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.