Central America has the misfortune of being placed between drug supply and drug demand. The flow of cocaine from South America to the United States is one of the highest value illicit commodity streams in the world. Central America has been a conduit for these drugs for decades and now is the pathway for some 450 tons of cocaine headed to Mexico and the United States. This stream is worth about $10 billion US, and has a retail value of $50 billion US. The potential de-stabilizing effect of this massive contraband flow is considerable.1
Drug trafficking is often associated with the growth of youth gangs in the region, in the form of the so-called ‘pandillas’ or ‘maras’ (both terms for gangs). The major gangs operating in Central America with ties to the United States are the “18th Street” gang (also known as M-18), and their main rival, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). The Maras are part of a troubling trend in Latin America: the rise of transnational gangs, narcotraffickers, and terrorists.2
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua are at the epicenter of the gang crisis and are seen to be at the core of the local crime problem. During the civil wars, large numbers of Central Americans sought refuge in the United States. There, they congregated in Hispanic urban neighborhoods, particularly those in Southern California.
1 Source: UNDP HDR 2006, UNODC WDR 2006.
2 Crime and Development in Central America. 2007. UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
These areas suffer from a serious gang problem, and the new immigrants found themselves targeted by locals. Partly as a defensive action, many young men either joined the existing gangs or formed their own. When the U.S. began to tighten its immigration regime in 1996, many gang members were deported after being convicted of a crime, spreading the gang culture of Southern California to Central America. While assessing the scale of gangsterism is challenging, there are an estimated 70,000 gang members in the 7 countries of Central America today, with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala being the worst affected. Up to 50% of violent crimes in these countries are their doing.3
National Gang Member Estimates
Total Membership
Costa Rica
El Salvador
Source: UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Crime and Development in Central America, 2007.
Universally, most street crimes and a good share of violent crimes are committed by young men, usually between the ages of about 15 and 24. The greater the share of the population that falls into this high-risk demographic, the greater the vulnerability of the society. Like many developing regions, the population of Central America is very young.4 Some analysts believe these gangs could pose a serious threat to the region’s stability. Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have some of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2004, the estimated murder rate per 100,000 people was 45.9 in Honduras, 41.2 in El Salvador, and 34.7 in Guatemala. High murder rates have persisted in 2005 and 2006, with gang-related violence reportedly accounting for up to 50% of violent crime in each of those countries.5
Several factors have contributed to the problem of gang violence in Central America. Scholars have identified income inequality as the strongest predictor of violent crime rates. Some scholars have noted that, particularly in El Salvador and Guatemala, the enduring effects of prolonged civil conflicts led to the widespread proliferation of firearms and explosives. Overwhelmed and ineffective justice systems, easy access to arms and an
3 Sources: “Criminal Gangs in the Americas,” Economist, January 5, 2006; “Gangs Undermine Security, Democracy,” Miami Herald, March 30, 2006; “Marked Men,” Dallas Morning News, October 29; 2006; Testimony of General Bantz J. Craddock, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 15, 2005.
4 Gangs undermine security, democracy. The Miami Herald. March 30, 2006. By Marifeli Pérez-Stable.
5 Sources: “Criminal Gangs in the Americas,” Economist, January 5, 2006; “Gangs Undermine Security, Democracy,” Miami Herald, March 30, 2006; “Marked Men,” Dallas Morning News, October 29; 2006; Testimony of General Bantz J. Craddock, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 15, 2005.
illicit economy, high levels of intra-familial violence and an absence of political will to fight crime have also contributed to the gang problem.6
Type of activity
The gangs are involved in human trafficking; drug, auto, and weapons smuggling; kidnapping, extortion, prostitution, murder for hire, theft, assaults on law enforcement officials and homicide. Violence is also the hallmark of mara life. Would-be members must bear a 13-second, nonstop beating by four veterans. If strong, women undergo the same initiation; if not, they must sleep with each gang member. Just to prove their mettle, new members have to carry out a murder. Once done, the marero is emblazoned with distinctive tattoos. Maras also fight one another over turf and, naturally, the gangs are always battling the authorities.7
Typical tattoos of the “Mara Salvatruchas.” Source: AP.
A tattooed “Mara.” Source: AP.
A “Mara” gang. Source: AP.
The Maras are heavily armed with M16s, AK-47s, and military grade explosives. Inspired by al-Qaeda, they have added beheadings to their repertoire and mutilations, slaughtering their rivals and leaving their heads for show. Drug cartels even videotape the killings of rivals and put them up on Youtube.8 As guerrilla factions and paramilitary groups have slowly disbanded, weapons have flooded the market and become easily available to youth. Thousands of children saw their families killed or were forced to flee their homelands. Central American gang members are identified by the tattoos that blanket their bodies. They are boys as young as 10 who feel hopeless and are looking for a sense of belonging, according to Central American immigrants and advocates. Many of them are forced to join a gang.9
Since the end of the 1980s gang violence in Central America has evolved from a localized, purely neighborhood-based security concern into a transnational problem that pervades urban enclaves in every country in the region. Gang activity has developed into a complex, multi-faceted, and transnational problem.10
6 D. Ledermann et al., “Determinants of Crime Rates in Latin America and the World,” World Bank, October 1998.
7 Pérez-Stable Ibid.
8 Gangs, Terrorists, and Trade. April 12, 2007. By Adam Elkus. Foreign Policy in Focus.
9 Grim News in Central America: Wave of Gang Violence Grows. Resource Center of the Americas. January 29, 2004. By Kari Lydersen.
10 Central America and Mexico Gang Assessment. USAID. April 2006. 3
El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua, have each responded differently to the gang problem. By and large, Central American police lack the skills, technology and resources to combat the maras. Corruption among officers is a long-standing ill. El Salvador and Honduras, for example, have largely committed to the mano dura (firm hand) or super mano dura approach, which emphasizes zero-tolerance law enforcement for tackling gang violence issues. A suspect in violation of these laws could find themselves facing a 12-year prison sentence even if no crime had been committed. Having a gang tattoo was evidence enough. The remaining countries are pursuing different approaches. Nicaragua has adopted an anti-gang approach that is weighted more towards prevention and intervention than heavy-handed law enforcement. Guatemala continues to debate mano dura while it struggles to engage in prevention and intervention amid accusations of social cleansing tactics used on gang members.11
Mara Salvatrucha MS-13
The gang name is commonly abbreviated as MS-13, Mara, MS, and is composed mostly of Salvadorans, Hondurans and other Central Americans. The MS-13 gangs have cliques, or factions, located throughout the United States and Latin America. Membership is believed to total over 100,000 worldwide. In the United States, the gang’s strongholds have historically been in Washington D.C., Miami, and Southern California.12
In addition to violent acts committed by the gang against citizens and gang rivals, the gang has even engaged in organized violent acts against the government. In 1997 the son of Honduras’s President, Ricardo Maduro, was kidnapped and murdered by MS-13 members. MS-13 members have continued to taunt Central American government officials. Members also left a dismembered corpse with a note for the Honduran president that “more people will die…the next victims will be police and journalists.” In 2004, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger received a similar message attached to the body of a dismembered man from MS-13 members. In 2002 in the city of Tegucigalpa in Honduras, MS-13 members boarded a public bus and immediately executed 28 people including 7 small children. Again, they left a message written on the front of the bus taunting government officials. Honduras was the first Central American country to adopt strict anti-gang laws. On February 19, 2007, three Salvadoran representatives to the Central American parliament (Parlacen) in Guatemala were killed after inexplicably departing from their motorcade. Their murderers were quickly identified as the head of Guatemala’s criminal investigations division and three of his men. One of these arrestees allegedly claimed they had been hired to hijack a car carrying cocaine worth US$5 million. The arrestees were never able to elaborate, however, as they were all shot dead in prison on February 25th. There were early claims that Mara Salvatrucha was to blame, and when it was announced that a joint police-military force of 400 men would occupy the prison, MS members revolted and took several wardens hostage.13
Death Squads
Over the past few years there has been considerable speculation and discussion regarding Central America’s death squads. The existence of death squads for political
11 Ibid.
12 The Most Dangerous Gang in America. By Arian Campo-Flores. March 2007. Newsweek.
13 UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Ibid.
purposes has been a frequent occurrence in history. In El Salvador, in the 1980s a vigilante group known as Sombra Negra, or Black Shadow was identified. They were extremely active in attempting to remove criminal elements from their society. It is believed that this group felt their judicial system was not apt at dealing with the nation’s problems, so they became what some would call “Self-appointed executioners of justice.”14 Currently El Salvador has a murder rate of approximately 54 per every 100,000 people. Although all recent information indicates Sombra Negra is still active, the government has begun taking a proactive approach at alternative programs, such as implementing Mano Amiga or Plan Friendly Hand. This is a program for young people giving them treatment for substance abuse and social reinsertion.15
Costs of gangs and violence
Crime and gang violence is threatening economic and democratic development across the region. Estimates of the direct and indirect costs of violence suggest that the costs of crime are roughly 12 to 14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street conduct business internationally, engaging in kidnapping, robbery, extortion, assassinations, and the trafficking of people and contraband across borders. The World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have made significant strides in developing an understanding of violence more broadly and its costs. They estimate the cost of violence in Latin America to be 14.2 percent of GDP.16
A recent study done by the UNDP calculates that violence costs El Salvador approximately US$1.7 billion annually, which is roughly 11.5 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). These costs are attributed to health-related issues (e.g., lost lives, medical attention); institutional costs (e.g., public security and administration of justice); private security costs for protection of businesses and private residences; negative impacts on financial investment, and loss of work opportunities; and material losses.17
The economic costs of crime (not just gang violence) in Guatemala in 1999 were estimated to be 565.4 million dollars, with violent crime exerting a more costly toll than non-violent crime. It is estimated that firms in Guatemala suffer average losses of about $5,500 annually due to crime. Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the region and is considered one of the most violent countries in Latin America. Estimates of the costs related to gang violence are difficult to ascertain because no concrete data exist. Honduras has adopted a hard-line law enforcement approach so the majority of government resources goes towards law enforcement, and very little is allocated for prevention and intervention. The cost of violence in Nicaragua does not reach the same proportions as it does in neighboring countries, and gangs have not had the negative impact in Nicaragua as they have in other Central American countries.18
14 El Salvador: Re-emergence of “Social Cleansing” death squads. March 1999. US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
15 Ibid.
16 USAID. Ibid.
17 USAID. Ibid.
18 USAID. Ibid
How countries combat crime
Honduras. In 2003, Honduras passed tough anti-gang legislation that established stiff prison sentences for gang membership.19
El Salvador. In July 2004, El Salvador’s Congress unanimously approved President Tony Saca’s Super Mano Dura (“Super Firm Hand”) package of anti-gang reforms despite vocal criticisms by the United Nations and others that its tough provisions violate international human rights standards. In 2005, El Salvador’s legislature tightened gun ownership laws, especially for youths, and President Saca initiated joint military and police patrols in high-crime areas. The Saca government also began to allocate 20% of anti-gang funds for prevention and rehabilitation programs. In May 2006, Saca identified gangs as the principle cause of El Salvador’s high murder rates. In order to combat gangs and other violent criminals, he has created a new Ministry of Public Security and Justice, increased joint military and police patrols, and unveiled a draft law against organized crime.20
Guatemala. In December 2005, President Oscar Berger announced that he would deploy joint military and police forces to contain gang-related violent crime. The Guatemalan Congress has approved “organized crime” legislation criminalizing racketeering and enabling law enforcement to use modern investigative tools such as wiretaps and undercover operations. While law enforcement solutions have been the immediate focus of the Berger government, prevention programs are also being created to assist disadvantaged and vulnerable youth, especially former gang members.21
Panama and Nicaragua. In September 2004, Panamanian President Martin Torrijos launched Mano Amiga (“Friendly Hand”), a crime prevention program that provides positive alternatives to gang membership for at-risk youths. Aimed at children aged 14-17, the government program, which is supported by a number of domestic and international non-governmental institutions, seeks to provide access to theater and sports activities for some 10,000 Panamanian youth. Nicaragua has also adopted a national youth crime prevention strategy that, with the active involvement of the police, focuses on family, school, and community interventions. In addition, 550 former gang members have been successfully reintegrated into society with the assistance of another Nicaraguan government intervention.22
Soaring violent crime rates could jeopardize democracy in Central America and the region in general. Finding regional solutions to the gang problem is absolutely essential. It is of utmost importance to prevent Venezuela and Cuba from co-opting these groups to use them for their revolutionary plans. Most worrying is the scenario of future al-Qaeda and gang cooperation. That is why it is imperative for countries in Latin America to tackle this
19 President Softens Stance on Gangs,” Miami Herald, April 13, 2006; “Northern Triangle Faces Serious Security Threats,” Latin American Caribbean and Central American Report, September 19, 2006.
20 “El Salvador: Murder Rate Soars in 2005,” Latinnews Daily, Jan. 4, 2006; “Saca: Pandillas Son Principales Causantes de Homicidios en El Salvador, Agence France Press, May 15, 2006; “El Salvador: Crime Busted?” Economist Intelligence Unit, Dec. 18, 2006.
21 “Anti-crime Drives Fail to Contain Rising Violence,” Latin American Weekly Report, December 13, 2005; “Ten Years On, Peace Remains Distant,” Latin News Weekly Report, January 4, 2007.
22 Ibid.
threat immediately and effectively.
*Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. (www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org). She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University


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