For the past fifteen years, unbelievable violence has been raging in Guatemala City’s most dilapidated slums. These crowded urban areas, 
bristling with corrugated metal shacks, are ruled by two major gangs, continually clashing with each other in a bloody war for turf:
Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.
Each gang is subdivided into neighborhood cliques, with local leaders.

Gangs recruit their members at an early age. The youngest are barely ten years old; the oldest members are rarely over 25. These boys and girls, often armed with automatic weapons, have shootouts in the poorly paved slum alleys.
Far from the eyes of the law and the hand of justice.

Maras appeared in Guatemala in the late 1990s, after the peace accords ending the 36-year civil war were signed. The Clinton administration sent home tens of thousands of Guatemalan refugees who had fled to the US.
They brought back the gang culture they had learned in the ghettos of Los Angeles, transplanting it to Guatemala City’s slum neighborhoods.

The mareros of Guatemala have organized a parallel society, similar to the Mafia.
It has its own “rules of honor,” its rituals, and an economic structure based on extortion, rape, racketeering, and murder. In a country ravaged by poverty and joblessness, gangs offer pre-teens a strong model for identity, the feeling they belong to a family.

The laws of the mara

Joining/leaving: the murder test

Kids growing up in the slums, both boys and girls, are exposed to mareros early. They admire them, because the mareros rule. They may start helping out when they’re 7 or 8: watching the street, or spying on a businessman.

Between ages 10 and 15, those who wish to join a gang petition their neighborhood clique. They go through a “trial period” lasting about three months: theft, threats, drug dealing, etc. It leads up to a “test”: the mandatory murder. A marero must be able to kill. Orders are given by the leaders.

Induction: Suffering to deserve the “family”

After the first serious crime, the aspiring marero attends a meeting with the members of his clique. There, he is “baptized” by being severely beaten by a dozen clique members.
Girls must usually submit to group rape. Afterwards, the rules of the gang are read to the newcomer, and he is welcomed as a full-fledged member.

Obedience: Tyranny disguised as democracy

According to gang rules, any decision to kill or attack is reached after group discussion. In practice, the clique leader decides alone. It is impossible to refuse to follow orders, even if they involve murdering a family member or friend. In reality, the gang operates under autocratic rule.

Organized crime: Meeting income quotas

Each marero is obliged to take part in extortions and weapons thefts planned by the leaders. He must turn over a portion of the monthly income from his “business” to the clique.

Solidarity: Unconditional belonging

In exchange for following these draconian rules, mareros benefit from the total brotherhood of their clique. They are fed, protected, and supplied with drugs and alcohol, as long as they consume it moderately. In case of an attack, it is explicitly forbidden to abandon a companion in danger. Solidarity applies unto death.

Death for the restless

Violating gang rules carries a death sentence. Any betrayal or failure to obey is judged at a meeting.
Punishments vary from a “simple” beating to death by summary execution,
often carried out by close friends who are gang members.

Female gang members

The Guatemalan press often prints stories about girl gang-bangers and the violence they commit. Nevertheless, only a tiny minority of clique members are girls. 

Rudy Alfaro, alias “Smurf,” leader of Mara "18", was sentenced to 181 years in prison for two murders: a woman, and a male driver. The crimes were committed in zone 18.

19-year-old Keila Leonela Contreras, Alfaro’s girlfriend, was sentenced to 132 years for slaying a woman and kidnapping her daughter in zone 18.

Some girls from the slums join gangs out of a desire to forge a reputation for themselves as fearsome as that of the chiefs they admire. Mainly, they hope to escape from the fate of the victim, something they see their mothers submit to daily. The brutality of these girls sets them apart from their age group: they believe that by wielding violence, they are protected from it.

The mechanism driving them into gang life is the same as the one behind the young males, but the girls are constantly dogged by their condition as women.
For example, they have to ask the clique leader for permission before they date a boy. They are used as bait for ambushes, and if they defect, the slight is even more unforgivable.

Mareros’ girlfriends are also involved in criminal activities, without formally belonging to the gang. They have no choice, especially when their boyfriends are in jail.

The gang’s marked men

Because tattoos are irreversible evidence of gang membership, they have long been used to enable mareros to identify each other.

Some tattoos cover the whole body, and even the face.
Gangs and cliques each have their own patterns: skulls, figures, the name of a neighborhood, or that of a fallen brother, but also spider webs, crucifixes, clown faces, and the odd coffin. The number of tears tattooed at the corners of the eyes symbolizes the number of murders a member has committed.

Three dots, more discreetly tattooed on the hand, signify “mi vida loca,” the crazy life of the marero, often reduced to three steps: the hospital, the prison, and the morgue.
Generally, anyone who has served a long prison sentence, even non-mareros, bears this tattoo.

Coded hand signals are another means of creating a gang identity and recognizing members.They’re the best way to mystify the police or an enemy gang, or to provoke the enemy.

The body as an open book

The skin is the only field of free expression for mareros, especially in prison.
They engrave it with episodes from their lives, their personal mythology, the names of loved ones…

Normal surnames are dropped;
gang members adopt nicknames:

El Chino “Chinaman ”
La Rana “Frog ”
La Flaca “Slim”
El Lobo “Wolf ”
El Smiley “Smiley”
El Loco “Wacko"

Since 2008-2010, most mareros have stopped doing tattoos, to avoid being identified by police or enemy gangs.

The extortion game

Gangs are organized as racketeers in order to survive, purchase food, or procure cash, to bribe police and judges.
Here’s how the game works: every single business person in the neighborhood controlled by a clique, from the taxi driver to the Coca Cola delivery man, and even the girl selling tortillas on the sidewalk, has to pay a monthly “tax.” In exchange, they are “protected” by the clique.

Gang members are assigned to dictate “rates” to extortion victims, and to collect the cash. In fact, at Christmastime, many gangs demand the victims pay a bonus...

If the victims refuse to pay, they are first threatened, and then attacked. Their family members may be targeted; their children may be kidnapped or murdered.

“We’re the tax guys.
You’d better comply
with our orders now.
Otherwise, we’ll kill off
the bus drivers one by one

Starting today

And this is no joke.”

Gangs also target large companies. In downtown Guatemala City, it is common for bus drivers to be shot point-blank, when the bus company employing them has failed to pay off the gangs. This racketeering is fostered by widespread corruption affecting the highest levels of government.

“They killed a bus driver and his assistant
for "taxes""

“Crime and extortion: A way of intimidating businessmen”

Prison: HQ of Crime, Inc.

« “In prison, you can’t show any weakness. If you do, the other inmates will prey on you. »

Patricia, ex-convict and marera

Mareros who are jailed awaiting trial, and those who have been convicted, are housed in special units.
Enemy gangs are separated, to avoid massacres.
Chiefs rule with total impunity.

In 2010, the government froze a number of bank accounts fed by profits from racketeering. Gang leaders had been managing them from prison.

The prisons have become the headquarters of Mara, Inc. Thanks to accomplices on the outside, gang members in prison have access to cell phones, weapons, and drugs.

“We had powerful contacts, in the top echelons of society. Law school professors, people who drove Mercedes cars. They made plenty of things easy for us. Police officers, too… ”

Jorge, ex marero

“The situation in prison is itself a reflection of the country’s social structure, which excludes, marginalizes, and deconstructs the human being.”

Julio Coyoy, former social rehabilitation program director for the prison system

“None of the efforts in the past 20 years has worked. To assist inmates, we have relied on religious organizations and associations whose only goal is to amass money or make converts. ”

Julio Coyoy, former social rehabilitation program director
for the prison system

Who must die and how is decided from the overcrowded high-security cell blocks. Orders are then dispatched to the slums. Conversely, it is not uncommon to see a prisoner “fall” from a roof, never to rise again…

“How can we offer prospects for the future to these youths?
There aren’t enough jobs. No programs exist to help them plan out lives for themselves. For example, micro-loans are impossible to get. I suggested it here, since it works elsewhere. As for corruption, it serves ultra-powerful lobbying groups, people who go to church on Sunday, white-collar criminals. They are the ones maintaining the monster!”

Julio Coyoy, former social rehabilitation program director for the prison system

Corrupt law enforcement

“I saw three officers capture a boy and drag him to an empty lot. Then two shots rang out. The next day, I decided to report this crime to the Public Ministry. Since then, I have been part of a witness-protection program. My whole family and I live in hiding. I lost my freedom, but at the same time, I lost the fear that paralyzes us… even though I’m aware that I have angered not only the three police officers, but also a whole corrupt institution.”

Roberto, 28, a protected witness

“If you, or a member of your family, are threatened or murdered, the police won’t help you. They either bungle the investigation, or they have accepted a bribe to protect the criminals. The only solution is to protect yourself, or to avenge the crime yourself.”

Ana, a young mother who lives in a slum

In poor neighborhoods controlled by gangs, the victims of the cliques, and even young people who have avoided joining gangs, do not rely on the police to protect them.

A lack of resources,
low salaries,
mediocre training.

In part, these factors explain the chronic corruption rotting the integrity of law enforcement personnel, from the bottom of the hierarchy all the way to the top.

It’s easy to buy off the police. They’re eager to supplement their low salaries with a few handfuls of quetzales, or a grams of cocaine. They have purchased their peace with the mareros, warning them of any threat of arrest or closing their eyes when cliques settle scores.

Violence has become an extremely lucrative trade. After the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, many private security agencies, most of them managed by retired military men, opened. Currently, private security agents outnumber police officers ten to one in Guatemala.

Not to mention the fear of the police themselves. They and their families face threats in their own neighborhoods, often controlled by gangs.

«“I’m always wary when I meet another police patrol. There are so many cops working for the drug traffickers and gangs that we can’t even trust each other, among ourselves! ”

Victor, a young policeman who has just resigned.

“Social cleanup”

Many national and international human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have accused the Guatemalan police of participating in “illegal homicides, perpetrated with orders or consent from the authorities.” Another term for such murders is “extrajudicial executions.”

The majority of the victims are young, and many have previously been arrested, or suspected by police of belonging to gangs and engaging in criminal activities.

“Victims’ bodies are often found in vacant lots. Many bear wounds suggesting they have been tortured. Nevertheless, the press and sometimes even public officials have described these homicides as “social cleanup,” leading us to believe that the crimes are tolerated, and even approved.
Cases are rarely prosecuted…”

Amnesty International