El Salvador gangs big headache for new president

SAN SALVADOR, March 17 (Reuters) - Scrubbed clean and wearing long sleeves to hide their tattoos, members of El Salvador's internationally feared street gangs blended in with the general public to vote in Sunday's presidential election.

The Mara 18 and rival Mara Salvatrucha gangs make up a huge criminal network that runs from Los Angeles, where a diaspora of Salvadoreans lives, down through chunks of Central America.

While they terrorize San Salvador's poorly lit streets at night, the gangsters mostly lay low during daylight when their trademark tattoos can get them arrested or killed by rivals.

Some were coaxed out to vote in the country's presidential election by a group working to bridge the gulf between normal society and the gangs, who have made El Salvador one of the world's most murderous places.

"They were pretty scared but we covered them up and got rid of the 'Mara' look," said Luis Romero, a former member of the "Mara 18" gang who works for the international "Homies Unidos" organization working to curb gang violence.

"It was only a few dozen but it's so important that they vote and think about the world outside theirs," he said.

With an economic slump squeezing an already limited job market, gangs will be one of the most pressing headaches for leftist Mauricio Funes, who won Sunday's election.

"It should be one of his primary concerns," said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones. "The gang problem has been stable for a while, but it's stable at a very bad level and the economic crisis will make it worse."

An estimated 25,000 gang members in El Salvador are behind many of the 10 to 12 daily murders in a nation of just 5.7 million people. They sell drugs, run errands for drug gangs, rob illegal migrants and extort businesses.

Children as young as 7 join them and quickly become adept with a gun and fiercely loyal to their adopted families.

Nightclub owner Raynaldo Salinas, 60, said he hands over $100 a month -- equivalent to a factory worker's monthly wage -- to two tattooed youths that come knocking on his door.

"It's unpleasant and it hurts me because I could give this money to someone who really needs it," he said. "But I couldn't bear anything to happen to my children or my grandchildren."

The "iron fist" policy of El Salvador's outgoing right-wing government rounded up gang members and packed them into jail cells where they only honed their criminal skills.

Funes has pledged new social welfare programs that could help more youths to finish school and keep families together.

"The kids packed in cells like sardines are paying for the problems of the country," said Romero, who left behind a life of drug abuse and gang assaults in Los Angeles, where he was sent at 14 during El Salvador's civil war as an illegal immigrant and quickly ended up on the street.

"In the U.S. prison system I got my school certificates, I got my health seen to. If you have all that as a kid, why would you go out and rob people for a living?"

Editing by Cynthia Osterman