Residents of the Northern Triangle countries of Central America –El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras– have an enemy in common: gangs. These illicit groups are engaged in extortion, money laundering, drug trafficking, murder, kidnapping, and arms smuggling. That is why public prosecutors Douglas Meléndez, of El Salvador; Thelma Aldana, of Guatemala; and Fernando Chinchilla, of Honduras, have signed an agreement for the three countries to fight gangs head on, according to Yuri Mora, spokesperson for the Honduran Attorney General's Office.
The agreement, called "Northern Triangle Strategy against Gangs," was signed in Guatemala City, where it will be headquartered, on August 11th. Among other things, it is "a database containing information on gang members that will be available to the attorneys general offices and," Mora explained.
Each attorney general's office in the region will have an elite unit, in other words, intelligence personnel that will manage confidential information such as personal data and details on operations in progress. In the case of Honduras, personnel from the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency, as well as the prosecutor's and attorney general's offices were selected to serve as liaisons between all the elite units in the region.
The number one objective
The idea to create this joint force to counteract gangs came from Honduran President, Juan Orlando Hernández, who proposed it in July to his Guatemalan and Salvadoran counterparts.
President Hernández said at the time that "it is the result of a trinational effort on the part of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to confront one of the criminal phenomena [gangs] that has created the most harm, death, and blood among citizens."
Mora told Diálogo that the frontal assault against gangs is intended to make sure that these groups stop killing, extorting, and drug dealing, and that Honduras ceases to be a bridge for drug trafficking. For this reason, the main objective of the attorneys general offices in the Northern Triangle will be to combat extortion – a crime that directly affects the citizens.
According to figures from the National Anti-Extortion Force, gangs are responsible for 80 percent of the money extorted from business owners, while employees, business competitors in the area, or owners’ relatives account for the remaining 20 percent.
Law enforcement cooperates in the operations
Lieutenant Colonel Santos Nolasco, spokesperson for the Honduras’s National Inter-Institutional Security Force, said that when the Attorney General's Office carries out operations, it will be supported by the Armed Forces, the National Police, Migration and Immigration, the Supreme Court of Justice, and other law enforcement agencies and justice officials, according to each circumstance’s requirements.
With this strategy, "we will fight these types of criminal structures [gangs], and unify a transnational information-exchange and operations-planning strategy," Lt. Col. Nolasco said. "There is a need to join forces so we can be more effective in fulfilling our security policies, because the people are being affected by high levels of violence caused by these criminal structures."
Deployment of the forces in the anti-crime operations will directly benefit the populations living in border areas of the countries that make up the Northern Triangle. This will contribute to significantly decreasing levels of violence, something that will then extend more generally throughout the territories of the countries that are involved.
Honduras and Guatemala share 256 kilometers of land border, while Honduras and El Salvador share 375 kilometers of land border. According to Lt. Col. Nolasco, the checkpoints necessary for achieving the aforementioned objectives will be established along both borders.
Joint work is our strength
According to investigations by the Honduran Attorney General’s Office, the gangs' strength in the region is due to the fact that they are supported by other criminal organizations. About this, Mora said that "in order to combat the commission of crimes, it is very important to strike the criminal structures' assets and bank accounts and capture the leaders."
For Edgardo Mejía, a Honduran security consultant and auditor, Honduras’s experience will be extremely important in the operations that the joint task forces will carry out because it is one of the Northern Triangle countries with the best capabilities to face gangs. It has strengthened its justice officials and its prison system.
"If we want to confront the gang problem, we have to have other partner nations in addition to the countries that are party to the treaty. Collaboration with countries in the region must become a tradition because the first benefit for the citizens will be the recovery of territory, as well as the economic and social benefits," he said
Mejía has two essential recommendations for the fight against gangs: the Northern Triangle countries should change their criminal laws to decrease the minimum age of criminal responsibility and change the "status" of drug members from urban guerrillas to urban subversives, that is, people who undermine the established order of a state.