CHIMALTENANGO, Guatemala – Tattoos, baggy pants and tank tops are out. Smart blazers and university recruits are in.
It’s an extreme makeover for Central America’s gangs. Facing harsh crackdowns by government security forces and citizen vigilante groups, they are trying to lower their profile.
The Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs are known throughout Central America and the U.S. for brazen tactics, including beheading enemies and covering entire buildings and even their bodies with gang symbols.
Now, according to anti-gang operatives, these traditionally uneducated youth have begun recruiting high school and college students, and are expanding their repertoire from minor robbery to large-scale extortion, prostitution, car theft and kidnappings.
The gangs formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, attracting Salvadorans who fled to the United States to escape civil war. A decade later, after many of the members were deported for crimes committed in the United States, the gangs established themselves in Central America.
The maras are believed to number about 100,000 in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. As many as 30,000 also operate in the United States, mostly in Los Angeles, according to U.S. federal authorities.
Setting themselves apart by tattooing themselves head to toe with threatening symbols and hanging out in large crowds on street corners, their goal was to intimidate law-abiding citizens and rival gangs alike, experts say.
That has changed recently, after El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras adopted tough anti-gang policies. Many youths have been arrested or killed, allegedly by police or citizens groups.
“These days we can’t even go out onto the street, where the police look at us and we end up dead,” said Giovanni Estrada, 25, an imprisoned gang member with tattooed face. “That’s why we tell (new gang members) not to paint their faces.”
Both Sammy Rivera, a security adviser for the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and Jose Luis Tovar, deputy police chief in El Salvador, say the gangs’ increasingly lucrative pursuits have attracted high school and college students looking to make a buck.
“Before they would rob a bus and could take away some cell phones and a little money,” Rivera said. “Now they have a steady income from the extortion they carry out in their territories.”