Gang violence continues to plague Central America

A new report by a leading watchdog and policy group says that Central America's Northern Triangle governments should find a middle ground that balances the need for engaging with the region's violent street gangs, while still maintaining the rule of law and the governments' legitimacy.

The report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) enumerates several steps that the Northern Triangles countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador should take to curb gang-related violence and improve citizen security. One of the principal recommendations is to "engage transparently in confidence-building measures with the maras [gangs] without necessarily engaging in direct dialogue." 

The report is careful to distinguish between "confidence-building measures" and the open-ended talks that led to El Salvador's so-called gang truce in 2012. The truce led to lower levels of violence, but critics say it bestowed greater political legitimacy upon the gangs. Violence began to rise precipitously after the breakdown of the truce, with the homicide rate eventually reaching over 100 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015. 

"The unsuccessful truce process in El Salvador has stigmatized the notion of 'negotiation' with gangs," the report states. "But governments need not enter into direct dialogue with maras for a process of pacification to get underway." 

The ICG argues the gangs should likewise adopt "goodwill measures" to show that they are serious about reducing violence. These include ending forced recruitment and permitting people to move through gang-controlled communities unmolested. 

Here again, the ICG notes the potential negative side effects of implementing such a policy. The establishment of these safe corridors could become a way for the gangs to increase their "political and social clout." 

The governments should also address chronic overcrowding in the prisons, the report states, by cutting down on the use of pretrial detention and finding alternatives to jail such as GPS tracking devices. This strategy would signal a shift away from the extremely punitive approach known as "Mano Dura" (Iron Fist) and place a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Along those same lines, the ICG counsels the Northern Triangle governments to concentrate on high-impact crimes such as murder, rape and forced displacement. Authorities should respond to other, less harmful gang activities through the lens of crime prevention strategies that seek to address the underlying social and economic factors at play, the report states. 

The report pays special attention to extortion, which it says is the gangs' "criminal lifeblood" and their "economic engine." In just El Salvador, extortion costs businesses an estimated $756 million per year, it says. Finding ways to integrate gang members into the legal economy, such as providing them with job opportunities, would reduce their economic dependency on illicit activities like extortion, the report adds.

But the ICG recognizes that providing "development aid in the context of gang-run communities poses huge challenges." The report cites examples of small business initiatives set up by non-governmental organizations in Honduras that were shuttered because they started receiving extortion threats. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

What's perhaps most noteworthy about the ICG report is that it provides few, if any, unequivocal policy endorsements. The document is not so much a call for a particular strategy as it is an attempt to explore alternatives to the current Mano Dura approach. Many of these alternatives carry their own associated risks, and the authorities would have to prepare for them accordingly. In the end, it concludes, there is no silver bullet to the Northern Triangle's gang problem. 

"In seeking to address the insecurity and crime these gang perpetuate, states and the judicial system cannot ignore the conditions that have given rise to maras, nor expect gang identity -- and the existential gaps it has filled in young people’s lives -- to vanish," the report states. 

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs 

Nonetheless, there are promising initiatives happening in Central America and elsewhere that exemplify the type of recommendations made by the ICG. A 2016 meta-review of crime prevention strategies found that focused deterrence, which involves identifying the most violent offenders and having law enforcement officers repeatedly communicate with them and give them clear signals as to the consequences of continuing the violence, reduced homicides by anywhere from one-third to two-thirds in 90 percent of all interventions.

While that report only analyzed data collected in the United States, it was conducted by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in order to determine how this and other approaches could be implemented in the Northern Triangle. The founder of an innovative gang intervention program in Los Angeles has already begun adapting his model to the local security dynamics in Honduras and El Salvador

While these programs won't break the endless cycle of gang violence in the Northern Triangle overnight, it may be a step in the right direction to focus authorities' towards the professionalizing the police and their approach so that they are focused on the small amount of the population that is committing a disproportionate amount of the criminal acts. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

The Fixer and El Salvador's Missed Opportunity

The Fixer and El Salvador's Missed Opportunity

In the photograph, they are both smiling. In the foreground, on the left hand side, a man in a short-sleeved buttoned white shirt, jeans and a metal watch, holds a bottle of water in his right hand. He laughs heartily. He is Herbert Saca. On the right...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...