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 — the editor of a new book on gang violence gave a lecture on that very subject.
Tom Bruneau, chief author of “Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America,” said regional security analysts estimate that Central America now has 70,000 to 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, said Bruneau, partly because published numbers are totally arbitrary, there’s no methodology for calculating the size of gangs, and thirdly, because “you can’t believe a word the pandilleros [gang members] say. They’re pathological liars and survive by deceit.”
Bruneau said the main gangs plaguing Central America — beginning with the Mara Salvatrucha — were founded in his native Los Angeles. “There have always been maras, just like there’s always been street gangs. During the authoritarian regimes [of the 1960s and 1970s], they were repressed like everyone else, but with democracy and the end of the region’s civil wars, they were deported back to California and adapted the modern gang culture.”
Bruneau said 28 percent of Central Americans in a recent survey named delinquency as the biggest problem facing their country — but that in El Salvador, the figure is 40 percent.
Gangs: A consequence of poverty?
Recently, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports 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 system 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.”
To cope with the problem, he said, the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have recently decided to send soldiers to patrol the streets. 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 allows sophisticated gang members to recruit others and expose them to organized crime.”
Thomas Logan, founder of Southern Pulse and author of “The Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang,” appeared with Bruneau at the Feb. 15 lecture, sponsored by Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
“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 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.”
Extortion is ‘bread and butter’ of violent gangs
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 awhile, 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.”
Mexico’s Zetas training Central American gangs
Logan said the Zetas are 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, the 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 them becoming gang members.”