I neglected to post about this report in the Washington Post, but it certainly is worth mentioning:
The head of a young girl, hacked off with an ax, was found in a burlap bag in October in this industrial port on the Caribbean. The bag also contained a note to President Ricardo Maduro from Mara 18, an ultra-violent street gang, saying that the killing was "in memory" of a gangster who had been killed by police.
That unidentified head, and many other mutilated corpses and body parts that turn up regularly in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, are evidence of a growing crisis in Central America. Once defined by civil wars, this region is now consumed by a battle against gangs. Their crimes have terrorized citizens in poor nations struggling to establish peaceful democracies after decades of civil wars.
"These gangsters are just killing machines," said Oscar Arturo Alvarez, the Honduran minister of public security. "They are a threat to the stability of our democracy. When people see their neighbors being killed and their daughters being raped, they start to believe that democracy is not working."
That last sentence may be the greatest long term danger to this region in which, with the exceptions of Belize and Costa Rica, democracy has been exceedingly rare. The origin of some of this violence is nothing new.
The gang violence is closely connected to the United States, which spent billions of dollars on Central America's wars during the 1980s. Thousands of Central American refugees fleeing the wars streamed into the United States, particularly to Los Angeles, where some joined or formed notorious street gangs such as Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.
Since the wars ended in the 1990s, Central America has become fertile ground for gangs. Central American countries have very young populations, rampant poverty and unemployment, and hundreds of thousands of leftover weapons. Analysts say gangs are an attractive option for children as young as 10 looking for a place to belong in societies that seem to offer them little else.
The United States, meanwhile, has sharply stepped up deportations of criminal offenders in recent years, sending thousands of gang members back to their native countries, overwhelming police forces and prisons.
The overall effect has been a poisonous mixing of gangs in the United States and Central America. In the United States, gang violence is spreading from its traditional home in Los Angeles to cities across the country, including Washington. Two reputed members of the Mara Salvatrucha were recently convicted in U.S. District Court in Alexandria of murdering a rival gang member. In October, a gang member was killed and a Metro bus driver was wounded in a gang shootout in Mount Pleasant. Gangs have claimed turf from Gaithersburg to Manassas.
When I was in Belize 11½ years ago, one of the ongoing complaints was that the Crips and Bloods, two of Los Angeles' most notorious gangs were establishing branches in Belize City. It's very disturbing to see it spreading.