Nº 26/04





          The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have completed our joint visit to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  The IACHR delegation comprised the Rapporteur on Children, Commission member Paulo Sergio Pinheiro[1], and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Freedom, Commission member Florentín Meléndez,[2] assisted by staff of the Executive Secretariat of the Inter-American Commission. UNICEF was represented by Dr. María Jesús Conde, Child Protection Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean. The main objectives of the visit were to gather information on the situation of boys, girls, and adolescents involved with groups known as maras or pandillas (gangs), and to learn about the living conditions of persons deprived of freedom.


At the conclusion of our visit, the IACHR and UNICEF are concerned over the human rights situation of thousands of boys, girls, and adolescents who belong to the maras or pandillas, or did so in the past.  We are aware of the violence and insecurity caused by the gangs and offer our solidarity to the victims of such actions.  At the same time, we must emphasize that the right and the obligation of states to ensure public safety are not incompatible with respect for human rights. 


Many boys and girls from the poorest sectors of the population lack access to education, food, housing, health care, personal safety, family protection, and employment opportunities.  Faced with that situation, many choose to join the maras or pandillas in search of support, protection, and respect.  After joining, they usually live together in their urban communities, for the avowed purpose of mutual care and defense, and of defending the neighborhood in which they live against rival maras or pandillas. Many carry weapons and engage in criminal activities, including homicide, robbery, theft, and armed confrontations with other gangs—often with fatal results.


          We note that both the general lack of reliable statistics on the extent of the problem and the often biased, media-based treatment of the gang issue cause public opinion to reject these groups out of fear.  As a consequence, society stigmatizes and discriminates against impoverished boys, girls, and adolescents across the board.  This vicious cycle does nothing to improve the situation.


Our greatest concerns about the human rights situation of members or former members of maras or pandillas have to do with the extreme poverty, murders, violations of personal well-being, arbitrary arrests, mistreatment, stigmatization, and discrimination to which they are subjected.


We note also the tendency in current government policy to deal with boys, girls, and adolescents involved with gangs solely from the standpoint of public safety, through state law-enforcement and criminal justice institutions.


Government policies on the human rights of children should adhere to the general principles of “comprehensive protection” and of the “overriding interest of the child.”  These principles should guide all education, health, protection, nutrition, and welfare programs and services for children, both within the family and in the community.  State policies on the subject should focus on meeting essential needs, on creating opportunities for a better life, and on respect for civil and political rights, including the right to a fair trial, the right to appropriate legal defense throughout judicial proceedings, and the use of detention only as a last resort and only for the most serious offenses.


A very important indicator of respect for human rights is how society treats children.  A society that respects fundamental rights gives children freedom and dignity and creates conditions in which they can develop all their potential.


As for detention conditions, we observed that the treatment of detainees associated with gangs generally involved abandonment, overcrowding, lack of adequate infrastructure, sanitation, or access to medical and psychological care, and a lack of court supervision or of specific rehabilitation projects.  During the visit, we also witnessed that the living conditions of child detainees were inferior to those of the rest of the penitentiary population, and that, in particular, there has been grave violence and loss of life in recent months. We are also concerned over the living conditions of adult detainees, which include overcrowding, lack of proper sanitation, and insufficient human and budgetary resources.


A report will be prepared in the coming months on the situation of boys, girls, and adolescent belonging to maras or pandillas in the countries visited.  The IACHR and UNICEF are grateful for the high degree of cooperation we received during this visit, both from the government authorities in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and from the children we interviewed, civil society organizations, and the academic community.  We also thank the local OAS and UNICEF offices in the countries we visited for their support.



Tegucigalpa, December 4, 2004


[1].    Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro also participated as an independent expert of the United Nations for the Secretary-General’s study on violence against children.


[2].    In keeping with the Rules of Procedure of the IACHR, Dr. Florentín Meléndez, a Salvadoran national, did not participate in the visit to El Salvador.