Honduras’ street gangs have evolved over the last decade in response to tough anti-gang laws, focusing on building ties with communities and recruiting fewer but more dedicated members, according to a new report. This could make the fight against the gangs even more difficult.
After Honduras implemented a stringent anti-gang law in 2001, the police estimated that there were some 36,000 gang members in the country. This was likely an overestimate, but it reflected a sense at the time that the gang problem was out of control.
In the late 1990s, Hondurans expelled from the US brought the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 gangs to the Central American country. In contrast to the small-time gangs which had traditionally ruled Honduras’ street corners and were mainly concerned with giving youths a group identity, the “maras” emphasized violence and confrontation with the law. The government responded to this unfamiliar threat by making it a crime to “associate” with gangs. The new law carried stiffer penalties than transgressions like property damage, carrying a gun, or theft.
One of the most visible effects of the anti-gang law was the overstuffing of Honduras’ prisons, as many young men were arrested for “gang association,” often with no evidence other than their facial or body tattoos. And as outlined in a new report from the government’s gang prevention program, one of the less visible effects was a shift in the maras’ modus operandi. This includes a new policy of recruiting fewer people, focusing instead on attracting those with abilities — from a willingness to use violence to general leadership skills — that support gang operations. Simply put, the emphasis now is “pocos, pero locos” — fewer, but crazier.
The study, released last week by the National Social Prevention, Rehabilitation and Reinsertion Program (PNPRRS), counts just 4,728 active gang members in the country, a number based on interviews with current and former members, and police data on the number of active gang members currently in prison. The estimate supposedly only counts active, full-time members, as opposed to the youths who are entry-level recruits.
The report describes three levels of membership below “full time” recruits: “sympathizers,” used to describe minors who observe gangs in their communities, “applicants,” or youths who do basic errands such as acting as look-outs, and “novices,” who are formally applying to become part of the gang.
[Click here to enlarge InSight Crime’s diagram of the six levels of leadership in Honduras’ gangs.]
A failure to distinguish between these levels probably contributed to the police’s inflated estimate of 36,000 gang members in 2001. And it’s likely that the reinsertion program’s estimate is an underestimate.
Most gang activity is still concentrated in Honduras’ largest cities, especially capital Tegucigalpa and San Pedro de Sula. But partly due to the anti-gang law, more gang activity has migrated from these urban centers to smaller cities, including the port cities of La Ceiba and Puerto Cortez, and areas with no prior history of gang presence, like the small towns of Danli and El Paraiso.
This migration away from the biggest urban centers is part of the maras’ strategy to lower their profile, the government report argues. And other smaller gangs have formed their own survival strategy: one group, the Mara-61, has become the “armed wing” of the international drug cartels that operate in the northern Colon department, the report states. (Notably, Colon is also home to one of Honduras’ most prominent land conflicts, in the Bajo Aguan valley).
The balance of power between the warring MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs is nearly equal in Honduras’ largest and most violent cities, according to the reinsertion program’s estimates. Some 1,344 members of MS-13 are battling 1,242 members of Barrio 18 in San Pedro de Sula, and 480 members of Barrio 18 are pitted against 408 members of MS-13 in Tegucigalpa.
Looking at the micro-neighborhoods that each gang unit, or “clica,” reportedly controls inside these cities helps explain some of Honduras’ current violence dynamics. Barrio 18 alone is thought to have a presence in 21 sub-neighborhoods of San Pedro de Sula, the hemisphere’s most violent city (below, a look at some of the broader swathes of territory that the maras are thought to to dominate in the city).
As the map indicates, each “clica” is based in a specific neighborhood, and is supposed to specialize in different kinds of operations, as dictated by the regional gang body, known as the “meeting.” One clica may specialize in the drug trade, another in procuring weapons, another in carrying out assassinations.
The reinsertion program argues that, thanks in part to pressure from the government’s anti-gang law, over the past decade clicas have prioritized building ties in the barrios where they are based. According to the report, clicas often choose to carry out violent crimes like robberies, car jackings, or murders in other neighborhoods, with the permission of the clica based there. As a result, the local clica is not seen as contributing to insecurity in their barrio.
Instead, the clicas are frequently seen as supporting families in their barrios, lending cash to those facing shortages in basic supplies like food and medicine, the report states. And family members in gangs receive other benefits: clicas will pay the hospital bills for injured recruits, and have even hired legal counsel for those facing time in prison. Jailed gang members receive care packages from their clicas, who also provide economic support for their families. This pool of cash is collected from the earnings that clicas make from extortion, drug trafficking, and robberies.
Providing this kind of support for their recruits explains why, for many Hondurans, joining either the MS-13 or Barrio 18 is seen as a good investment. In return, the clicas demand unquestioning loyalty for those able to rise high enough and become full-time gang members. This partly explains why the gangs have the incentive to react so aggressively towards those who disobey the clica orders, or those who try to desert. As part of their revised modus operandi, the maras can offer a loyal, alternative family for their members, but anyone perceived as questioning that power dynamic is eliminated, and quickly. The report argues that much of the current violence afflicting Honduras is as a result of gangs enforcing this discipline.
But arguably, if the government hadn’t criminalized even the most superficial association with gangs, it wouldn’t have become necessary for the MS-13 and Barrio 18 to enforce such strict policies. Because the anti-gang law made it difficult for gangs to operate openly in large numbers, gang leaders responded by becoming pickier about who could join a gang, and offered greater benefits to the “good soldiers” who managed to do so, as well as the communities that tolerated gang presence. The other, unintended result is that it became more strategically important for gangs to defend their micro-territory, and kill off those perceived as disloyal.
This revision in the maras’ modus operandi could make it even tougher for the government to get at the root of the gang problem: more than ever, clicas are seen as providing more benefits for local youths than the state. This can hardly be described as a victory for the Honduran government, 11 years after the anti-mara law was first approved.