Canada is becoming an attractive destination for Central American gang members running from the law or trying to escape police scrutiny, says an assistant prosecutor in charge of gangs.
Robert Morales, a prosecutor with the Ministerio Publico, Guatemala's criminal justice branch, says he knows of gang members from this Central American capital who are seeking refugee status in Canada.
"We know that there are members of Mara 18 and MS-13 who are in Canada and are seeking to stay there," Mr. Morales said. "I came across a gang member who was working in a call centre here. He'd just returned from a long stint in Ontario. We're hearing about Canada more and more often in connection with gang members here."
It was recently reported that Ernesto Roberto Contreras Mendoza, an El Salvadoran member of the notorious MS-13 gang, was walking the streets of British Columbia. He has had his application for refugee status denied but can't be deported until criminal charges he is facing for assault and uttering threats are dealt with. Meantime, he is out on bail.
"There is no question that Canadian authorities are concerned about the worst gang elements from Central America migrating north and escaping some of the heat down here," Mr. Morales said.
Superintendent John Robin, head of the RCMP's integrated gang task force, said in an interview Central American gang members are looking to escape a crackdown on their activities in countries south of the Mexican border.
"I think they [gang members]have a feeling that police here won't treat them in the harsh manner they get down there," Supt. Robin said.
He hastened to add, however, that we are not seeing Central American gang members in Canada in anywhere near the numbers that exist in the United States. He said part of the reason the RCMP is working with justice officials in Guatemala is to build ties and intelligence connections that will help keep an eye on the movement of gangsters down there.
"We want to avoid ending up like the U.S., which is dealing with the problem of Central American gangsters on a much bigger scale," Supt. Robin said.
Gangs are one of the central issues facing political leaders and judicial authorities in Central America. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, brutalized by decades of civil war and grinding poverty, are home to the greatest concentration. Some put the overall number of gang members in Central America at more than 100,000.
In Guatemala, as elsewhere, the gangs make money mostly by setting up extortion rackets. They levy impuestos, or self-styled taxes, against bus drivers, store owners and home owners who operate or live in their neighbourhood. Gangs have even been known to levy "rape taxes" on the parents of young girls. The monthly payoffs are made to ensure the safety of their child.
Mara 18 and MS-13 have become far more vicious than any other gangs. Both have their roots in Los Angeles during the 1970s and 1980s, when more than one million people fled Central America, mostly El Salvador, amid political violence and civil war. Mara 18 is an offshoot of 18th Street gang (Mara is Salvadoran slang for gang). MS-13 is short for Mara Salvatrucha, whose members are initiated with a 13-second beating.
The children of those who arrived in Los Angeles formed gangs to protect themselves against the gangs that already existed there. Many of these kids and their parents were deported in the 1990s, returning to Central America, where gangs have been thriving since.
Mara 18 and MS-13, who have long marked themselves with massive and intricate tattoos, have become notorious for their trademark beheadings, mutilations and the torture-killings of rival gangsters and informants. In recent years, governments, police and citizens have begun taking a more hard-nosed approached to gang members, many of whom have been rounded up and shot for simply being marked with gang tattoos.
Gang members have taken to putting their tattoo markings in less obvious places and even adopting a preppy dress style to avoid the attention of those on the lookout for them.