El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in Central America have the highest homicide rates in the world. Gangs, popularly known as Maras, are responsible for much of the violence and crime. Most of the killers and victims are gang members themselves in turf battles. Mara Salvatrucha, popularly known as MS-13 and the Barrio 18 (18thstreet gang) are the two dominant gangs which hold the three central American countries to ransom. The rivalry between these two became so violent at one stage in 2012, the government of El Salvador intervened and brokered a ceasefire between MS 13 and the Barrio 18. In order to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, the government relaxed conditions in the prisons in which the members of the two gangs were held. Following this peace deal, the murder rate had dropped immediately. But this truce broke down in 2014 and crime has gone up again.
The origin of these two gangs is Los Angeles. During the civil war in Central America in the eighties, over a million people had fled to US to escape the violence. Many of them went to Los Angeles, which has been described in the official website ( http://www.lapdonline.org/get_informed/content_basic_view/1396) of the LA Police Department, “ The County and City of Los Angeles are the “gang capital” of the nation. There are more than 450 active gangs in the City of Los Angeles. Many of these gangs have been in existence for over 50 years. These gangs have a combined membership of over 45,000 individuals”. Unable to fit in the social milieu, the poor and marginalised illegal immigrant youth joined the criminal gangs in LA. The Reagan administration denied refugee status to these Central American immigrants, who were forced into clandestine lives. In the nineties, the US authorities cracked down on the gangs and deported thousands of the gang members to Central America. But many of the deported, who were born or brought up in US, found it difficult to adjust in Central America and continued with their LA gang culture. They regrouped themselves locally with guns smuggled from US and scaled up their crimes, taking advantage of the weak law enforcement and justice system of these countries. The gangs have evolved a culture of tattoos, brutal rites of initiation, extortion, crime and drug trafficking. It is worth noting that both the MS-13 and Barrio-18 gangs are still active in many states of the US, even after the deportations.
The US is responsible, to a large extent, for the civil wars in Central America. To protect and promote the commercial interests of the American corporations in the region, the US administration had converted the Central American countries as ‘banana republics’ by undermining democracies and encouraging and installing right wing military dictatorships. In 1954, CIA overthrew the democratically elected leftist government of Arbenz in Guatemala and installed pro-US military dictatorship. The immediate reason for the coup was the Guatemalan government’s land reforms which affected the interests of United Fruit Company, the single largest land owner in Guatemala and which had over three million acres of land in Central America. Incidentally, Che Guavara got his anti-imperialistic revolutionary inspiration after seeing personally the destruction of the Guatemalan democracy by the US. Using the pretext of anticommunism, the US had forced the governments and security agencies of Central America to persecute leftist parties and liberals. When Sandinistas came to power in 1979 after defeating the US-supported Somoza dictatorship, the Reagan administration turned its guns against Nicaragua and involved the other Central American countries too in the dirty and illegal “ Contra War” against the Sandinista government. The US sent arms, trained local militias and waged an all out war to hurt Nicaragua and tried to bring about regime change. While playing this US game, the right wing dictators and death squads in the region had killed hundreds of thousands of opponents of the regimes and innocent people.
The fundamental reason for the violence and crime is, of course, poverty and income disparity in the region and the indifference of the oligarchs in power to the struggle of the masses. The neoliberal economic policies forced on the Central American governments by the “Washington Consensus” had increased poverty and inequality while the oligarchs gained more wealth. The continuing crime and violence have made it more challenging for the countries to increase economic growth and job creation, causing a vicious cycle. The tax rates and revenues of the three Central American countries are very low with the result that the governments do not have enough funds for welfare programmes. On the other hand, the gangs harass and extort money from the shop keepers, transport operators and others vitiating the business atmosphere and hindering economic growth.
The security forces of the region have also become part of the problem rather than than solution. In some cases, the military and police take protection money from the gangs and even join them in extortions and killings.
Some Central American governments resorted to harsher punitive methods against the gangs through Mano Dura (strong hand) policies. They had cracked down on the gangs with mass detentions and extra judicial killings. US security agencies such as FBI and DEA had a hand in pushing the Central American security forces to use harsher methods. ‘Zero tolerance’ policies were sold to Central America by ex-policy makers and police chiefs of US. But this harsh policy had the opposite effect and became counter productive. The gang members retaliated against the government and security forces with fierce counter attacks. When the authorities filled the jails with suspected gang members along with many innocent youth, the gangs recruited the detainees and became stronger. The jails have in fact have become the command centres for the gang leaders.
Another reason for the high homicide rates is the liberal gun laws and free availability of illegal guns smuggled from US. The gun shops in the US states bordering Mexico do big volume business of selling guns without adequate verifications. The illegally sold arms end up in Mexico and Central America. In the case of drugs, the US claims that the production and trafficking from Latin America is the main problem and wants to stop the supplies through aerial chemical spraying of fields and arrest of traffickers. But the US does not use the same supply side logic to help in stopping the killings in Mexico and Central America with the guns produced and supplied from US.
Central America will continue to be a transit for drug trafficking and the consequent gang violence, as long as millions of Americans continue to pay billions of dollars to consume illegal drugs. The US has to admit this simple and clear truth that illegal drugs are basically a consumer driven business and has to take action within the US to stop the consumption. There will be no sellers if there are no buyers…No brainer, in American speak..
While the US is an important factor for the gang violence in Central America, one should, however, give the credit due to US for two things: the large remittances of the emigrants in US is a major source of foreign exchange revenue for Central America; Secondly, these countries benefit from the Free Trade Agreements (CAFTA) with US, which has given duty free access for Central American goods. The FTA has given rise to a sizeable maquiladora (assembly) industry in Central America for exports to US.
While the gang violence continues unabated in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, their next door neighbour Nicaragua has not let the big gangs to take root. This is interesting since Nicaragua is much poorer in comparison to the other three and had suffered worse in the Contra War waged by the US. The CIA had recruited mercenaries from Guatemala and Honduras and armed them to attack Nicaragua in addition to instigating right wing Nicaraguan gangs to fight against the leftist Sandinista government. But the Nicaraguan authorities have prevented the emergence of gangs by their humane methods of community policing and effective disarmament of the civil war fighters. The police department had programmes to prevent youth crimes and to rehabilitate the youth who had gone astray or were vulnerable. The socialist Sandinista government had better pro-poor policies and had distributed land to the poor.
Another important reason why Nicaragua is spared of the big gangs is that they did not receive criminal deportees from LA. Those Nicaraguans who had emigrated illegally to US went mostly to Miami and not LA. In Miami, the Nicaraguan immigrants were given a sympathetic treatment by the state administration (thanks to the lobby of right wing Cuban emigres who disliked the socialistic Sandinistas) which gave them refugee status and did not deport many Nicaraguans. So the Nicaraguan immigrants were less desperate in Miami which does not have the gang culture as it exists in LA.
Amidst the gang violence in Central America, Costa Rica stands out as an island of peace, thanks to its enlightened political leadership which has uplifted the poor and reduced income disparity with welfare policies and focus on education and health care. The Costa Ricans have avoided military dicatorships after their abolition of armed forces in 1949. The Costa Rican government refused to be part of the Contra war of US and kept its neutrality. In fact, Oscar Arias, the Costa Rican president took the initiative to bring about ceasefire and peace through negotiations between the warring parties in the region. Arias was awarded a Nobel peace prize for this.
Both Nicaragua and Costa Rica had rejected any security assistance from US and did not allow their security and intelligence agencies to be corrupted and commandeered by the US, as it happened in the case of the other three countries. US has a military base in Honduras which suffered, not surprisingly, a coup in 2009, the only coup in the twenty first century Latin America. Panama has learnt from Costa Rica and abolished its army in 1990. Nicaragua has reduced the size of the army which is very small, with a limited budget. The Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) have much to learn from Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
The gang violence in Central America is distinct from the experience of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, where the big drug cartels are responsible for much of the crimes. These cartels are more powerful with money, firepower and political contacts in comparion to the Maras, described as the Mafia of the Poor. The Maras blackmail and kill low level workers such as bus and taxi drivers for small change. While Colombia has succeeded to a large extent in liberating the country from the drug cartels and guerrillas, Mexico and Brazil have seen increase in cartel crimes. Drug trafficking has not become big in Central America since their local drug markets are small and their gangs are just minor players in comparison to the big league cartels of Mexico. While Central America is a transit route for the drugs going to US, the local gangs get only a small share of the trafficking revenue from the Mexican cartels.
The gang violence in Central America is certainly much smaller in scale than what happened in Medellin. Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels had ruined the city which was labelled as a narco-crime capital. Escobar and the other rich traffickers had held the Colombian government to ransom with their money, clout and capacity to hurt. But today, Medellin has dramatically transformed into a peaceful and vibrant city. Businesses are flourishing and tourism is booming. It has become a silicon valley of the region with a number of tech companies and professionals including from India. Colombia had suffered much more from the guerrillas in addition to the drug traffickers and was almost branded as a failed state at one time. But the country has come out of these scourges and has become peaceful and prosperous. Central America can certainly repeat the Medellin act..
-“Maras: Gang violence and security in Central America” book, edited by Thomas Bruneau, Lucia Dammert and Elizabeth Skinner and published in 2011
-Congressional research paper-2016 https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL34112.pdf
-Report of the International Crisis Group- April 2017 https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/central-america/62-mafia-poor-gang-violence-and-extortion-central-america