Appraising Violence in Honduras: How Much is ‘Gang-Related’?

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The relationship between gangs and violence in Honduras is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately discern, but that does not stop authorities from using suspect data to influence public opinion and determine where to deploy their limited resources.

At an event hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last year, for example, Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández said that as much as 80 percent of the violence in his country could be attributed to organized crime (see speech here – pdf).

Other officials repeat these claims. In a 2014 Military Times Op-Ed, General John Kelly, then the head of US Southern Command, said that drug cartels and gangs were largely responsible for the rising violence in the region.

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).

“There are some in officialdom who argue that not 100 percent of the violence today is due to the drug flow to the U.S.,” he wrote about the Northern Triangle nations of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. “And I agree, but I would say that perhaps 80 percent of it is.”

The fact is we do not know how much of the homicides in the Northern Triangle are related to organized crime and gangs. While criminal organizations have undoubtedly proliferated in recent years in Central America, and many homicides are clearly related to their criminal activities, the data used to make such bold statements is both incomplete and very suspect. 

Case of Honduras

Consider the case of gang-related homicides in Honduras. In 2015, according to the National University’s Violence Observatory (pdf), Honduras had a homicide rate of 60 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world. San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ economic center and one of the world’s most violent cities, had a homicide rate of 111 per 100,000. The capital city of Tegucigalpa had a homicide rate of 73 per 100,000, while La Ceiba, the third largest city, had a rate of 105 per 100,000.

These are also the areas where the gangs, in particular the two most prominent, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, have the greatest presence and influence. On the surface, it is clear the gangs’ use of violence — against rivals, civilians, security forces and perceived transgressors within their own ranks — has most likely greatly contributed to these numbers. 

In the psyche of the community, gang-on-gang battles also loom large. In Honduras’ most violent neighborhoods, anecdotal evidence about gang-related murders abounds. This may be partly because gang violence plays out over several months, or even years, and may involve multiple victims killed in public spaces.

When asked to explain this gang-related violence in Honduras, most give a short answer that centers on a single concept: territory. Territory is a useful catchall to describe what motivates the gangs, as it encompasses both the micro and macro levels of this ongoing battle.

At one level, territory is about physical space. Conquering that space grants access to revenue streams, via activities such as extortion and retail drug sales. For instance, the MS13 relies heavily on revenue from local drug peddling. Barrio 18 is increasingly seeking to control this criminal economy, and authorities believe the battle for this market is behind much of the violence in areas the two gangs operate.

But territory can also be a more personal matter. A fight for territory can be a struggle to gain power within a gang, or a show of fortitude with internal or external rivals.

No Hard Data 

Official statistics only hint at how much of the violence the government believes is really gang-related. The National University’s Violence Observatory, the government’s official stat-keeper, says that only five percent of all the homicides in 2015 were “related to maras/soccer hooligans.” (In its analysis of the media, it could only attribute 1.7 percent of the murders in 2015 to gangs.) Data from previous years have similar analyses and percentages.

Determining what motivates the gangs to violence is difficult in the best of circumstances. In Honduras, it is made more difficult because of unreliable data, the limited number of judicial cases, and holes in government intelligence. Using the best available data on the most reliable proxy — homicides — as well as qualitative research, one can only theorize about the extent of violence and how it relates to gang activity in the country.

The notion of which gang is more violent is also subject to widespread speculation and hearsay. The general perception is that the Barrio 18 is more violent than the MS13. Proxies, however, show no difference between the two gangs in terms of violence in their neighborhoods.

For a report on gangs in Honduras, for example, InSight Crime examined homicide statistics for Tegucigalpa over a five-year period between 2008 and 2013, and compared them to areas where the two gangs are believed to be predominant. However, we found little correlation was found between the number of homicides and which gang controlled a particular area. Barrio 18 areas had more total homicides, but in both Barrio 18 and MS13 areas, there was an average of 11 homicides per area over that five-year period.

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Download full report – pdf

This data is hardly conclusive. It presumes there is a correlation between homicides and gang presence, and that homicides in those areas can be tied to the gang that controls that area, something that is not always true. But it also does not bolster the argument that Barrio 18 is more violent than the MS13.

Criminal Dynamics and Homicides

While the data is scarce and inconclusive, there is a good bit of logic that goes into these perceptions about violence in Honduras. Returning to the question of which gang is more violent, for example, there is certainly a criminal dynamic at play that makes it seem as if Barrio 18 is the more predatory and violent of the country’s two main gangs.

Specifically, it is important to note that Barrio 18 is a subsistence-based criminal group. The most important operational aspect of Barrio 18 is controlling territory, relying much more on micro-extortion — targeting the street vendor, corner store, or the local mechanic — than the MS13 does. The gang does this by establishing security rings, maintaining a formidable arsenal, and inflicting violent punishment on rivals, those who cross it, and, frequently, its own members. This violence and focus on extorting local businesses puts them at odds with the community.

In contrast, the MS13 is more focused on controlling the local drug trade, which has given it more revenue. As such, whether the gang is protecting itself or moving into new territory, MS13-related violence is frequently associated with controlling the local drug market. Additionally, unlike Barrio 18, the MS13 does not prey on its immediate neighbors, focusing instead on macro-level extortion involving larger companies, typically taxi and bus transport collectives. This has permitted it to construct a more positive image, accumulate political and social capital in its areas of influence, and establish themselves as the “protectors” of their areas.

Both gangs, however, continue to evolve, which will likely shape the nature and scale of “gang-related” violence into the future. Barrio 18, for instance, is attempting to gain more control of the drug peddling business, something that appears to be behind much of the violence between the gangs. Lately, the MS13 appears to be taking its drug trafficking activities to a whole new level — such as controlling the wholesale drug market — prompting suggestions the gang has set its sights on becoming a more sophisticated criminal operation.

Ultimately, while it is impossible to determine with precision how much violence the gangs are responsible for, what is clear is that much of the rise in homicides in Honduras is related to gang activity. The gangs’ fight for territory — and the prestige and revenue that come with it — is at the heart of these battles. 

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