WASHINGTON, D.C. – The day after a fire raged through an overcrowded Honduran prison, killing 350 inmates – most of them awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members – two top experts on the subject briefed a U.S. audience on the roots of Central America’s mushrooming gang problem.
Tom Bruneau and Samuel Logan spoke Feb. 15 at an Inter-American Dialogue event moderated by Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank.
“It’s not clear, however horrible this fire was, that it’s going to be acatalyst for some great change,” Shifter said. “One would hope that as these tragedies mount, there’s an awareness that this can’t continue, and that the viability of these countries is on the line.”
He added: “Certainly the current policy is not producing results. It’s not that everything the United States does is wrong, but it doesn’t get at the real, fundamental problem. To do that requires a much greater effort and more resources, and [it] needs to be higher on the agenda.”
Regional security analysts say Central America is plagued by the presence of 70,000-100,000 gang members, with particularly high concentrations in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – the three countries that together comprise the so-called Northern Triangle.
But exact numbers are difficult to come by, Bruneau said, partly because published numbers are totally arbitrary, there’s no methodology for calculating the size of gangs, and because “you can’t believe a word the pandilleros [gang members] say. They’re pathological liars and survive by deceit.”
Bruneau, editor of “Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America,” said he’s visited nearly every place on the isthmus. He noted that the main gangs plaguing Central America – beginning with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) – were founded in his native Los Angeles.
“There have always been maras [CentralAmerican gangs], just like there’s always been street gangs,” he said. “During the authoritarian regimes [of the 1960s and ’70s], they were repressed like everyone else, but with democracy and the end of the region’s civil wars, they were deported back from California and adapted the modern gang culture.”
According to Bruneau, 28 percent of Central Americans in a recent survey named delinquency as the biggest problem facing their country. But in El Salvador, the figure was 40 percent.
“The population is terrorized, and if you want to get elected, it’s pretty obvious what the issue is,” he said. “But any strategy that can get to the root of this is going to take longer than four or five years, and there’s no re-election, so it’s not in the interest of politicians to mobilize the resources to do that which has to be done. It’s much faster to do ‘mano dura’ [iron fist policies] and put the military on the streets.”
Recently, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Honduras now has the world’s highest homicide rate, with 82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. In second place is El Salvador, with 66.0 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
“The latest UNODC report highlights the region’s various vulnerabilities, such as geography, weak criminal justice systems and poverty,” Bruneau told his audience. “However, it does not explain why in Nicaragua the main maras are not present and the homicide rate is very low, even though it’s the poorest country in the region.”
Logan suggested several factors to explain Nicaragua’s absence of gangs.
“Immigration from Nicaragua [after the Sandinista revolution in 1979] was not to Los Angeles, and it wasn’t poor people. They went to Miami and were welcomed by the Cuban-Americans. This wasn’t a forced repatriation,” said Logan. “Secondly, after the nationalization of [Anastasio] Somoza’s lands, there was plenty of land to redistribute to the people. The Sandinistas have established committees to defend the neighborhoods, so there’s a certain level of organization throughout the country that has not provided the vacuum where gangs thrived. There’s no need for a mano-dura policy because they don’t have the problem to begin with.”
Logan is founder of Southern Pulse, a Latin American risk analysis firm, and author of the book “The Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang.” He said that U.S. deportation of aliens back to Central America – now running at well over 1,400 people per week – is exacerbating the problem.
“Last year, I made three separate trips to El Salvador to look specifically at deportation as part of a National Geographic documentary. We went into prisons, rode on flights, visited tattoo removal programs and saw the ‘welcome home’ program at the airport,” Logan said. “The deportation phenomena cannot be underscored enough. Under the Obama administration, we’ve never seen a higher rate of deportation, and while the level of communication between [Department of Homeland Security] and their colleagues in these countries is solid and strong, these countries are not able to handle the sheer numbers of individuals returning.”
To cope with the problem, the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have recently decided to send soldiers to patrol the streets, but both experts agree that this mano-dura policy has little chance of success. Bruneau cited Honduras – where the tragedy at Comayagua ranks as the world’s worst prison fire in more than a century – as the perfect example.
“Initially, homicide rates went down, but then they took off again and are now the highest in the world,” he pointed out. “Part of it is the arbitrary roundup of people and guilt through association. Prisons harden people and allow sophisticated gang members to recruit others and expose them to organized crime.”
Logan agreed that the iron-fist approach will eventually backfire.
“Over the past 14 or 15 months, we’ve seen a very strong step forward in the Northern Triangle to use the military as a public security tool. When your back is against the wall and you’re looking at the police and there’s not much to smile about, you turn to the military,” he said. “The learning curve is so steep, yet the need is so great, that the clash between those two realities often results in mistakes concerning human rights. There’s also the very real possibility, specifically in El Salvador, that the street gangs are no longer scared of the military.”
Logan cited the case of a Salvadoran soldier who was kidnapped by the maras, and the three men sent to rescue him were also kidnapped and later killed.
“There’s evidence that kids as young as 8 or 9 are recruited directly through older siblings, cousins, fathers or uncles,” he said. “When you’re an adolescent, you think you’re invincible. That translates into being fearless.”
Logan said that in addition to drug trafficking, Central American gangs engage in extortion – the “bread and butter of the pandillas” – both as a means to raise money and as a way of proving loyalty. For example, he said, taxi drivers in downtown San Salvador must pay $2 a day to stay out of trouble, which for them is a lot of money.
“Extortion is a tried-and-true method for testing the mettle of new recruits. In my experience with criminal groups, earning the trust of your leader is the most important thing you can do,” said Logan.
“Selling someone a kilo of cocaine does not require violence, just payment. But extortion requires that once in a while, someone gets smacked around. So if you can earn that trust through managing an extortion network of taxi drivers, then that’s one of the surest ways of advancement.”
Extortion can also be achieved through cellphone calls, Bruneau pointed out.
“They say, ‘unless you deposit money into this account by such-and-such a time, your daughter will be raped.’ Basically, the Mara Salvatruchas are becoming more like organized criminals through the systematic use of intelligence and sending money through Western Union.”
Logan said the Zetas cartel is now training gang members at remote camps in the Petén jungles of Guatemala, and that the Texis cartel went to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to recruit MS-13 members.
“In addition to direct training, there’s also indirect contact, where relationships are built and street gangs are taught how to corrupt officials,” he said. “They understand that sometimes it’s better to pass an envelope stuffed with cash than to pull a trigger.”
He added: “In terms of criminal branding, Los Zetas have been very successful. The fear those two words instill in people across the region, as far south as Argentina, is incredible. At the end of the day, there may not be more than 500 real-steel Zetas, but to talk to people would suggest there are thousands of them.”
Even so, said Logan, “the biggest bang for the buck” is prevention.
“Once you’ve killed someone and you have tattoos, there’s no turning back. The average age before you’re dead is 26,” he said. “The solution is programs that teach at-risk kids something so they can actually make a living to avoid becoming gang members.”
The bottom line, said Bruneau, is that the U.S. is not really in a position to advise impoverished Central American countries how to tackle the problem.
“Our military does not deal with this kind of issue,” he said. “Secondly, we do not have a national police force, and third, we have a huge gang problem in L.A., so who are we to tell other people how to do it?”