LIMA, Peru – In late November, Christians Moreno Sánchez Concha, 24, who had been released from prison days earlier after serving a four-year sentence for drug-trafficking, was fatally shot by gang members in Callao, 50 minutes from Lima.
The Peruvian National Police suspect Sánchez Concha was killed by the Mara Salvatrucha to settle his debt.
Since February 2012, seven Mara Salvatrucha gang members have been arrested in Peru on charges of extorting construction companies and other crimes.
Those arrested – all of whom are Peruvian – were clearly influenced by the Central American gang, as evidenced by their multiple tattoos, earrings and shaved heads, according to Peruvian police.
“This group, which was formed in Callao, clearly defined the scope of its operations, which are contract killings and drug sales,” said José Garay, head of the Social Planning Division of the Peruvian Police’s Public Safety Directorate. “The police are investigating the real connections between these criminals and the Central American gangs …, their connections, modes of action, tattoos and criminal training.”
While the arrests set off alarms of a possible incursion by Central American gangs into South America, experts doubt it’s part of a larger trend and are treating them as independent groups without connections to the El Salvador-based MS-13.
“It’s not likely that the gangs can permanently implement their violence techniques in Peru. We haven’t yet seen initiation rites similar to what happens in Central America,” said Julio Corcuera, director of Research and Development at the National Youth Secretariat (SENAJU).
Corcuera said there are many differences between Peruvian and Central American gangs.
“The gangs in Peru are created on a circumstantial basis to ‘go to war’ or defend a territory, and they mainly depend on a single leader,” he said.
The Central American gangs have international operations, with members capable of operating from within prisons, primarily to carry out extortions.
In addition, Peruvian gang members don’t make careers out of crime, according to Corcuera.
“After a little while, the Peruvian gangs usually lose their members pretty easily when they find a job opportunity or start studying and are away from the group,” he said.
A total of 58.6% of Peru’s 8,171,356 youth between the ages of 15 and 29 consider crime and gang activity to be the most serious problems affecting their lives, while 43.2% said the lack of opportunities is the main difficulty they face, according to the First National Youth Survey, released in April 2012.
In Peru, there are 138 gangs, 82 of them in Lima, according to police. The rest are in Piura (39), Pasco (9), Arequipa (3), Cusco (3) and Ayacucho (2).
Of the total of 2,706 gang members estimated to be operating nationwide, 1,325 are male minors and 40 are female minors, according to Garay.
“The profile of the Peruvian gang members is aggressive, impulsive and suffering from low self-esteem,” said Col. Lino Huamán Gutiérrez of the Peruvian Police, who is a forensic psychologist with more than 20 years of experience with violent groups.
Youth violence is a product of the environment, Huamán added.
“The only way to rehabilitate young gang members is to try to achieve a shift in attitude through dialogue, psychological care and vocational training, so that they can find a job,” he said.
The police are carrying out several programs to prevent young people from joining gangs.
Since August 2011, 4,722 young people have been rehabilitated through “Youth Patrol,” a preventive program focused on the resocialization of youth involved in acts of violence, mainly through job training, Garay said.
“I was 14 years old when my mother died. My life completely changed. My father was more interested in drinking than in paying attention to me,” said José Cornejo, who for eight years was a member of “Los Letales,” a gang that operated north of Lima. “In the gang, I found another family that helped and protected me.”
In January 2013, Cornejo joined the “Youth Patrol.” He currently works in a motorcycle taxi service along with 21 former members of the gang.
“I was arrested five or six times and I didn’t care what happened,” he said. “Now, I feel more relaxed and I’m trying to be a good person, together with my family.”
Samuel Peralta Campos, the head of the police station in Sol de Oro in the Los Olivos District of Lima, which is one of the police stations where the “Youth Patrol” works, applauds the role the program has played in rehabilitating young people.
“These young people have made a real commitment,” he said. “They’ve acknowledged their mistakes and, upon leaving the gangs, they’re taking advantage of a new opportunity that life has offered them to make things right.”