In the slums of Central America’s major cities, children are tortured and murdered for refusing to join the street gangs who dominate everyday life and dole out drugs and death.

Known as ‘maras’ and by now notorious, the youth gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala originate from the ghettoes of Los Angeles and other US cities. Revelling in their reputation for rampant violence, they promote a sub-culture of nihilism and have gained such a hold over Central American society that they represent the biggest threat to peace in the region since the civil wars of the 1990s.

Urban tribes – how gangs recruit street children

With no home, education or family structure to belong to, children marginalised on the streets are easy prey for organised criminal networks on the hunt for new recruits. Approached by the gangs with an offer of ‘employment’, children are coerced into joining up, and initiated into their new ‘surrogate family’ with beatings, gang rape and other brutal induction tests.

Once children carry out the first innocuous gang-given task, the reality of their involvement becomes much more dangerous and complex.

Trapped into a vicious cycle of criminality, street children are groomed through the hierarchy, progressing from acts of petty crime and serving as lookouts for gang chiefs to burglaries, extortion and contract killings. Gang chiefs know that the law is often more flexible with a child criminal offender, and so children are a valuable commodity in furthering the gang’s illegal activities.

How Casa Alianza combats gang culture

Casa Alianza Honduras has an active programme to persuade children against joining gangs in the first place.

In our safe house in Tegucigalpa, Casa Alianza staff teaches children the values of respect, trust and collaboration, providing them with the strong sense of self-esteem they will need to resist gangs’ pernicious influence. When a teenage resident of Casa Alianza turns 18 and chooses to leave our shelter for an independent life, it’s not uncommon for staff to see gang members patrolling the streets outside the safe house gates, lying in wait for the teenager to emerge. In those cases, we provide legal services to help the young person change their name and move away elsewhere, safe from danger.