World

What Lies Behind Central America's Gang Violence

For infamous gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18, from drug trafficking to countless homicides, brutality is the name of the game. But how did it all begin and just how much blame can be laid at the feet of the US?

El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in Central America have the highest homicide rates in the world. Gangs, popularly known as maras, are responsible for much of the violence and crime. Most of the killers and victims are gang members themselves caught in turf battles.

Mara Salvatrucha, popularly known as MS-13 and the Barrio 18 (18th street gang) are the two dominant gangs which hold the three central American countries to ransom. The rivalry between these two became so violent at one stage in 2012, the government of El Salvador intervened and brokered a ceasefire between MS-13 and the Barrio 18.

In order to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, the government relaxed conditions in the prisons in which the members of the two gangs were held. Following this peace deal, the murder rate dropped immediately. But this truce broke down in 2014 and crime has once again skyrocketed.

Origin story

The origins of these two gangs began in Los Angeles. During the civil war in Central America during the 1980s, over a million people had fled to the US to escape the violence. Many went to Los Angeles, something the LA Police Department official website went on to describe as:

“The County and City of Los Angeles are the ‘gang capital’ of the nation.  There are more than 450 active gangs in the City of Los Angeles. Many of these gangs have been in existence for over 50 years. These gangs have a combined membership of over 45,000 individuals.”

Unable to fit in the social milieu, the poor and marginalised illegal immigrant youth joined the criminal gangs in LA. The Ronald Reagan administration denied refugee status to these Central American immigrants, who were then forced into clandestine lives. During the nineties, US authorities cracked down on the gangs and deported thousands to Central America. But many of the deported, who were born or brought up in US, found it difficult to adjust in Central America and continued with their LA gang culture. They regrouped themselves locally with guns smuggled from the US and scaled up their crimes, taking advantage of the weak law enforcement and justice system of these countries.

The gangs evolved a culture of tattoos, brutal rites of initiation, extortion, crime and drug trafficking. It is worth noting that both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs are still active in many states of the US.

MS-13 Gang Member. Credit: ES James/Shutterstock

The US is responsible, to a large extent, for the civil wars in Central America. To protect and promote the commercial interests of the American corporations in the region, the US administration had converted the Central American countries into ‘banana republics’ by undermining democracies and encouraging and installing right-wing military dictatorships.

In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew the democratically-elected leftist government of Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala and installed pro-US military dictatorship. The immediate reason for the coup was the Guatemalan government’s land reforms which affected the interests of United Fruit Company, the single largest land owner in Guatemala and which had over three million acres of land in Central America.

Incidentally, Che Guavara got his anti-imperialistic revolutionary inspiration after personally seeing the destruction of democracy in Guatemala by the US. Using the pretext of anticommunism, the US had forced the governments and security agencies of Central America to persecute leftist parties and liberals. When the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) came to power in 1979 after defeating the US-supported Anastasio Somoza Debayle dictatorship, the Reagan administration turned its guns against Nicaragua and involved the other Central American countries too in the dirty and illegal “Contra War” against the Sandinista government.

The US sent arms, trained local militias and waged an all-out war to hurt Nicaragua and tried to bring about regime change. While playing this US game, right-wing dictators and death squads in the region killed hundreds of thousands of opponents as well as innocent people.

Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Credit: Wikipedia

The fundamental reason for the violence and crime is, of course, poverty and income disparity in the region and the indifference of the oligarchs in power to the struggle of the masses. The neoliberal economic policies forced on the Central American governments by the “Washington Consensus” had increased poverty and inequality while the oligarchs gained more wealth. The continuing crime and violence have made it more challenging for the countries to increase economic growth and job creation, causing a vicious cycle. The tax rates and revenues of the three Central American countries are very low with the result that the governments do not have enough funds for welfare programmes. On the other hand, the gangs harass and extort money from the shopkeepers, transport operators and others vitiating the business atmosphere and hindering economic growth.

The security forces of the region have also become part of the problem rather than a solution. In some cases, the military and police take protection money from the gangs and even join them in extortions and killings.

Crackdown

Some Central American governments resorted to harsher punitive methods against the gangs through Mano Dura (strong hand) policies. They had cracked down on the gangs with mass detentions and extra-judicial killings. US security agencies such as FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had a hand in pushing the Central American security forces to use harsher methods. ‘Zero tolerance’ policies were sold to Central America by ex-policy makers and police chiefs of US. But this harsh policy had the opposite effect and became counter productive. The gang members retaliated against the government and security forces with fierce counter attacks. When the authorities filled the jails with suspected gang members along with many innocent youth, the gangs recruited the detainees and became stronger. The jails have in fact have become the command centres for the gang leaders.

Another reason for the high homicide rates is the liberal gun laws and free availability of illegal guns smuggled from US. The gun shops in US states bordering Mexico do big volume business of selling guns without adequate verifications. The illegally sold arms end up in Mexico and Central America.

In the case of drugs, the US claims that the production and trafficking from Latin America is the main problem and wants to stop the supplies through aerial chemical spraying of fields and arrest of traffickers. But the US does not use the same supply side logic to help in stopping the killings in Mexico and Central America with the guns produced and supplied from US.

Police patrol in the Nordeste de Amaralina slum complex in Salvador, Bahia State. Brazil. Credit: Lunae Parracho/Reuters

Central America will continue to be a transit for drug trafficking and the consequent gang violence as long as millions of Americans continue to pay billions of dollars to consume illegal drugs. The US has to admit this simple and clear truth that illegal drugs are basically a consumer driven business and has to take action within the US to stop the consumption. There will be no sellers if there are no buyers… a no brainer, in American speak.

While the US is an important factor for the gang violence in Central America, one should, however, give due credit to the US for two things: the large remittances of the emigrants in US is a major source of foreign exchange revenue for Central America; Secondly, these countries benefit from the Free Trade Agreements (CAFTA) with US, which has given duty free access for Central American goods. The FTA has given rise to a sizeable maquiladora (assembly) industry in Central America for exports to US.

While gang violence continues unabated in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, their next door neighbour Nicaragua has not let the big gangs take root  This is interesting since Nicaragua is much poorer in comparison to the other three and had suffered worse in the Contra War waged by the US. The CIA had recruited mercenaries from Guatemala and Honduras  and armed them to attack Nicaragua in addition to instigating right wing Nicaraguan gangs to fight against the leftist Sandinista government.

But the Nicaraguan authorities have prevented the emergence of gangs by their humane methods of community  policing and effective disarmament of the civil war fighters. The police department had programmes to prevent youth crimes and to rehabilitate the youth who had gone astray or were vulnerable. The socialist Sandinista government had better pro-poor policies and had distributed land to the poor.

Another important reason why Nicaragua has been spared is that because it did not receive criminal deportees from LA. Those Nicaraguans who had emigrated illegally to US went mostly to Miami and not LA. In Miami, Nicaraguan immigrants were given sympathetic treatment by the state administration (thanks to the lobby of right-wing Cuban emigres who disliked the socialistic Sandinistas) which gave them refugee status and many Nicaraguans were not deported. So the Nicaraguan immigrants were less desperate in Miami which does not have the gang culture as it exists in LA.

Escobar giving a speech during his political campaign. Credit: Wikipedia

Amidst the gang violence in Central America, Costa Rica stands out as an island of peace, thanks to its enlightened political leadership which has uplifted the poor and reduced income disparity with welfare policies and focus on education and health care. The Costa Ricans have avoided military dictatorships after their abolition of armed forces in 1949. The Costa Rican government refused to be part of the Contra war of US and kept its neutrality. In fact, Oscar Arias, the Costa Rican president took the initiative to bring about ceasefire and peace through negotiations between the warring parties in the region. Arias was awarded a Nobel peace prize for this.

Both Nicaragua and Costa Rica had rejected any security assistance from the US and did not allow their security and intelligence agencies to be corrupted and commandeered by the US, as it happened in the case of the other three countries. The US has a military base in Honduras which suffered, not surprisingly, a coup in 2009, the only coup in the twenty first century Latin America. Panama has learnt from Costa Rica and abolished its army in 1990. Nicaragua has reduced the size of the army which is very small, with a limited budget. The Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) have much to learn from Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

The Medellin example

Gang violence in Central America is distinct from the experience of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, where the big drug cartels are responsible for much of the crimes. These cartels are more powerful with money, firepower and political contacts in comparison to the Maras, described as the Mafia of the Poor. The Maras blackmail and kill low level workers such as bus and taxi drivers for small change.  While Colombia has succeeded to a large extent in liberating the country from the drug cartels and guerrillas, Mexico and Brazil have seen increase in cartel crimes. Drug trafficking has not become big in Central America since their local drug markets are small and their gangs are just minor players in comparison to the big league cartels of Mexico. While Central America is a transit route for the drugs going to the US, local gangs get only a small share of the trafficking revenue from the Mexican cartels.

Gang violence in Central America is certainly much smaller in scale than what happened in Medellin. Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels had ruined the city, which was then labelled as a narco-crime capital. Escobar and other rich traffickers had held the Colombian government to ransom with their money, clout and capacity to hurt.

But today, Medellin has dramatically transformed into a peaceful and vibrant city. Businesses are flourishing and tourism is booming. It has become a silicon valley in the region with a number of tech companies and professionals from all over the world, including from India. Colombia had suffered much more from the guerrillas in addition to the drug traffickers and was almost branded as a failed state at one time. But the country has come out of these scourges and has become peaceful and prosperous.

Central America can most certainly repeat the Medellin act.

R. Viswanathan is the former Indian ambassador to Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay.

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