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Gang Violence and Security in Central America

Eleven experts provide a complete, objective assessment of mara gang violence in Central America.

December 2011
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319 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 figure, 7 charts, 7 tables |

Sensational headlines have publicized the drug trafficking, brutal violence, and other organized crime elements associated with Central America's mara gangs, but there have been few clear-eyed analyses of the history, hierarchies, and future of the mara phenomenon. The first book to look specifically at the Central American gang problem by drawing on the perspectives of researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds, Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America provides much-needed insight.

These essays trace the development of the gangs, from Mara Salvatrucha to the 18th Street Gang, in Los Angeles and their spread to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua as the result of members' deportation to Central America; there, they account for high homicide rates and threaten the democratic stability of the region. With expertise in areas ranging from political science to law enforcement and human rights, the contributors also explore the spread of mara violence in the United States. Their findings comprise a complete documentation that spans sexualized violence, case studies of individual gangs, economic factors, varied responses to gang violence, the use of intelligence gathering, the limits of state power, and the role of policy makers.

Raising crucial questions for a wide readership, these essays are sure to spark productive international dialogues.


AAUP Book, Jacket and Journal Show: Honors:Jackets & Covers

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction (Thomas Bruneau)
  • Part I. Case Studies
    • Chapter 1. The Origins of Southern California Latino Gangs (Al Valdez)
    • Chapter 2. Street Gangs of El Salvador (Sonja Wolf)
    • Chapter 3. Street Gangs of Guatemala (Elin Cecilie Ranum)
    • Chapter 4. Street Gangs of Honduras (Joanna Mateo)
    • Chapter 5. Street Gangs of Nicaragua (José Luis Rocha (translated from the Spanish by Michael Solis))
  • Part II. Responses to Gang Violence
    • Chapter 6. State Power and Central American Maras: A Cross-national Comparison (Enrique Desmond Arias)
    • Chapter 7. Government Responses and the Dark Side of Gang Suppression in Central America (José Miguel Cruz)
    • Chapter 8. Elite Membership and Sexualized Violence among Central American Gangs (Mauricio Rubio (translated from the Spanish by Michael Solis))
    • Chapter 9. The Use of Intelligence to Combat Maras (Clifford Gyves)
    • Chapter 10. The Impact of U.S. Anti-gang Policies in Central America: Quo Vadis? (Florina Cristiana Matei)
  • Conclusion: The Dilemma of Fighting Gangs in New Democracies (Thomas Bruneau and Lucía Dammert)
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • List of Acronyms
  • Bibliography
  • About the Contributors
  • Index

Thomas C. Bruneau is Distinguished Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Lucía Dammert is Executive Director of the Global Consortium on Security Transformation.

Elizabeth Skinner is the think tank coordinator at NATO's Allied Command Transformation.


A common image of Central America in the popular media, both within the region and beyond, shows tattooed young men being hauled off to prison after having murdered a similarly tattooed young man from a rival gang. This shocking depiction of the murdered and their murderers, familiar to cities in most of Central America and several in North America, is frightening not only because of the violence itself but also because of some media reports that link the most violent gangs, called maras, to organized crime and suggest ties to international terrorism. Government policies seeking to crush or suppress the maras are politically popular in most Central American countries, as are mass deportation of illegal immigrants from the United States, including alleged gang members. With an average of 53 homicides per 100,000 people, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are among the most dangerous countries in the world.


This book covers the two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (now commonly known as MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang (Calle Dieciocho or Barrio 18), which originated in Los Angeles and have become the most important gangs in most of Central America. It does not specifically examine the other regional and local pandillas, or street gangs, aside from the pandillas in Nicaragua, nor does it include the huge number of gangs, including Hispanic gangs, within the United States. Except as they interact with the maras, the book also does not address in any detail the related, but separate, themes of organized crime. This is an important point, because this distinction is too frequently overlooked in some of the popular literature, as well as in much of the political rhetoric. Having said that, it is clear that in Guatemala and Honduras the maras are used as an instrument, or a scapegoat, by organized crime. The differences in relationships between the maras and organized crime become obvious in the chapters on El Salvador, where organized crime is not even mentioned, and Guatemala, where the maras, while constituting a public security challenge, are basically cannon fodder for the far more powerful organized crime syndicates.


The book consists of two main sections, all of which are based on primary research. The first consists of case studies on the four major Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, plus Los Angeles, California, where the main contemporary gangs in Central America originated. The five authors utilize a variety of methodologies and diverse and rich sources in describing and analyzing the dynamics of gang formation and development in each of their cases. The second section is yet more eclectic. It includes a chapter by José Miguel Cruz that compares different gang dynamics, and in particular the response to mano dura policies in Central America, and another chapter, by Enrique Desmond Arias, comparing Central American experiences with gangs to experiences in the Caribbean and South America. Mauricio Rubio's chapter is focused on Central America, including Costa Rica and Panama, and describes the responses to a standardized self-reporting questionnaire. While none of the case studies nor the comparative chapters focus specifically on security, the challenges to security are a fundamental theme in all of them and provide the rationale for policies formulated by political leaders that are severely criticized by the authors in all countries except Nicaragua. The concern with security is the basis for Clifford Gyves's chapter on the use of intelligence to combat the gangs and is the fundamental reason for U.S. interest in the topic and the region, as discussed in Cristiana Matei's chapter. Thus, while security is not explicitly examined in any of the chapters, the concern with security in fact underlies the whole book.


Before going further, it is important to answer two questions: what exactly is a mara, and what makes the maras different from other street gangs? Throughout this volume, the authors take care to distinguish between the maras and other types of street gangs, known in Spanish as pandillas. Technically, the term "mara" refers specifically to the gangs known as MS-13 and 18th Street, and their affiliates throughout the Western Hemisphere. As Al Valdez describes in Chapter 1, MS-13 began as a Los Angeles barrio gang called Mara Salvatrucha, made up of young Salvadoran immigrants whose parents had fled their country's brutal civil war in the 1980s. While the exact derivation of the name is unclear, "mara" apparently signifies a fierce, tenacious type of Central American ant, "salva" stands for El Salvador, while "trucha" is something like "reliable and alert" in Salvadoran slang.


The burgeoning trade in marijuana and cocaine from Latin America, along with competition for turf, drove a spiral of escalating, unprecedented violence in the 1990s between rival gangs on the streets of Los Angeles. A major shift took place around this time, when many Mara Salvatrucha clicas (neighborhood groups or cells) allied with the notorious Mexican Mafia prison gang, which controlled a significant portion of the cross-border drug trade. It was at this time that the number "13" was added to the initials "MS" ("M" is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet) and came to signify affiliation with these extraordinarily dangerous Southern California gangs. The U.S. policy of mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, instigated in part as a response to these developments, helped spread both MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang to Central America, where the local gang cultures quickly adapted to the California mara style.


The use of violence is probably the most defining characteristic of the maras. Indeed, their unique vocabularies emphasize brutality and criminal activity, while initiation, ascension into leadership positions, and discipline are all based on potentially fatal violence. Researchers estimate that gang members on average do not reach thirty years of age. As part of the ascension process, new members eventually have to kill a person, for no other reason than to show they can. The implication of this is that once a gang member has killed another, be he from a rival clica or some other group, the killer is marked and can never leave the gang. Gang initiation rites, which involve merciless beatings, can be fatal. Women are initiated either through beatings or forced sex with some or all the male members of the clica. The maras fight very frequently, not only against the authorities but also against each other, for control of turf and markets, especially to sell drugs.


Street gangs typically are loosely organized and highly localized; leadership changes frequently, and activities revolve around drug sales, petty crime, and turf battles. The maras, unlike most other street gangs, have shown a tendency in recent years to organize in a more traditionally hierarchical manner and to coordinate their criminal activities not only across the United States but also across North and Central America. They show no restraint in their use of violence, both against rivals and within their own organizations to maintain internal order. Recent reports suggest that the maras are becoming involved in cross-border human and arms trafficking, as well as the entrenched drug trade, with some suggesting that factions of MS-13 are evolving to resemble an organized crime syndicate more than a street gang. As José Miguel Cruz points out in Chapter 7, unlike in the United States where strong legal institutions have kept the maras largely in check, weak governments, narrowly punitive policy choices, and a widespread cultural tolerance of extrajudicial violence have allowed the maras to essentially run amok in Guatemala, El Salvador, and especially Honduras, to the point that they challenge the state's ability to govern. Although there is little evidence that the maras have anything to do with foreign terrorist groups, their association with drug cartels may be contributing to the uncontrolled violence in Mexico's border cities and elsewhere.


This introduction first establishes the political and socioeconomic context within which the maras have emerged and expanded to become a major concern for security both within and beyond the Central America region. It then highlights some of the main themes regarding the maras and links the chapters in the book to these main themes. The primary goal of this book is to provide as complete and objective an assessment as possible of the nature and scope of the mara issue in Central America. The coeditors of this volume therefore sought to assemble a group of experts who could bring credible, objective research and write with authority on their assigned topic. Major differences in the nature of the threat to security among the countries of Central America, and their governments' responses, led the editors to spend a great deal of time and effort on identifying and recruiting these experts, who come from a range of disciplines and methodological backgrounds. What currently exists on gangs in the English-language media is overwhelmingly sensationalist. Some of this reporting comes through police officers and institutions that have concrete, and subjective, reasons for portraying the maras as even more of a security threat than they may actually be. Such reporting tends not to distinguish between the very different experiences of gang activity from one country to another or the disparate responses by state institutions to the maras, or to consider the implications of these responses for the maras and security. Scholarly literature in English on the topic unfortunately is almost nonexistent, which means that this unreliable media reporting is given far more weight than it deserves. The literature in Spanish is somewhat more balanced, but as is discussed later in this introduction, and at greater length in Mauricio Rubio's chapter on gang violence (Chapter 8), most writing on gangs has serious problems of methodology. Furthermore, virtually none of the literature, in English or Spanish, deals adequately with the very different contexts that might help explain why the situation in Nicaragua, for example, is so different from that in the other three northern Central American countries. An exception is the work of José Luis Rocha, one of our distinguished contributors, who has researched and written extensively about the consequences of these disparities.


Another fundamental problem that has become clear during the course of this project is that the ways in which governments arrive at "official estimates" of the numbers of gang members in their countries are completely arbitrary. There is no standardized, realistic basis for estimating gang membership or the total number of gang clicas. In El Salvador, for example, the estimate of 17,000 gang members nationwide is based solely on those who have been imprisoned at one time or another. Worse, Honduras derives its estimate somewhat bizarrely from a reading of gang graffiti multiplied by some factor or other. If these most basic numbers are not reliable, how can any analysis of gang operations and their impact offer a sound basis for policy making? Since the early 1990s, researchers have attempted to overcome the paucity of useful data from official sources by going directly to the gangs themselves and conducting both direct observation and self-report surveys of gang members. Several of these surveys are carried out on a regular basis by prestigious organizations such as the Instituto de Estudios Comparados en Ciencias Penales de Guatemala (Guatemalan Institute for Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences), Vanderbilt University, the Asociación de Investigación y Estudios Sociales (Association for Research and Social Studies), and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Not only do these anthropological methods involve serious risks for the researcher that may in themselves skew the results, but there is every reason to assume that many respondents are lying, to make themselves look good and/or to intentionally mislead authorities. This fundamental and widely recognized issue of problematic methodologies is highlighted in several of this volume's chapters, including those by Sonja Wolf, Elin Ranum, Joanna Mateo, Mauricio Rubio, and Cristiana Matei. Clifford Gyves, in his contribution on the application of U.S. intelligence techniques to gangs (Chapter 9), echoes the argument made by these authors—that government officials must make the systematic collection and analysis of information a priority in any strategy to deal with the maras. At a minimum, this book recommends that a different methodology, possibly a social network analysis such as EgoNet, would likely prove more promising for studying these unique organizations.


First, however, this introduction outlines some general contextual factors regarding maras that are roughly similar across Central America, before turning to the variations analyzed in the chapters on specific countries.


Socioeconomic Development and Democratic Consolidation in the Region


The main countries in Central America (with the exceptions of Belize and Costa Rica) are "new democracies."7 Until the mid-1990s they were all under some form of nondemocratic rule in which the armed forces, along with other security bodies, supported the authoritarian governments and prevented any opposition within the general population from organizing and mobilizing. Not surprisingly, various groups came into violent conflict with these repressive regimes; in the case of Nicaragua, for example, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took power through a revolutionary insurgency against the country's right-wing dictatorship in 1979. Throughout the 1980s, with support from the Soviet Union via Cuba, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador was engaged in a vicious internal conflict with the authoritarian government. Several armed opposition movements fought one another and the violently repressive, junta-led regime in Guatemala for thirty-six years, with a disastrous loss of life.


With the end of the Cold War, and the separate but interrelated dynamics of conflict in each country (the defeat of the Salvadoran insurgents' "final offensive" in November 1989, the electoral defeat of Nicaragua's FSLN in 1990, and the ultimate victory in 1996 of the Guatemalan Army), relative peace became possible across all of Central America. Furthermore, in all but Honduras, which did not experience the same revolutionary polarization and armed conflict as the others, the peace processes were brokered by the United Nations, with various types of support from other countries. In all cases, the negotiations included measures to establish electoral democracies.


In a recent Congressional Research Service report on economic and social indicators, all four Central American countries under consideration in this book are classified as "lower middle income." Gross national income per capita (in U.S. dollars) covers a wide range: El Salvador, $2,850; Guatemala, $2,440; Honduras, $1,600; and Nicaragua, $980. (Within the region, only Haiti is designated "low income," with an average per capita income of $560 before the January 2010 earthquake. Now of course, that figure is much lower.) The United Nations Human Development Reports aggregate various measures of health, education, and access to economic opportunity and then ranks all countries according to how well they meet these basic needs; the lower the number, the more developed the society. Data collected in 2007 rank the four Central American countries in the "medium human development" category as follows: El Salvador, 106—a sharp decline of five places since the last report, following a slight earlier rise; Guatemala, 122—down from 121 two years before and 118 four years before; Honduras, 112—an improvement of three places after steady decline over the previous four years; and Nicaragua, 124—showing the steepest decline, from 110 and 120 in earlier reports. (For comparative purposes, the United States is number 13 and Niger is in last place at number 182. Pre-earthquake Haiti was at 149, while Panama at 60 and Costa Rica at 54 are the only two Central American countries in the "high human development" category.) In short, these are lower-income countries with correspondingly inadequate levels of economic and social development. Another source highlights the low level of socioeconomic development in a different way.


In addition to their political and socioeconomic problems, these societies face other "vulnerabilities" that have been outlined in an influential UN report specifically focused on crime and its negative impact on development in the region. The report begins by highlighting what its researchers consider the main vulnerabilities: geography; demographic, social, and economic conditions; weak criminal justice systems; the region's long history of conflict and authoritarianism; and population displacement and deportation. There is general agreement in the literature on these vulnerabilities, and they can serve as a useful way to organize or highlight problems in the region, with implications for the emergence of gangs. While based on credible and comprehensive data, however, the report nonetheless has a major, and common, flaw in that it fails to differentiate between the countries regarding the implications of these vulnerabilities. The country studies in this volume show that the challenges posed by violence and the maras vary in extremely important ways from country to country. The authors' analyses of the responses by governments to the maras problem underscore the different causes of the highly complicated maras phenomenon and the outcomes of government strategies toward them. What this UN report does provide for our purposes is a sketch of the background of conditions in the region, against which this volume's chapters organize and highlight specific problems, issues, and ideas.


The Problems of Geography


The UN report begins with the observation that Central America's vulnerability to crime is due to its "misfortune of being placed between drug supply and drug demand." Many scholars agree that there is a direct link between drug trafficking and criminal violence. Michael Shifter, president at the Inter-American Dialogue, a widely cited think tank for Western Hemispheric studies, represents the view that drug trafficking is responsible for the region's increase in violence: "The politically motivated violence that wracked Central America in the 1980s has been replaced by burgeoning criminality at many levels, including transnational and local, much of it a product of illegal drug trafficking." In addition to drug trafficking, Central America's proximity to the United States makes it a natural corridor as well for the trafficking of firearms and people. The geographical explanation hinges on the extreme disparity of wealth between the United States and Central America. The amount of money to be made in the U.S. black market, by bringing drugs and people in and sending weapons out, increases violent crime because its participants do not resolve their differences through standard nonviolent mechanisms (i.e. courts of law). Additionally, combating illicit trade diverts limited criminal justice resources from the deterrence of violent crime.


Demographic, Social, and Economic Vulnerabilities


The UN study notes demographic links to crime. According to the report, "Most street crime is committed by young men between the ages of 15 and 24, often against their peers. The higher the share this demographic group comprises of the population, the greater the number of potential perpetrators and victims in the society, all other things being equal." Violent crime is often attributed to economic factors as well. The report states, "Studies of the correlates of crime have found that the distribution of wealth in a society is actually more significant than raw poverty in predicting violence levels. It has been argued that stark wealth disparities provide criminals with both a justification (addressing social injustice) and an opportunity (wealth to steal) for their activities."


A Limited Capacity for Criminal Justice


The report's third reason for extremely high crime rates focuses on the Central American governments' inability to enforce compliance with the law: "The citizenry, large portions of which may have traditionally regarded the law enforcement apparatus as the enemy, also needs time to learn to trust and cooperate with those charged with protecting them. Lingering suspicions teamed with transitional hiccoughs may strain this trust relationship. Corruption can derail it altogether."


The justice and morality void left by state corruption and incapacity is often filled by vigilantes, gangs, and other local power brokers. Not always content to merely lord over their respective areas, these modern-day caudillos, or strongmen, often push out violently into new territory, resulting in clashes with the state. Where the state tries to co-opt these actors, its legitimacy is called into question and the rule of law is reduced to an arbitrary standard of local preferences. The battles between the drug cartels, especially in Guatemala, and the "ethnic cleansing" seen in Guatemala and Honduras are widely perceived to somehow involve the sufferance of some level of the state.


Displacement and Deportation


A significant Central American diaspora of generally extremely poor refugees reached the United States (where they were not recognized as refugees in legal terms) after fleeing from the Central American civil wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. According to the UN report, "There is a widely held belief in both Central America and the Caribbean that recent crime troubles can be tied directly to criminal deportees." Many policy makers in Central America claim that the deportation of large groups of illegal immigrants from the United States, many with criminal backgrounds, overwhelms their justice capacity and further destabilizes the region. (While Cris Matei specifically addresses this issue in Chapter 10, other contributing authors and the editors do not find convincing empirical support for this perception from the available data.)


A History of Conflict and Authoritarianism


The report includes psychological trauma, warlike mind-set, weak state capacity and legitimacy, and police militarization as legacies of the Central American civil wars. It suggests that "violence can become 'normalized' in communities where many people were exposed to brutality, and may be tacitly accepted as a legitimate way of settling disputes, particularly where the state continues to be viewed as incompetent, corrupt, or biased." Support for this perception can be found in the research for several chapters in this book.


With data organized in the five categories outlined above, the UN report attempts to capture and explain broad aspects of the Central American crime problem, but it does not analyze cross-country variations in the manifestation of violence or the possible causes of violent crime. Rather, the result is a list of conditions that contribute to the problem of violence in general, without any attempt to account for the variations across different countries. Nevertheless, with the addition of the two factors mentioned earlier—the fragility of new democratic institutions and chronically low socioeconomic development—it is possible to begin to comprehend the context within which criminal activity, including that promoted by the pandillas and maras, takes place and, in these problematic societies, the seriousness of the challenge it poses. The main thrust of this book, however, is to seek factors that can explain variations in the emergence and impact of the maras throughout Central America and the implications of those variations for security.


Emergence of Gangs in Central America


As Cruz notes in Chapter 7, one foreign researcher, Heidrun Zinecker, proposed a useful characterization of postwar Salvadoran security policies, consisting of three strategic phases. The first phase was a transition period, in which new institutions of public security were established, and little or no attention was paid to issues of crime and gangs. In the second phase, criminal violence and gangs came into the spotlight of the public security institutions, and some scattered measures and reforms and counterreforms were enacted to tackle the growing problem of crime. As Zinecker argued, these measures laid the groundwork for the repressive policies to come. The third stage in the evolution of security policies was characterized by the enactment of repressive, indiscriminately applied security policies with tough-sounding names such as "zero tolerance" and "mano dura" (heavy hand). Cruz observes that these plans were modeled to some degree on the zero-tolerance policies of large U.S. cities like New York and encouraged by U.S. law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, which were working with Central American governments to control crime. Although these heavy-handed security policies are regarded not only as failures but actually as counterproductive in all three of the countries where they were implemented (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), none of these countries has developed a new policy despite changes of government in both El Salvador and Honduras in 2009.


Diverse Experiences with the Gangs in Central America


Much about the variability of the gang situation in Central America is conveyed in Table I.2. For instance, there are far fewer gang members in Nicaragua than in the other three countries, and neither of the maras—MS-13 or 18th Street—is found in that chronically poor, conflict-ridden country. In addition, Nicaragua is seen to be significantly different from the other three countries in its homicide rate. Also clear from the table is that El Salvador's incarceration rate for gang members is extremely high relative to the rates in Guatemala and Honduras.


There is much that is disturbing, even shocking, about the maras. The National Civilian Police in El Salvador (known by the Spanish acronym "PNC") report that maras are involved in illicit drug sales, extortion, prostitution, homicide, and the illegal movement of drugs, people, and arms across borders. In fact, these criminal activities are very similar to those described by Al Valdez in Chapter 1 on the evolution of the maras in Los Angeles. According to interviews with officials, extortion is the most common and regular source of funds for most of the maras in most of the Central American countries.21 They increasingly arm their members with heavier weapons, including M-16s and AK-47s. Members define themselves in contrast to the rest of society and other gangs by wearing unique tattoos, using their own symbols and graffiti, and communicating through a bizarre language and hand signals. Each mara clica has its own elaborate internal rules as to when a gang member can fight, what the punishment will be for certain behaviors, and what is required if a fellow clica member is killed.


Elin Ranum, in her chapter on maras in Guatemala (Chapter 3), describes in convincing detail both the push and pull factors that cause young people to join a mara, despite the knowledge that the most likely way out is through an early death. To her more general explanation, Rubio (in Chapter 8) adds a unique and disturbing perspective regarding the attraction of the combination of power and sex that only those very close to, or involved in, the maras could begin to debunk with any credibility. If the causes of mara membership were due only to socioeconomic factors, however, Nicaragua would be at the top of the list of Central American countries in terms of mara membership, yet as José Luis Rocha clearly details in Chapter 5, it ranks at the bottom for very specific reasons.


Indeed, what stands out clearly in Table I.2 are the differences between Nicaragua and the other countries of this study. Nicaragua has a large number of pandillas but relatively little violence, and neither MS-13 nor 18th Street has gained a foothold in the country. Rocha deals specifically with the factors that make Nicaragua, despite a lower level of socioeconomic development than that of the other three countries, less vulnerable to violence and the influence of the maras. For instance, he notes that most Nicaraguan immigrants to the United States in the 1980s tended to be from the middle and upper classes and, instead of going to Los Angeles, went to Costa Rica and Miami, where they were embraced as refugees by the Ronald Reagan administration. Thus, their children were far less vulnerable to gang culture than their poor, undocumented Salvadoran counterparts in Los Angeles. Rocha also calls attention to Nicaragua's low population density, which meant that plenty of state-owned land could be given away to demobilized militia and insurgent fighters. This option was not available in El Salvador and Guatemala. Finally, unlike its neighbors, Nicaragua carried out an effective disarmament campaign that destroyed the large majority of weapons used in the country's civil war.


Even more important to Nicaragua's atypical experience with gangs, however, are political and security factors such as the continuing relationship between the revolutionary party—the FSLN—and Nicaragua's military and police forces after the party lost power in 1990. Rocha notes, "As a result [of this unique relationship], Nicaraguan society's relations with the state's security apparatuses are less tense and more legitimate in comparison with those in the north of Central America, where there are accusations that the military and the police are involved with drug trafficking, interfere with civil powers, and participate in bloody 'social cleansing' operations." The way the security forces later reacted to nascent gangs also was completely different from the response in the other countries, as Rocha observes: "The guerrilla origin of the National Police was a determining element in the treatment of gangs. Differing from their Central American counterparts, who have advocated stigmatizing gang activity as organized violence, the higher officials of the Nicaraguan police saw young gangsters as new rebels who were experimenting with social and generational conflict [rather than as threats to citizen security]."


Rocha's analysis directs our attention to the role of deportation from the United States, particularly from Southern California, in both stimulating and sustaining the mara phenomenon in Central America. The gang problem in Los Angeles, as noted earlier, is extraordinarily pervasive and violent. The transnational reach of the maras, their involvement in the trafficking of contraband, and the burgeoning number of homicides due to gang violence raise very serious issues about security, not only in Central America but also in the United States. If Los Angeles, with a sound legal system and an extremely rigorous and well-funded penal system, cannot stem the tide of gang violence, how can anybody expect that a small and poor country in Central America could do any better? In their country studies for this book, Wolf, Ranum, and Mateo take a critical look at the effect of deportations on El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, respectively. Although the United States still deports some 25,000 persons per year back to El Salvador and 30,000 back to Honduras, none of these authors credits deportations as the key factor in the ongoing growth of Central American maras. The initial wave of deportations in the mid-1990s unquestionably influenced the dynamic and style of the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang as they emerged in the region, but those and subsequent deportations are not the reason gangs have taken such a hold on these societies.


Diverse Responses to Gangs


The different ways in which the Central American nations have responded to street gangs can best be understood by exploring how each government has chosen to define and confront challenges to public security. Rocha's analysis in Chapter 5 emphasizes the important differences in how Nicaraguan society views gang activity and makes policy to deal with it. "National security," or more precisely, the security of the nation-state, refers to safeguarding the state's sovereignty over the territory and population within its borders and implies that the state should have policies to confront threats to that sovereignty. "Public security" connotes the maintenance of civil order necessary for basic societal functions (for example, commerce, transportation, and communications) and the rule of law. Finally, "citizen security" refers to the capacity of individuals and groups to exercise their political, economic, and civil rights. Given the problematic level of democratic consolidation in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the maras could threaten, and indeed are demonized publicly as threats to, all three levels of security. Citizens in some neighborhoods cannot go about their lives without fear of being robbed or killed. Businesses, mainly shops and transport providers, are prevented from operating unless they pay off the maras. Whole sections of cities, such as Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa, are under the control of maras, which fight each other over their turfs. The resultant expansion of private security forces and vigilante and paramilitary groups further undermines the state's credibility and thus its flexibility in making policies to tackle the problem.


In Chapter 9, Clifford Gyves discusses the potential contribution that effective intelligence could make toward dealing with the maras threat. As noted earlier, solid knowledge about the maras in the scholarly and policy literature remains distressingly thin. Gyves describes in detail how a well-designed and well-implemented intelligence strategy can make a critical difference to both police and policy makers, who have seen that the strategies implemented so far in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras yield ineffective and counterproductive results. Besides being very cost-effective, a properly planned and funded intelligence program that provides credible, real-time information on the maras could also be of tremendous value to both law enforcement and security strategists.


Since 2003 both the Salvadoran and Honduran governments have implemented mano dura legislation, with a very strong emphasis on law enforcement, as their primary policy to curtail the spread of gangs. El Salvador's mano dura policies, inaugurated in 2003 by the administration of President Francisco Flores, called for zero tolerance of gang activity, combined with the use of repressive police tactics to punish criminal behavior. Its follow-up, President Antonio Saca's 2004 Súper Mano Dura, offered more of the same, while increasing the power of the national police to make arrests without evidence of a crime. The legislation is highly subjective regarding the criteria that identify someone as a gang member, leeway that gives the Salvadoran police the authority to question and ultimately arrest young men and women without due process of law. Appearance and social background set the foundation for profiling, even though in many Central American cities, as Rubio notes in Chapter 8, crime and violence are by no means exclusive to the disadvantaged. Ultimately, however, these massive detentions have led to few actual convictions for crimes.


The Honduran government's 2003 Ley Antimaras (Anti-gang Law) mirrored much of what El Salvador already had put into practice with the original Mano Dura law: a strong emphasis on law enforcement based on a subjective interpretation of gang involvement that consequently led to indiscriminate arrests. Both countries' anti-gang legislation also stipulated extremely punitive changes in the legal processing of accused gang members, such as harsh mandatory sentencing and, in El Salvador, trials in adult court even for children as young as twelve years of age. In Honduras, anti-gang legislation stiffened the maximum prison sentence for adults involved in gang activity from twelve to thirty years.


Although Guatemala never formally adopted a mano dura approach, the authorities effectively implemented one in Plan Escoba (Operation Broom) in 2004. As Elin Ranum describes this plan in Chapter 3: "This crackdown strategy consisted merely of the massive and indiscriminate detention of thousands of youths suspected, sometimes rightly and often wrongly, to have some relations to gangs. In the absence of any specific legislation that penalized gang membership, it became common practice among prosecutors to manipulate established judicial norms in their efforts to find legal support for the detentions."


Due to the growing awareness that the mano dura measures were not working, and under domestic and international pressure regarding human rights abuses associated with the policies, all three countries have retreated from them. None of them, however, has to date offered any new strategies to combat the maras. All of the authors in this book agree that the mano dura policies failed to do anything substantive to curtail the maras and instead actually contributed to their strength by putting thousands of disaffected youths in prison alongside hardened gang members. When I interviewed senior police officials in both El Salvador and Honduras in 2008, they stated unequivocally that from the beginning they knew these policies would only make things worse. It is in this context that the chapter by José Miguel Cruz is highly relevant. He deals with the political economy of formulating and implementing countergang strategies and raises the question of whether these nascent democracies can do much beyond implement heavy-handed policies. The population, in no small part thanks to sensational media coverage, is terrorized by street violence, and it is easy for politicians to run, and win, on campaign platforms that commit them to repressive policies. Indeed, senior Salvadoran PNC officials interviewed in 2009, and a wider group of officers and officials interviewed in 2010, invariably could characterize these policies only in the context of electoral politics. Chapter 6, by Enrique Desmond Arias, takes us beyond Central America to demonstrate similarities with other Latin American and Caribbean countries. In the end, we cannot escape the conclusion that any analysis of the rise of gangs, and of organized crime for that matter, must be understood in the context of state formation and state behavior.


Going Forward


While the underlying strategy that emphasizes law enforcement over prevention in El Salvador hasn't changed, the government has developed a tactical institutional mechanism that enables the PNC and elements of the army to jointly combat the maras. Beginning in 1995, Plan Guardian combined members of the PNC with federal soldiers in joint task forces, to maintain order in rural areas where police coverage was spotty. In 2000 the plan was expanded to urban areas where the maras problem was perceived to be critical, under the rubric of joint anti-delinquency task forces. Among the nascent democracies of Central America, the establishment in El Salvador a constitutional basis for the armed forces to support the police in certain circumstances is extremely important. Based on information gathered in interviews in 2008 and 2009 with military officers, police officials, and civilian prison officials, these joint units work fairly well at dissuasion and at keeping the maras under some degree of control. After taking office in May 2009, President Mauricio Funes found himself confronted with a serious rise in gang violence, despite the supposedly positive relationship between his party, the FMLN, and the maras. His only policy innovation so far (as of December 2010) has been to send 10,000 federal troops to the streets for six months to dissuade the maras from violence.


In Guatemala and Honduras, there is no cooperation between the armed forces and the police, mainly because they do not trust each other and thus cannot work together. The military are sporadically sent into the streets by the presidents separately from the police. The impact of this is captured in the first line of a news report: "The government on Wednesday ordered the army to go to the streets to combat violence and the frequent multiple assassinations that have been seen recently in the main cities of Honduras." In interviews with U.S. government officials and local high-level security officials in Guatemala City in July 2007 and in Tegucigalpa in August 2008, they all voiced a common theme concerning the degree of corruption in the national police forces. Indeed, the problem is so serious that PNC officials from El Salvador do not communicate with their Guatemalan counterparts before visiting Guatemala, for fear of assassination.


Along with the joint task forces, El Salvador has implemented another anti-mara policy that helps explain the differences among the countries in the percentage of mara members they have incarcerated. Thanks to an arrangement in place since 2005, the Salvadoran PNC and district attorneys jointly conduct investigations of criminal activities. They have seventy-two hours to decide whether or not they are going to charge a suspect. If they go ahead with prosecution, the suspect goes before one of the eight judges in the country who specialize in gang crimes. If they decide not to prosecute, the suspect is set free. The legal system, and the process for dealing with suspected gang activity, thus are fairly sound; gang members who are convicted go to prison for an average of between ten and thirty years. This is not a solution to the maras problem, however, and there is widespread and growing awareness in El Salvador that no ready solution is presently available, but the combination of the new joint task forces and an improved legal system does, in the view of police and military authorities, keep it a bit more manageable than it had been previously. As one informant on this issue put it, what is different in Guatemala and Honduras is that "there is no follow-through." Indeed, Guatemalan legal expert Javier Monterroso Castillo notes the total lack of effectiveness in his country's criminal proceedings, in which only 2.7 percent of criminal cases result in conviction. He concludes that the criminal investigation system has totally collapsed in Guatemala. Based on interviews in Tegucigalpa in August 2008, the situation in Honduras is little different. Indeed, the data in Table I.2 illustrate this point: of 24,000 known mara members within Honduras, only 800 are imprisoned. In one personal interview with the author, a U.S. government official stated bluntly that there is indeed competition, rather than cooperation, between the Honduran police and the district attorneys.


The obstacles to combating maras go right to the crux of politics and violence, including that carried out by organized crime in the region and supported by corrupt officials and elites. In contrast to the situation in El Salvador, organized crime, with its de facto impunity at all levels, is the overriding issue in Guatemala and Honduras. This point was made again and again during interviews in these two countries, where mareros (gang members) often work as sicarios (hired assassins) for organized crime groups. In El Salvador there is at least a mechanism not only to capture the mareros but also to put them in prison and keep them there. (The Salvadoran government is currently constructing four new prisons, which will hold 6,000 inmates.) Therefore, while capturing mareros and putting them in prison is not a satisfactory solution to the threat of gang crime and violence, as a tactic it works better than the current awful predicament in Guatemala and Honduras.


The topic of the maras is regional—some suggest that it is becoming global. The phenomenon is so diverse that no single discipline or approach could begin to capture it, particularly using standard social science methodology. The editors and authors of this book thus approached this project with the stated intention of setting a standard for research and analysis that would serve as a basis for further study of the maras in both the United States and Central America, as well as for innovative and enlightened policy making.



“Long overdue. . . . This book promises to set a new standard for research analysis of the mara issue with a goal of contributing to more enlightened and innovative policy.”
Donna DeCesare, Associate Professor of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin


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