Guatemala: Are Governments Missing the Story on Homicides?

By Steven Dudley*

2048px-PNC_Guatemala

The special forces of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police (PNC). / Danilojramirez / Wikimedia Commons

A study of hundreds of homicides in Guatemala revealed major problems with authorities’ contention that “gang-related” and “drug trafficking-related” murders are at the center of the violence in that country, findings that complicate violence reduction programs in that country and elsewhere.  InSight Crime analyzed the murders in two areas: Zona 18 in Guatemala City, where 300,000 inhabitants live in what authorities designate a “gang area,” and the municipality of Chiquimula, a community of some 100,000, or what authorities call a “trafficking corridor.”  We also studied how police, forensic doctors, and government prosecutors gather and use information they gather during homicide investigations to clear cases or not.  It is less CSI and more creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucracy.

Key findings from the report include:

  • The confidence with which Guatemalan authorities attribute homicides to traffickers is not warranted by the available facts. In the trafficking corridor, we could reasonably attribute only 28 percent of the homicides to what we termed “organized crime-related” activities – significantly less than authorities normally publicly attribute to organized crime.  Drug trafficking, we believe, is an incorrect way of describing the dynamics behind this violence.  Another 38 percent of the cases lacked information to make a determination.
  • In the gang area, where Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) operate, we could reasonably attribute 41 percent of the homicides to gang-related activities – an estimate in line with what authorities say in Guatemala. Another 35 percent of the cases did not have enough information to make a determination.
  • Regardless of area, the widespread availability of firearms is a clear factor in the murder rate. An estimated 75 percent of all homicides occur at the end of a gun in Guatemala.  At 15.8 guns per 100 inhabitants, the country has the highest number of guns per capita in the region, according to World Bank data.  (El Salvador has 7.0 per 100, and Honduras, 6.2.).
  • Another theory to explain the level of homicides – that the more “indigenous” western highlands are less prone to violence than the more “ladino” eastern states – is in its infancy and beyond the scope of our study.

In both areas, the information from authorities was fragmented, disorganized, and sometimes missing altogether.  Reports are filled out by hand or typed into computers, but they are quickly buried in massive piles of data and are most likely erased or lost by the next person in that job.  Multiple, clashing bureaucracies operating on the different platforms and with different formats also have differing criteria for classifying data.  The low priority given to collecting and analyzing information, and poor training, seriously undermine authorities’ ability to understand the homicide phenomenon as well as resolve the homicide cases themselves.  Indeed, our observation is that the resources used to gather what are considered more politically salient statistics – such as the overall number of criminal acts in any one area – hurts efforts to resolve cases or give authorities the ability to analyze criminal dynamics.

The confusion between the sources of violence has a palpable impact on how money is allocated over the years.  The U.S. Congressional Research Service has estimated that 66 percent of the $1.2 billion that Washington disbursed under its Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was “hard-side” assistance – aimed at attacking drug traffickers whose role in the murder rate we have assessed to be lower than previously thought.  Only 31 percent of U.S. aid was “soft assistance” – violence prevention, social and economic programs – that would address the more serious problem of gang violence.  The allocation of Guatemala’s own funding is harder to discern, but the Mano Dura tactics adopted by the Northern Triangle countries over the years have more resembled the militarized strategy against the drug traffickers, implementing various states of siege in affected locales (Guatemala), enacting “emergency measures” inside jails and in particularly troublesome states (El Salvador), and using the military police in numerous places (Honduras).  Aggressive police sweeps have, moreover, overcrowded prisons bursting with inmates in horrifying conditions.  While some of these programs may have helped slow the increase in homicides, our report clearly indicates that a deeper understanding of the problem – based on more rigorous collection and analysis of information on homicide cases – is necessary to evaluate and improve international and local strategies.  Especially if Washington cuts Northern Triangle funding, as it is widely reported to be intending, a smarter approach will require becoming smarter about the problem.

 May 4, 2017

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSight Crime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS.  The full report “Homicides in Guatemala,” funded by USAID and prepared with administrative support from Democracy International, is available here.

Brazil’s Prison Violence Reflects Deeper Social Problem

By Andrew Johnson*

pinheiros_iii_05

An interim detention center in São Paulo, Brazil. / Rovena Rosa / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

It has been a horrific start to 2017 in the Brazilian prison system, and reversing the trend will take much more than increased public funding.  A wave of violence began on New Year’s Day when 56 inmates were killed during a riot inside of a penitentiary in Manaus.  A series of deadly inmate uprisings followed that massacre, bringing the number of inmates killed this month to 120.  Macabre images of inmates’ decapitated corpses strewn about prison yards captured on cellphone cameras and posted to the internet reminded Brazilians that overcrowding, a weak state presence, and institutionalized gang power have combined to make Brazilian prisons – with over 600,000 inmates – tinderboxes ready to ignite at almost any time.

  • During a year I spent conducting fieldwork inside jails and prisons in Rio de Janeiro for a book and documentary film in 2011, I saw inmates crammed into cells at three and four times their intended capacity. On the worst nights, men unable to find space on the floor or a concrete bunk tied their torsos to the steel gates with t-shirts and attempted to sleep while standing.
  • The Comando Vermelho and other gangs controlled entire cellblocks and used smuggled cell phones and strategic visitors to maintain regular contact with leadership. This communications capability and weapons caches inside the cellblocks enabled them to act as the de facto government. Prison guards knew that they were outgunned and outnumbered, and they knew their off-duty lives could be easily extinguished by an order initiated inside the prison.  January’s riots revealed how thin the veneer of state control really is inside.

Impassioned pleas, prompted by the riots, to reduce overcrowding and provide more resources to Brazil’s prison system are being launched in a time of austerity.  The Brazilian Senate recently approved legislation that could freeze public spending for the next 20 years.  Public investment would certainly reduce the likelihood of future riots, but the crisis in Brazil’s jails and penitentiaries is not caused simply by underfunding.  It is the result of decades of the state treating inmates, and the residents of the neighborhoods where most of them were born, as less than full citizens.  Pastor Antonio Carlos Costa, leader of the human rights organization Rio de Paz, told me the state and public’s reactions to the many thousands killed by the police and hundreds murdered in prisons each year were limited because “they are poor people, people with dark skin, people considered killable.  These are deaths that don’t shock us, they don’t make the Brazilian cry.”

There is no excuse or justifiable defense for the inmates involved in the 120 murders that occurred inside Brazilian prisons this month.  It was an inhumane slaughter propelled by gangs, greed, and a power grab.  But the solution to Brazil’s profoundly troubled prison system lies much deeper than increasing public spending or reducing overcrowding.  Refusing to treat people as killable, gang-affiliated or not, is a goal that may take decades and will require a commitment that is much costlier than any public spending intervention or new legislation.  Laws protecting human rights would have to be enforced for all Brazilians, including prisoners.  Law abiding middle and upper-class citizens would have to push back and no longer tolerate some of the world’s highest murder rates and jails where 80 men squeeze into a cell built for 20.  Transformation this profound would be a difficult message to sell on the campaign trail, but anything less than that sort of social and cultural change from the government and the public will fall short of fixing the deeply rooted problems with Brazil’s prison system.

January 27, 2017

*Andrew Johnson is a Research Associate with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture’s Religious Competition and Creative Innovation (RCCI) initiative at the University of Southern California.

El Salvador: Dealing with the New Reality of Violence

By Eric Hershberg

morazan-el-salvador

A farm in Morazán, El Salvador, a department that has maintained some sense of normalcy through its strong social organizations. / Cacaopera de Cerca / Flickr / Creative Commons

A surge in violence in El Salvador over the past five-plus years demands a more comprehensive and inclusive strategy than the ongoing Plan El Salvador Seguro.  A rigorous and highly readable study released last month by the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social (INCIDE) employs quantitative and qualitative data to demonstrate that the pattern of violence in El Salvador has worsened.  Murders increased 66 percent in the 2010-2015 period; the murder rate of 102.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 made it the most violent year in decades.  Multiple-victim murders increased 126 percent in the same period, and murders of women skyrocketed 750 percent – from 40 in 2012 to 340 in 2015.  Gang-on-gang violence has produced a 72 percent increase in deaths, while armed confrontations between gangs and state personnel are growing more frequent.  Kidnappings and disappearance have surged.  For the first time since the end of the civil war in 1992, El Salvador has experienced forced displacements, both within the country and to other countries, most notably an unprecedented flow of rural Salvadorans into Nicaragua.

The 2012-2013 truce among the gangs and the government of then-President Mauricio Funes reduced violence somewhat, but INCIDE notes that it also allowed gangs to consolidate their control over territory while government planners failed to address the deeper causes of the violence.  While documenting that Salvador Seguro has had some positive results and won support, the study posits that the current strategy of frontal attack on gangs has also eroded the social and community fabric that represents an essential intangible asset for durable success in reducing violence.  Many communities live in fear of violence from all sides.  The INCIDE report emphasizes that the causes of spiraling violence are complex, deeply rooted, and require integrated responses tailored to specific conditions in different territories.  What is needed, says INCIDE, would be a strategy that:

  • Shuns one-size-fits-all national solutions. The government has failed for years to understand that the drivers of violence and stability are different across territories throughout the country.  INCIDE advocates the creation of a “territorial map” detailing each community’s security situation, the resources it can bring to bear against violence, and what it needs from national-level programs in order to strengthen local communities.
  • Empowers those local communities. A comparison between two locales – in Morazán and Jiquilisco – revealed that the former, which has fewer police and army personnel than the latter, has been able to maintain a more normal way of life because it has strong social organizations and a social commitment to preventing violence through informal vigilance, youth programs, and cooperation with authorities.  Jiquilisco lacks these assets and lives essentially in lock-down mode.

More research and better-targeted territorial strategies are certainly essential, but even INCIDE’s Director, Alexander Segovia (who was a senior aide to President Funes and principal author of the INCIDE study), wouldn’t say they will guarantee success.  In an extensive interview with the on-line magazine Revista Factum, he blamed the failure to stem the violence on the “negligence of the economic, political, and intellectual elites” of the country.  He asserted that El Salvador must “change perspectives – to examine how it’s been dealing with the topic of violence and insecurity, from the design of public policies to the participation of the different actors who make up society.”  Prevailing approaches emphasizing sectoral solutions – strengthening agriculture, industry or tourism in affected areas – have been too piecemeal to bring results.  INCIDE’s research underscores the need for a more inclusive, comprehensive approach tailored to specific local conditions.  Mobilizing and fostering cohesion in communities victimized by the violence may be a lot more difficult, but it is also potentially the most successful means to a solution.

Click here for the full text of INCIDE’s report and here for Director Alexander Segovia’s interview with Revista Factum.

September 26, 2016

Honduras: The Need to Differentiate among the Gangs

By Steven Dudley

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Honduras street gangs – often inaccurately lumped into a single category – are a complex, deep-rooted social and criminal phenomenon that is driving violence and migration in record numbers. InSight Crime, after investigating them for most of 2015, found that the catch-all term “maras” is at once ominous and ill-defined. The two largest gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 – have similar criminal revenue streams, but different approaches to obtaining those proceeds. Recognizing these differences is an important part of undermining their power and influence.

  • Extortion is a critical source of funding for both groups. This includes the public transportation system and taxi cooperatives in the largest urban areas, which account for a huge percentage of the gangs’ earnings. InSight Crime talked to one member of a bus cooperative that was paying four gangs extortion fees and was being pestered by a fifth.
  • The groups’ approach to local extortion targets – small businesses, shops, or local delivery services – is different. The MS13 does not extort where they operate; the Barrio 18 does, with huge implications for the gangs’ relations with the neighborhood’s residents and local police. The Barrio 18 is seen as predatory; the MS13 is often seen as a protector.
  • The MS13 is more focused on local drug sales, which allows it to forgo the easy extortion proceeds. Because it meddles less with residents, the MS13 has better relations with the local police, who, in turn, target the Barrio 18 with more resources and vigor. This also positions MS13 for better relations with community leaders and politicians, and it reportedly can, in some cases, act as the unofficial social services operator in cases of child or spousal abuse. In one area InSight Crime visited, the MS13 gives accused abusers a warning after the first report, a beating after the second, and banishment (or worse) after the third.
  • While they may operate under a single umbrella, the MS13 and the Barrio 18 also vary widely in sophistication and reach, wherewithal, and infrastructure. They are semi-autonomous and prone to violent spasms that have wide-reaching implications for the communities in which they operate. The Barrio 18 appears to be less disciplined and less focused on bigger goals than the elements of the MS13 InSight Crime studied. Barrio 18 members give the impression that their struggle is more about human survival than expansion in the underworld. They live by “codes,” such as “respect the barrio,” that are evoked as a pretext for nearly any action, violent or otherwise, against outsiders and fellow gang members alike.
  • The violent ethos that guides the Barrio 18 and the MS13 is shared by their rivals, who include offshoots of the two main gangs, vigilantes, and soccer hooligans. Almost all live from the same income sources – extortion and local drug peddling. Some days they are allies; other days they are enemies.

The repercussions of oversimplifying the situation – treating all gangs as the same – are not trivial. Honduras continues to struggle with record levels of violence, and the United States is grappling with record levels of asylum applicants from gang-riddled countries like Honduras. There are times for a hammer, with criminal groups that only seem to understand force. But there are also moments when negotiation, accommodation, and social programs are more persuasive, and long-lasting, than simply sending in more troops and arresting more youths with tattoos. The trick is to know the difference, but we can only do that if we start to see these groups as complex and dynamic organizations with different criminal economies, social relations, and political ambitions.

December 14, 2015

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSightCrime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS. The full report “Gangs in Honduras” is available in English here and in Spanish here.

El Salvador Security Challenges: Shaky Response So Far

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After five and a half months in office, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén is still groping for ways to address the country’s pressing security concerns.  According to official figures, the homicide rate has rebounded to 11 per day – compared to five or six per day for four months last year during a gang truce sponsored by President Funes and his Security Minister, General  Munguía.  Highly unpopular among Salvadorans and despised by the United States – the key partner in security issues – the truce turned out to be the most effective homicide reduction policy since the end of the Civil War.  For Sánchez Cerén, however, the failure to renew the truce has proven to be politically toxic as violence has once again surged.  Inside sources say that the new government has engaged in a quiet dialogue with gang leaders but refuses to publicly embrace it as a mainstay of its approach to security.  Instead, Public Security Minister Benito Lara is pushing a model of community policing that has yet to prove effective and will be difficult to implement nationally.  Low morale within police ranks, the unwillingness of citizens to cooperate with police in gang-plagued territories and, as always, the lack of meaningful resources to address social investment in poor and violent communities are undermining the policy.

Two main elements of a successful approach – funding and political courage – are lacking.  Truce implementation was supposed to be followed by a comprehensive social investment program called Comunidades libres de violencia (Communities Free of Violence), but it never got funded.  Sánchez Cerén, moreover, has shown reluctance to take on the security issue.  The United States, for its part, has provided millions of dollars in assistance under its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for vetted units of special investigators, transnational law enforcement initiatives to combat gangs, police equipment and training, and prison management, but institutional weaknesses remain acute and violence has continued to climb.  Moreover, many critics say the programs are flawed by a failure to condition aid on concrete government steps to end security forces’ impunity, corruption, and secret cooperation with organized crime.

The days in which iron-fist approaches and fanfare-hyping law enforcement activity represented a credible security strategy have passed.  Salvadoran politicians can no longer talk their way out of the security chaos by selling mano dura fantasies.  The truce under President Funes helped gang leaders consolidate their influence and hone their political skills to the point that a solution to reduce homicides without gang leaders’ imprimatur is plainly not possible.  As President, Sánchez Cerén has the opportunity to provide strong leadership, while addressing the public’s concerns, to pursue talks under clear conditions and with credible consequences for gang violations.  In return for a gang promise to reduce homicides, stop recruitment in vulnerable areas, and end gang rapes, the President could credibly offer to allow them greater sway in prisons and to support social programs in affected communities.  He can also commit to find the necessary resources.  The elites will resist paying, but a mini-summit of the three Presidents of Central America’s northern tier and U.S. Vice President Biden hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank this week affords Sánchez Cerén a chance to make a bilateral pitch for help to Biden and a multilateral pitch to the IDB.  He will have to steel himself for the political hits that will ensue, but without strong leadership, security in El Salvador will only continue to deteriorate.   The former guerrilla leader must know that there is no easy solution at hand, but as President – validated by a democratic election – he has the responsibility and holds the power to act.

November 11, 2014