Honduras is Losing the War With the Maras

 The Honduran government and the maras (criminal street gangs) have sparred with each other since the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 gangs solidified their bases in the early 2000s. About ten years earlier, in the 1990s, the massive deportations of thousands of gang members from Los Angeles, California, to their places of origins in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, would set the stage for a major conflict that some Central American veterans compare to the past armed conflicts (e.g., Guatemala, 1960-96; El Salvador, 1980-91), or worst. Unlike Salvadorans and Guatemalans, Hondurans dodged the armed conflict or civil war “bullet,” but the astronomical number of lives lost as a result of the continuing violence, especially amongst the youth, is tragic and abominable. Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador’s homicide rates have been ranked consistently as the highest in Latin America and even the world. In the peak year of 2011-12, Honduras was on top with 90 homicides per 100,000. Although the current 2017 rate is reported at around 40 homicides per 100,000, the violence has remained flagrant in the number and the manner by which homicides are committed, and where whole families are affected in one way or another. (Countries like the United States have a homicide rate of around 5 percent per 100,000 people.)

            We know much more today than a decade ago about how the maras live and function as criminal entities. Investigative journalists, writers, photographers, artists, documentary film producers and writers, and social scientists and researchers have contributed diligently to a body of work that is extraordinary and revealing, yet, disturbing against the background of a complicated social problem of enormous proportions. The documentary film by Christian Poveda, La vida loca (2008), reveals the strange world of MS-13 (in El Salvador) that requires serious reflection and thought about how much we really understand life; InSight Crime (and the Asociación para un sociedad más justa) investigative reports (2016) open our eyes to the facts and reality of the pain and suffering among the victims and their families caused by gang violence. Social scientist investigations have compiled and organized invaluable information, such as Cantor’s article, “The New Wave: Forced Displacement Caused by Organized Crime in Central America and México” (2014), and the prolific work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the “Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum Seekers from Honduras” (2016). Finally, the Human Rights country reports are essential in their reporting of lesser known but significant violations against gang members committed by government and private agencies. 

            To the question of winning or losing the war, it’s important to analyze the case through a broad historical lens to understand how and why the problem of gang violence escalated so intensely. By the time the United States began the massive deportation of young males charged with criminal activity and presumably, were members of street gangs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the first Barrio 18 gang was well established in the El Pedregal sector in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Dozens of other smaller street gangs worked the streets as deliquents in urban areas but most of their activity was petty and non-violent. The criminal, violent element of gang activity was brought to fruition by the hardened gang members of Barrio 18 and in 1991, the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, specifically, in the Bella Vista colonia in Comayagüela part of the Honduran capital. The national newspaper, El Heraldo, recently published a multi-media piece (“Viviendo entre las maras”) on the evolution of the two major criminal street gangs, pointing out that by 2002, the smaller street gangs in the major cities had been co-opted or pushed out by either Barrio 18 or MS-13. The two dominant criminal gangs brought experience and know-how from their rank and file while in Los Angeles, California, and then, during their incarceration period, until they were deported. 

            The statistical data (2011) from the Department of Homeland Security indicates that within a nine-year period, 2001-2010, about 117,000 imprisoned gang members were deported, for whom their immigration entry into the United States was illegal, and they had been convicted and sentenced for their crimes. Specifically, 13,000 prisoners were deported to El Salvador, 17,000 were deported to Honduras, and 21,000 to Guatemala. These young male gang members immediately proceeded to their respective home bases which had continuously expanded quite formidably beyond their starting points of El Pedregal and Bella Vista in Tegucigalpa. Clearly, the receiving countries were unprepared to transition and integrate the deportees into society.

            The social landscape in the urban areas of Honduras propelled the newly deported gang members into a survival mode which led them to consolidate and strengthen their gang membership. Employment opportunities were non-existent since the high rate of unemployment was dismal, and even though the rates hovered around 7 percent in 2002, 10.5 percent in 2004, and 9 percent in 2014, the numbers indicate employment for individuals that were looking for work, thus, excluding the majority of gang members since they refused to even register for possible employment. The country has a 65 percent poverty rate and a third of those employed are ‘underemployed.’ And, due to the encroachment of agribusiness and climate change, many families from the countryside gave up their farms and began migrating to the urban areas. Once their criminal activities landed them in prisons, the gang leaders realized a need to re-organize themselves. There were so many members incarcerated, and the prisons became seriously unhealthy and overcrowded. They needed money to hire lawyers, and they reached out to their base members outside the prison, a turn of events that had a huge impact on their modus operandi. Extortion became the life line for collecting money for imprisoned gang members, and then, for themselves. 

            The criminal street gang members live and die by their own rules. Their rebelliousness is manifested in the way they choose to live; free to act, speak, and treat others as they wish. Some of their rules are etched in stone, such as “respect the barrio,” or “ver, oír, callar,” (“see, hear, stay silent”) but various and capricious interpretations and exceptions are allowable. Some women (and children) play the worst and least important roles, usually as silent actors ordered to perform menial and dangerous tasks. Sometimes, the wife or daughter of a gang member is assassinated in retaliation for what the husband did or didn’t do as part of the gang’s rule. They live in poverty with money stolen from others; they live in the present as if there’s no future, and perhaps, there isn’t a future outlook in their worldview. They ruthlessly kill (or torture and kill) individuals or entire families who refuse to comply with their demands, regardless of who they were, whether they were family members or friends. Numerous, regular gun battles between and among the rival gangs, and the shoot-outs with police result in intended and unintended killings. In 2018 the homicide rate is at 40 percent, almost half from seven years ago, but which is still beyond the normal acceptable range. It is estimated that 1.8 millions guns are in circulation and only a fraction (around 600,000) are legally registered. Fear permeates throughout every part of society affected by gang violence: gang members are afraid of police; police are afraid of gangs, and people in the community live in constant fear that their children will be killed or recruited by the gangs, and they fear for their lives. Even if they move away from the affected areas, they fear for the family or friends they left behind. 

Map of Tegucigalpa showing distribution of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs.

            The Honduran government’s response or solution to the violence and crime committed by the maras has been consistent and systematic. Clearly, their actions indicate their desire to end the problem as quickly and cost-effective as possible. The first step was to incarcerate the gang members and provide assurance to their constituents that the problem had disappeared. But they had to build enough prisons to house the continuously growing numbers of prisoners. Placing gang members in a mixed gang environment resulted in members killing each other’s rivals. So, the prisons were segregated by gang affiliation, which allowed them to establish their prison headquarters, and thus, organize and order criminal activities to be executed by their gang members in their territories.

            In 2010, the Honduran government began to deploy the military to the gang hotspots, engaging gang members in shoot-outs, allowing families with young children to witness or be part of the killings. This was part of the “iron fist” (“mano dura”) policy adopted by the government. In 2013 the Public Order Military Force (Policia Militar de Orden Público – PMOP) took control of enforcing the law in gang territories. Another elite military police unit trained by the United States, TIGERS, was also deployed into gang-controlled areas. Various reports point to the human rights violations committed by the military-style officers. Reports surfaced of extrajudicial killings as well as death squads and vigilante group attacks in gang territories. Between 2010 and 2013, the United Nation reported about 150 complaints of squad-style killings in Tegucigalpa and 50 complaints in the San Pedro Sula area, all of them executed by the government military.  Some members of the police enforcement, including the PMOP units, were reportedly charged with extortion and kidnapping of non-gang members within the local population. Private security guards hired by wealthy families were also part of the overall defense that identified the gang members as the common enemy. Among the approximately 70,000 armed private security guards in Honduras (double the amount of police officers in the country), the majority are unregistered with the government. 

            While the government flexed its military-style muscle against the maras, the response by the gang leaders followed quickly. For example: members of the enforcement units (police officers) were assassinated by gang members; gang territories were doubly secured so that everyone leaving and entering the territory was thoroughly checked; some of the entry/exit points became checkpoints to collect extortion money; gang members expanded their territories; families who resisted were pushed out and their houses became the property of the gangs; gangs did not allow some children to attend school; and some teachers were demanded to pay the extortion fees. The maras recruited more youngsters to work as look-outs and to carry informative messages through rival gang territory so they wouldn’t be caught off-guard when the PMOP set out to conduct surprise raids to kill or arrest them. And, of course, they continued to execute the “traitors.” (See “Honduras: Displaced People at ‘State of Emergency’ Levels.”)

            The government attempted yet another strategy to stop the maras: by passing laws. Between 2003-2005, the government started using the Anti-gang Law (Ley Antimaras, Article 332 of Penal Code) to arrest young males whom they suspected of being gang members, mostly because of their tattoos. The maras changed their rule of identifying themselves with ink and as of late, gang members are hardly recognizable since they dress like non-gang members. In 2015, the government passed a law penalizing gang leaders with fifty years of prison time. The maras maintain an organizational structure that identifies the leaders as “toros” or “palabreros,” who are serving prison time. Beyond the leadership, the maras vary in their hierarchical organization: some gang cells are more autonomous or independent than others. The traditional “leader” serving time in prison has become more of a figurehead, and quite possibly to ensconce the “leaders,” the actual gang members giving orders to commit criminal activities, thus, evading capture and arrest as leaders of the maras.  In 2015, a law was passed to increase the punishment against the gang members arrested for extortion, which was now defined as an “act of terrorism.” Perhaps, this may be the reason why the maras extortion methods changed, from demanding small amounts of money to exorbitant, one-time payments. Also, women in the maras have played a greater role in collecting extortion money, which may be another way for the male members to avoid capture and arrest. 

            In 2017, the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, announced that he had ordered the transfer of 2,000 prisoners, mostly gang members labeled as “the most dangerous prisoners,” to a newly built prison, EL Pozo II in Morocelí, in the department of El Paraíso. This was yet another transfer of prisoners to locations that were isolated and meant to curtail communication with their fellow gang members on the outside. Prior to the announcement, in another prison, El Centro Penitenciario de Tamara, 18 gang members from Barrio 18 escaped and since then, only four have been captured. Reportedly, the gang had paid millions in bribes to prison guards and administrators so they could walk out the front door.  

            The government authorities’ and maras’ games of “cat and mouse’ have not only failed to solve the problems, but served to worsen the conditions for the people, especially the poor, marginalized, and the most vulnerable – women, children, the elderly- that have been denied any semblance of protection. Thousands of people, especially in the urban areas, have been internally displaced due to the criminality of the maras and the lack of protection from the government. But, it appears that people can’t escape the violence, the ubiquitous fear, the absence of protection for themselves and their families, and their cry and clamor for help fall on deaf ears. 

History has a way of repeating itself, at least in some ways.

What the wealthy oligarchs did to the masses in robbing their lands, starving the poor, using their power against them to gain more prestige and wealth, killing those that stand in their way – basically denying the working people of the dignity they deserve  – has an uncanny resemblance to what the maras are doing to the communities that they control: they steal money and property from hard-working families, they murder those that stand in their way; they make up rules that benefit them, they bribe others to get their way. To many people in Honduras, the problem with the maras represent yet another form of corruption that has plagued the country for generations. 

How do you fix something when you can’t go back in time and change the chain of events? 

See Sonia Nazario’s article, “Pay or Die,” on the maras domination and corruption at the governmental levels.

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