ICRC workers attend to an injured man in Guatemala

Violence perpetrated by "mara" street gangs and drug trafficking groups in Central America undermines the state and leads to high homicide rates, forced recruitment and forced displacement -- an impact comparable to that of an armed conflict.

A recent report by the Geneva-based Assessment Capacity Project (ACAPS - pdf) examines the humanitarian consequences of the violence afflicting the "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. It looks at how humanitarian actors can conceptualize and respond to this violence. 

The authors note that the humanitarian consequences of the insecurity in these countries -- which the report terms "other situations of violence" (OSV) based on International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) terminology -- are very similar to those of a conventional armed conflict, even if the violence does not have the same political roots. The Northern Triangle is home to gangs that maintain tight territorial and social control, are heavily armed and pose a major challenge to already weak governments. As Robert Muggah, director of Brazilian research organization the Igarape Institute, told InSight Crime by email: "[the gangs] may not seek to usurp the state, as in conventional civil wars, but they often successfully co-opt it."

The consequences include extremely high homicide rates -- that of Honduras is higher than some states with armed conflicts, such as Sudan -- costs to human health and education, and the abandonment of homes and public spaces in areas overrun by gangs.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

These impacts can be hard to measure. For example, while conventional conflicts often provoke mass displacement, the forced displacement that occurs in the Northern Triangle often takes place on an individual or family basis, leading to under-reporting of the phenomenon.

Virginie Andre, the head of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department's (ECHO) Central America office, told InSight Crime in written correspondence that the lack of precise information regarding the humanitarian impacts of the violence presented a challenge for humanitarian actors. 

"It takes time for actors to adjust, adapt and respond. We need to learn how to do it and give humanitarian actors the tools and conditions to do it," Andre wrote.

The ACAPS study proposes a framework for better measuring the impact of violence in the Northern Triangle, in order to determine the most appropriate state policies and humanitarian response. The three main suggestions are: to determine more precisely the effects of violence on the population, to examine the access of the affected population to humanitarian assistance, and to measure the response capacity of both state and non-state actors.

InSight Crime Analysis

Central America's Northern Triangle countries suffer from high gang violence, with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs as major protagonists. These groups exercise control in the countries' main urban centers, extorting the population and limiting their movement, recruiting children, and engaging in confrontations with each other and with security forces. They have shown signs of increasing sophistication, beginning to reorganize under a more hierarchical structure in Guatemala and using military grade weapons and infiltrating security forces in El Salvador. The US has recognized the MS13 as a transnational criminal organization (TCO), though this classification remains debatable.

SEE ALSO: MS13 Profile

Security in the region has also been affected by increased drug trafficking activity in recent years, with Mexican cartels moving in and fighting to control territory in order to traffic and store cocaine. In addition to posing a direct threat to the population, both local and foreign drug groups have corrupted regional governments.

For Andre of ECHO, the situation in the Northern Triangle -- with homicides, forced recruitment and forced displacement -- bears clear markings of a humanitarian crisis. Juan Pedro Schaerer, head of the Regional Delegation of the ICRC for Mexico, Central America and Cuba, wrote to InSight Crime: "Although the causes of these violent situations may vary in character from those of armed conflicts, the humanitarian consequences ... are often the same, in form as in complexity and intensity."

International humanitarian aid has traditionally been greatly focused outside of urban centers, but international humanitarian agencies have begun adapting their strategies to meet the needs provoked by long-term urban violence, according to Muggah. Certain humanitarian actors, including the ICRC, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and ECHO, have all begun intervening in some OSV.

ECHO, for example, invested some $2.7 million in 2013 to address violence in Mexico and Central America. According to Andre, this money was partly aimed at increasing the visibility of the problem and compiling evidence to formulate appropriate response mechanisms.

However, intervention in OSV is complicated because neither the legal, conceptual nor practical frameworks for doing so are as well defined as in the case of a traditional prolonged conflict setting. For one thing, it may be more difficult to gain the acceptance of the actors involved in the violence. A particular challenge faced by the ICRC in the Northern Triangle, according to Schaerer, is that the organization is not engaged in "systemic dialogue" with all of those generating violence, as they would more likely be in a traditional armed conflict setting.

The ICRC has moved cautiously in pilot programs implemented in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- which also suffers from protracted violent gang activity and regular shootouts with security forces -- setting up basic health services first in order to gain acceptance from gangs before launching more comprehensive programs.

"Knowing the field" has been key for ECHO's partners in the Northern Triangle, which include NGOs, Red Cross offices and United Nations programs, according to Andre. "The more they are accepted in communities, the easier it is to work."

Another issue, Muggah said, is that governments themselves are reluctant to label the violence in the Northern Triangle a "humanitarian crisis" because this would be a tacit admission of their failure to control the situation. Instead, governments frequently resort to hard-handed and militarized policies that target the proximate causes of violence without addressing the underlying factors.

When governments do not admit the scale of the problem, humanitarian actors have less space to intervene, leading many to focus on less politicized issues rather than directly targeting the violence, said Muggah.

Meanwhile, the fact that urban gang violence is not currently categorized as armed conflict means that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) does not apply, something Schaerer said can limit the ICRC's work from both a "legal and judicial standpoint." And while defining these situations as armed conflicts would help to ensure a flow of aid to violence prevention programs, it also has the drawback of providing the organized gangs with certain legitimacy, while potentially legitimizing government killings of "combatants."

Given these difficulties, ACAP's recommendations to measure the impact of violence are key. For Muggah, the the international humanitarian sector needs to, at minimum, "fully acknowledge the gravity of the situation and set up appropriate monitoring facilities." Information on questions such as the true scale of displacement will need to be established in order for the right strategies to be put in place.

More complete information could also increase the response capacity of local NGOs and push states to recognize the severity of the situation. This is essential because, as Andre noted, humanitarian aid addresses only the immediate crisis. "Above all, there is a need for longer-term solutions, addressing the root causes," which ultimately can only be implemented by the governments of each country.