Peru's government says there are some 13,000 members of youth gangs inside the country. But the situation can hardly be described as a crisis, so long as the Andean nation avoids the "mano dura" gang policies which exacerbated the problem in Central America.

Peru’s government says most of the 13,000 gang members, known as “pandillas,” are based in Lima and the adjoining municipality of Callao. Most members are aged under 18, according to official estimates, and confrontations between them reportedly left 13 dead and 29 injured in the capital in 2010.

In terms of sheer numbers, Peru’s gang problem can be compared to those of Central America’s Northern Triangle; there are an estimated 36,000 gang members in Honduras, 14,000 in Guatemala, and 10,500 in El Salvador, though Peru’s population is between two and six times bigger. The notorious youth gangs in the Northern Triangle are known as “maras,” and bear some of the responsibility for the high rates of violence and lawlessness in these countries, which are among the world’s worst, with Honduras on track for perhaps the world’s highest murder rate in 2011.

These maras are involved in the international drug trade only to a limited extent, acting as guards for drug shipments and dealers on the local level rather than as full-fledged players. Even the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18), perhaps the biggest and most famous Central American youth gangs, have only limited links to transnational groups, and little contact between factions in different countries. Their concerns are primarily local, based on control of a neighborhood rather than a region or trafficking route.

However, the lawlessness fostered by mara gang culture and the existence of these pre-existing criminal networks have helped to facilitate the entry of Mexican trans-national criminal groups into these countries.

Similarly to South America, in Peru, the gangs are thought to be primarily neighborhood-oriented. These gangs appear to be relatively small-scale and local, without significant links to Peruvian traffickers, and much less to transnational criminal groups. Sociologist Jose Jaimes Montero, who worked with Lima police in a program to stop youths getting involved in crime, told Peru 21 that the city’s gangs tend to specialize in extortion, robbery, kidnapping, and hired killings. Some analysts have described Lima’s gangs as having “sporadic contacts” with organized crime. In Peru, like in the Northern Triangle, it is foreign criminal groups that control the drug trade -- namely Colombian and Mexican groups, rather than local organizations.

However, there is reason to think that Peru will be able to keep a handle on its gangs. For one thing, it is much wealthier than the Northern Triangle countries where gang culture is at its most serious, and will be able to invest more resources in policing. It also appears to be taking a prevention-based approach to gangs, as opposed to the “mano dura” or iron fist that has been imposed by governments in that region. According to Lima’s head of public safety, Gabriel Prado, while there is still some emphasis on repressive methods, the city is increasingly gearing towards prevention and social reinsertion programs. He gave the example of the Chicos Chamba program, which intends to reinsert 3,000 young people back into the labor market, alongside another scheme, “From gang members to social actors,” supposed to provide social support for ex-gang members from Lima neighborhoods.

The growth of gang culture is likely tied to mass immigration into Lima; the city’s population has boomed in recent decades, almost doubling in the last 20 years to 8.5 million. Much of this growth was made up of migrants from the countryside, with informal settlements spreading on the outskirts of the city, which have gradually been formalized and recognized as part of the metropolis. Most of the districts identified as centers of gang activity by Prado originally sprung up as shanty towns, or “pueblos jovenes,” which often lack proper access to public services.

Community-based, preventative schemes like this have been credited for helping Nicaragua, which is poorer than the countries in the Northern Triangle but has far lower levels of violence, to control the spread and the aggression of youth gangs. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Rodrigo Tovar Pupo never imagined it would come to this: dressed in an orange jumpsuit in a Washington DC courtroom and standing in front of a United States federal judge, the grandson of a wealthy Colombian cattle rancher and nephew to a governor was facing a possible...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Like any arm of the justice system, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) had its battles with elites who used their charm and their muscle to try to influence what and who the celebrated commission...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

In the northwest corner of Guatemala, a little known criminal organization known as the "Huistas" dominates the underworld, in large part due its ties with businessmen, law enforcement officials and politicians.

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

By the end of 1993, Pablo Escobar was cornered. The cocaine king -- known as "El Patrón" -- was running out of money and options. His top assassins were either dead or had turned themselves in. Almost all of the senior members of the Medellín Cartel were...

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

This project defines organized crime as: a structured group of people that associate on a regular and prolonged basis to benefit from illicit activities and illegal markets. This group can be local, national or transnational in nature, and its existence is maintained using violence and threats; corruption...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

As it tends to happen in Honduras, the news began as a well-heeled rumor: Javier Rivera Maradiaga, the oldest of the three Rivera Maradiaga brothers still alive and leader of the feared and powerful Honduran drug trafficking group known as the Cachiros, had handed himself in to...

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

On the morning of April 5, 1988, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros left his palatial Tegucigalpa estate for a jog. Matta Ballesteros was wanted for murder, drug trafficking and other crimes in several countries, but in Honduras he felt safe. He regularly hosted parties for high-level officials at...

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Organized crime is not an abstract concept for me. I grew up in Oak Park, a leafy suburb of Chicago with a population of about 60,000. In general, it was a very low crime city, which is perhaps why many mobsters made their homes there, among them...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala is Central America’s most populous country and its largest economy. But an intransigent elite, an ambitious military and a weak state has opened the way for organized crime to flourish, especially since the return of democracy.