An alleged Honduras gang member looking at his reflection

Estimates for the number of gang members in Honduras range widely, mostly because authorities have a poor understanding of the differences between gang collaborators versus full-fledged members. Without understanding this difference, the Honduran government may never develop an effective policy for undermining gang influence.

Ask a Honduran policeman how many gang members operate in his precinct, and he is likely to tell you that they number in the hundreds, maybe even the thousands. When you probe deeper, you will most likely find he is counting potential collaborators, such as wives and girlfriends. Ask a gang member in the same precinct if their wives or girlfriends are part of the gang, and they will tell you no. To them, not even the lookouts who keep an eye on the police patrols count as members.

The issue is manifest in gang counts. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says, for example, that there are 12,000 gang members in Honduras, while the Honduras police (who shared numbers with InSight Crime researchers) stated there are an estimated 25,000 gang members in the country. Meanwhile, the government's prevention program says there are just under 5,000 members, and only 500 or so in jail. The US government's estimate is on the other end of the spectrum: 36,000 gang members in Honduras.

 

Estimated Gang Members in Honduras

Source Estimated Number of Gang Members in Honduras

The National Program for Prevention, Rehabilitation and Social Reinsertion (Programa Nacional de Prevencion, Rehabilitacion y Reinsercion Social)

4,728 active gang members


447 active gang members in prison

 Jovenes Honduras Adelante - Juntos Avancemos (JHA-KA) 5,000 to 6,000 active members of the MS13 and Barrio 18
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC 12,000 gang members in the country (7,000 in the Barrio 18 and 5,000 in the MS13)
US State Department diplomatic cable 25,000 to 40,000 gang members
Honduran police 25,000 active members of the MS13 and Barrio 18
US Agency for International Development (USAID) 36,000 active gang members

 

Just how do we explain these discrepancies? Part of the problem is that Honduran law does not have a legal definition of what constitutes a "gang member" -- not even in the country's tough anti-gang legislation, which was reformed last year in order to increase penalties against gangs. 

This article is part of an ongoing series looking at gangs in Honduras. It is the result of a collaboration between InSight Crime and the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa in Honduras. See the full version of InSight Crime's report on Honduras gangs here (pdf). Read the report in Spanish here (pdf).

As a point of comparison, US federal law defines a "gang" as three or more people who use violence as a means towards a criminal end. In Honduras, the lack of a clear legal definition means that under the law, those who have been formally initiated into the gang are technically treated the same as those who are suspected collaborators.

These collaborators -- often including youthful recruits, young children, women, and sometimes the elderly -- perform many key tasks for the gangs, but, as noted, the gangs themselves do not see them as "gang members."

Within the Barrio 18 and the MS13, youths between the ages of 6 and 14 are often recruited to work as "banderas" -- lookouts responsible for alerting gangs of any unusual activity in the neighborhood, such as a rival gang's presence. Sometimes banderas will be given other tasks, such as transporting drugs and weapons, collecting extortion payments, and shadowing the police or crime scenes. While important tasks, these banderas are not part of the gangs. 

The girlfriends of gang members will also frequently carry out these types of activities. Family members may also carry messages for the gangs, or stash weapons and drugs on their behalf. 

SEE ALSO:  Barrio 18 News and Profiles

Other collaborators may include drug dealers who supply the gangs with product to sell in urban neighborhoods. The MS13, in particular, relies on a wide network of small-time dealers -- known as "mulas" -- who transport and sell drugs for them. But they are not considered part of the gang. The Barrio 18 and MS13 are also known to have networks of lawyers, taxi drivers, and mechanics who help them. 

To be sure, core members are only those who have undergone the initiation ritual known as the "brinco" -- which in English literally means to be "jumped" into the gang. This ritual usually involves undergoing a severe beating for a set period of time, but may involve other tasks, such as murdering one or more people. 16-01-05-honduras-gangs-in-honduras-cover

Read full report in English (pdf), in Spanish (pdf)

In most cases, the Barrio 18 and MS13 will only invite someone to undergo this initiation ritual if they have already spent years of working as a dedicated, loyal collaborator to the gang. However, some types of collaborators, including the MS13 "mula" drug dealers, will never be invited to undergo this ritual. 

The difference is critical, especially as it relates to public policy. Banderas are mostly still within reach, able to leave the gang in many instances, without evoking the wrath of the gang. However, once the banderas are selected to become what are known as "paisas" in the Barrio 18 structure and what are known as "locos" within the MS13, things change. While they are not yet considered gang members, paisas and locos have more responsibility, and essentially are unable to walk away from gang life at this point, without risking being accused of "disloyalty" and getting killed. 

SEE ALSO:  MS13 News and Profiles

The Honduran government has noted that in response to pressure from the security forces, the gangs have become more selective about which banderas are allowed to move up to the next level of gang hierarchy. In its 2012 report, the government's National Social Prevention, Rehabilitation and Reinsertion Program described this recruitment strategy as "pocos pero locos" -- fewer, but crazier. So while the number of those who have been formally initiated into the gang has grown smaller, the number of gang collaborators may have become larger.

In the end, a clearer understanding of these demarcation points may help authorities know where their interventions -- be they social or prosecutorial in nature -- will have the most impact. It makes little sense, for example, for a bandera to be convicted of being a gang member, and thus face the same punishment meted out to more senior gang members, and de facto ensuring a life of gang involvement.  

Investigations

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

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...

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...

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

The department of Nariño in southwest Colombia is the main coca-producing area in the country and in the world. It is a place scarred by poverty and years of armed conflict between guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups. Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the challenges...

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.

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 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...

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

When violence surged in early 2015 in Guatemala, then-President Otto Pérez Molina knew how to handle the situation: Blame the street gangs. 

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...

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...