Jailed leaders of Barrio 18, one of Central America’s most formidable street gangs, have called for dialogue with the Honduras government.
A handful of M-18 leaders imprisoned in Tamara, 15 miles north of capital city Tegucigalpa, told the AFP, “We want to fix things, through dialogue, as civilized people.” The intended result of the talks, they said, would be to allow members of Barrio 18, also known as M-18, to live without fear of arbitrary arrest or violence from the authorities.
The M-18’s statement coincided with a meeting in El Salvador of the Organization of American States (OAS), intended to discuss citizen security in Central America.
Leaders of the M-18’s main rivals across the region, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, jailed in the same prison, were noncommittal. “We don’t want anything, we’re calm,” one member told AFP.
The call for talks raises a number of questions. The first is whether it is a genuine move to start a dialogue, or an attempt to score a public relations victory. While we can only guess at the gang leaders’ motivations, recent history suggests that pacts involving the two main gangs in Central America are doomed to failure. Negotiations between MS-13 and M-18 in El Salvador, which were facilitated by government officials, resulted in an agreement in February 2010 that was broken with days.
If the offer is legitimate, it raises the question of what is motivating the M-18 leaders: is this a tactic aimed at consolidating their position or avoiding further losses? In other words, are they negotiating from strength or from weakness?
M-18 leaders in the Honduras prison pointed to a recent incident as a motivating factor: seven M-18 members were killed by police in a suburb of the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on May 25. Government officials have said that the deaths were the result of a shootout, while the M-18 figures said that the seven were killed in cold blood. They also accused police of subsequently murdering the mother of one of the victims. This may suggest that the gangs are seeking talks in response to hardline police action against their members, which has spilled over into abuse.
Both the M-18 and MS-13 remain significant menaces in Central America and beyond, but the “mano dura,” or iron fist, policies that have been employed for much of the past decade have caused prison populations around the region to spike. In El Salvador, for example, the number of gang members in jail doubled between 2004 and 2008. Many of those in prison in Honduras are jailed on charges of “illicit association,” which essentially means simply being a member of a gang. The gangs say that this approach to law enforcement makes them constant targets for police harassment, and makes it impossible for them to find a job or otherwise improve their prospects.
It’s also not clear how many members of M-18 the Tamara convicts were speaking for. Some 150 M-18 members are housed in that penitentiary, out of a total membership estimated to reach into the tens of thousands. The gang is spread across two continents and several countries, with a significant presence in the U.S., Mexico, and El Salvador. A M-18 member in another prison backed the call, telling the AFP, “We want to talk, we want to be right with society, that they’ll let us live in peace.”
The call for dialogue is a sign that the gang enjoys, or considers itself to enjoy, a certain degree of legitimacy. Such an appeal for talks with the government would typically be the preserve of an insurgent group with a political program, not a street gang that focuses on drug sales. However, M-18’s size, and its status, along with other gangs, as the only outlet for many poor youths in Central America, mean it is deeply embedded in the fabric of nations like Honduras.