El Salvador: What Makes Gang Members Defect?

By José Miguel Cruz and Jonathan D. Rosen*

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador.

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador./ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

In El Salvador, gang members do not quit their gangs and stop their criminal behavior in a single, clear-cut event, but rather through a process of interaction with a viable alternative, particularly religious groups. The gangs exert control over their members through a combination of benefits – such as employment, an identity, and security – and coercion and fear of the consequences of disloyalty. The gangs exert overwhelming influence over the social environment and regulate members’ lives and peer relationships on the street and in the prisons, where government policies enable them to have near-total control of individuals. Escaping that control is a difficult and dangerous process.

  • Our research, including a 112-question survey of nearly 1,200 active and former gang members in El Salvador and 24 in-depth interviews, shows that a number of factors fuel members’ desire to defect, but that exiting a gang first requires a cognitive shift that anticipates a life outside the group. The disengagement process starts with first doubts, including a critical assessment of one’s current actions, and is followed by “ anticipatory socialization” – an examination and gradual embrace of a new role. Specific experiences and activities help shape the new identity, and the process culminates in a post-exit validation.

Our surveys reveal that members grow more disillusioned with the gangs the longer they are in them. In interviews, they speak of traumatic events, such as armed threats against their families, as increasing their desire to leave – as well as their fear of the consequences of defection. Certain important life events can also influence gang members’ calculus but, according to our survey and interviews, are of secondary importance. Marriage, the reestablishment of significant relationships, parenthood, and employment are catalysts for reducing criminal behavior, but they are not themselves decisive. Age is also a factor, with adolescence being the period in which social embeddedness can be deepest, but longevity can weaken it.

  • Religious affiliation emerged as the single strongest predictor of members’ disengagement intentions. Our research confirmed that most active members who express the intention to defect are Evangelical Christians. Those individuals are two times more likely to consider leaving the gang than those without religious affiliation. Importantly, religious participation enables them to see others who have effectively and safely separated from gangs, making potential defectors three times more likely to harbor such intentions.
  • Evangelicalism seems to be the only kind of disengagement approved by the gangs. Indeed, a gang member who defected when he was 25 years old told us, “The only way that you can leave is through the Church.” Another said, “If you are a true Christian, [the gang leaders] do not harm you. But if you become a Christian just for the sake of leaving the gang, they order to kill you or beat you up.”

Life events that in other countries serve as “hooks for change” – incidents that prompt members to defect – do not appear to be as relevant in the initial stages of disengagement in El Salvador. Drivers that other studies show to be key, such as finding a job, establishing a stable relationship, or having a child, have less impact in El Salvador apparently because of the gangs’ pervasive influence in people’s daily lives – influence difficult to escape. These events do not necessarily occur outside the reach of the gangs, which often control the environment under which deserters have to survive. In addition, time in prison, which in many contexts increases members’ desire to quit, does not stimulate defections because the gangs’ near-total control over Salvadoran prisons makes defection there nearly impossible.

  • With Evangelical Pentecostalism providing the most viable – and the only gang-tolerated – way out, government and non-governmental organizations seeking to encourage defections may be tempted to promote the churches and fund their outreach to gang members. Our research suggests, however, that the crucial point might not only be the religious orientation of churches, but their ability to share the social spaces that the gang inhabits. To the extent that other NGOs can also access those spaces and being accepted by the community, they may give gang members some additional opportunities for disengagement – subject of our ongoing research.
  • Identity-based theory attributes the defectors’ actions to the emotional experience of guilt and conversion, but the differential associations – particularly meeting other successful defectors – provided by affiliation with the religious groups turn out to be significantly more important. Gang members yearn for the alternative social support systems that family, employment, and new neighbors – and government programs – cannot provide.

July 27, 2020

* José Miguel Cruz is Professor and Director of Research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University, and Jonathan D. Rosen is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University. Their full article is Mara Forever? Factors associated with gang disengagement in El Salvador.

Colombia: Forced Disappearances Remain High in Norte de Santander

By Jessica Spanswick and Javier Ochoa*

Event in Cúcuta, Colombia, hosted by Fundación Progresar and UNDP – a book release featuring stories of 100 disappeared people.

Event in Cúcuta, Colombia, hosted by Fundación Progresar and UNDP – a book release featuring stories of 100 disappeared people.

The Colombian department of Norte de Santander, along the most heavily traveled part of the national border with Venezuela, has the highest rate of forced disappearances in the entire country – increasing as implementation of the historic peace accord signed in 2016 has faltered. Homicides, kidnappings, and other disappearances have all surpassed national averages. Fundación Progresar, an NGO based in the province’s capital, Cúcuta, estimates that one person in the area was forcibly disappeared every three days in 2018. During fieldwork with the NGO in 2019, we interviewed surviving family members and heard their accounts of suffering. Some of the reasons for these disappearances have deep historic roots, such as the perennial absence of sustained, trusted government presence in the area, but others reflect trends that have grown in importance since 2016.

  • Armed groups filling the void left by the formal demobilization of the FARC have proliferated. In the last two years, the criminal activity of at least a dozen armed groups was registered in Norte de Santander, ranging from enduring guerrilla groups (National Liberation Army, ELN; the Popular Liberation Army, ELP, also known as Los Pelusos; and dissident FARC groups); armed groups resulting from the demobilization of paramilitary groups in 2004 (including Los Rastrojos); and organized criminal groups (including purported affiliates of the Sinaloa Cartel). Most are engaged in highly profitable cocaine production, narco-trafficking, and gas-smuggling activities in the area.
  • Our analysis of data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicates that the number of hectares under coca cultivation in Norte de Santander grew from 6,944 in 2014 to 33,958 in 2018, with no sign of abating. The government abandoned voluntary eradication programs and did not honor agreements to help communities within the framework of the peace accord. The province provides a strategic corridor for smugglers to bring in Venezuelan oil products for transportation and to make drugs – more than 100,000 gallons a day when it’s available – and exfiltrate the finished cocaine.

A massive influx of Venezuelans fleeing crisis back home has also led to a spike in disappearances. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 5 million Venezuelans (many of Colombian heritage) have fled the country, the vast majority passing through or staying in Colombia. Many, distrustful of both countries’ officials at formal ports of entry and without a proper channel to receive refugee status, transit informal trocha crossings controlled by criminal groups, where they are at risk of extortion, human trafficking, sex trafficking, murder, and forced disappearance. Our research shows that even those paying a fee to pass through these areas are subjected to abuses.

  • Many Venezuelans, including children, are forced to work as raspachines (coca leaf pickers), who have told human rights groups that they want to go to school but are working essentially as indentured slaves. Older youths have been recruited as soldiers. According to five military commanders, as many as 30 percent of the insurgents in that region are Venezuelans who take up arms “in return for food and pay.” They receive more than 27 times the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela. Others are pressured by criminal groups to join. Another problem is that an increasing number of Venezuelan women and girls are victims of human and sex-trafficking rings in the province. According to local organizations interviewed by Refugees International, they “are often forced to ‘pay’ for passage by providing sexual services.” UN Humanitarian Affairs officials (OCHA) say that “fear of being deported or arrested keeps [[victims]] from seeking help from local authorities.”

The standard solution for reducing the influence of criminal groups in situations like this – establishing state control – remains elusive. The Colombian government has the resources and institutions to address the problem, but it has been slow to take action. Some 99 percent of complaints remain in the initial phase of the criminal process (indagación) – with little chance of moving toward deeper investigation and prosecution. Of 1,106 cases, only six are on, or approaching being on, trial. Having met face-to-face with the families of victims, we know how difficult – and unsatisfying – it is to tell them that governments, NGOs, and others are “doing all they can” to find justice for them.

June 9, 2020

* Javier Ochoa and Jessica Spanswick are recent Master’s graduates of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. Ochoa interned with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and Spanswick interned at Fundación Progresar, the Colombian Truth Commission, and the Guernica Center for International Justice. The full text of their study is here.

Latin America: Organized Crime Taking Advantage of COVID-19

By Carolina Sampó*

Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Favela Villa Canoas, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil/Phillip Ritz/Flickr/Creative Commons License (not modified)

Latin American criminal organizations have faced some new challenges during the coronavirus pandemic – such as disruptions in transportation routes and markets – but they have also exploited opportunities to expand operations in ways that further threaten governments’ control in vulnerable communities.

  • Shelter-in-place controls in the region and the United States have complicated the groups’ most profitable business area: drug trafficking. Moreover, breaks in supply chains, especially those related to chemical precursors from China, have caused shortages of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid preferred by U.S. drug users, and ingredients used to make methamphetamines.
  • Trafficking of cocaine and other plant-based drugs has not stopped within Latin America, although some reduction in their movement to market has driven up prices somewhat. Quarantines have posed new difficulties for transportation, but traffickers usually avoid legal border crossings and pass through areas with no or minimal government presence anyway. Governments have also moved detection and interdiction resources elsewhere. Brazil, as the region’s main consumer, still seems to be receiving regular shipments of cocaine.
  • Shipping drugs outside the region has been more difficult because airports are closed and commercial ship traffic has declined, but criminal organizations have accepted to run the risks of continuing their own maritime activities, which raises the price to consumers. Authorities say that cocaine shipments tend to be large – over one ton – and narco-submarines are being used.

Supply and demand have both declined during the coronavirus outbreak, but prices of meth and synthetic opioids have risen considerably – some even tripling in recent weeks, according to U.S. official sources. Demand from consumers of illicit drugs at parties is down with the implementation of social distancing, but dealers in food delivery services are distributing their merchandise directly to users’ homes. Supply and demand seem to be balanced, but dealers are charging higher prices for their enhanced service and greater risks.

As in the past, criminal organizations are showing high adaptability. International experts report the groups are increasingly getting involved in cybercrime. They have also been caught peddling counterfeit medical items. Interpol has seized substandard masks and sanitizers as well as drugs the gangs claim will help people combat the virus. The pandemic has also enabled criminals to deepen their ties with vulnerable communities, such as by providing essential goods and services.

  • They are consolidating criminal governance in the communities where they play the role of social order providers. In the slums in Rio de Janeiro, for example, the criminal organizations have been the ones to enforce lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID‑19. Where criminal organizations cannot guarantee social order, they use violence or cooptation to establish territorial control. And they continue efforts to expand prison control, using jails to recruit members and build their power base. During the coronavirus outbreak, the gangs have organized riots and jailbreak attempts in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. Power in the prisons projects into power on the streets.

The pandemic has forced governments to prioritize resources on the health and economic crises it is causing, and efforts to control criminal organizations have by necessity been more lax. The gangs are also scrambling to return to “normalcy,” but they are again demonstrating greater adaptability than are the governments.

  • Governments have no easy solution. While organized crime is diversifying its portfolio of activities, reinforcing its territorial control, building its prison base, and recruiting new members – exploiting the economic and social situation – governments have little choice but to beef up efforts any way they can domestically while paying special attention to cooperation with neighboring countries facing similar challenges, in hopes of hemming in the criminal organizations. It is a huge challenge – against difficult odds – but perhaps the pandemic also gives governments a one-time opportunity to hit the gangs at a time that they face challenges too.

May 22, 2020

* Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

Latin America: Growing Threat from Brazil’s PCC

By Ludmila Quirós*

City view of Pedro Juan Caballero

Pedro Juan Caballero City, Paraguay/ Wikimedia Commons

The Brazilian prison gang “First Capital Command” (PCC) is extending its influence far beyond the original base it had in Brazil when it formed around 2005, now threatening security far beyond prison walls and Brazil’s borders. Over the past 10 years, according to my estimates, PCC has consolidated its power in 24 of Brazil’s 26 states. Moreover, the group’s criminal activities – attacks, prisoner escapes, and drug-related activities – now involve branches in Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina – and as far north as Venezuela and Colombia. They have sleeper cells (Argentina and Uruguay); alliances with clans linked to narcotraffickers (Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela); and deep penetrations of governments (such as Paraguay).

  • In Paraguay, where the depth of its cooptation of state authorities is most obvious, PCC is most active. In mid-January, the dramatic escape from a Paraguayan prison on the Brazilian border underscored the scope of the problem. Some 75 prisoners, including a dozen PCC members, fled the Pedro Juan Caballero Prison through a tunnel that Paraguayan authorities knew about but were unable to close because of corruption at multiple levels, according to numerous sources.
  • In Argentina, national authorities have been tracking the group’s growth since the first infiltration of cells in 2018, when elements attempted to enter a jail in Oberá, in the province of Misiones near the “Triborder Area” with Paraguay and Brazil. Otherwise, the group seems to be keeping a low profile, suggesting an emphasis on the emplacement of sleeper cells for the time being. These individuals could be involved in creating “micro-trafficking” networks and establishing communications with allies under arrest for drug activities, but confirmation is lacking.
  • Other PCC members appear to be setting up in Uruguay, where preliminary circumstantial evidence suggests they’re involved in laundering PCC funds, and in Bolivia, where establishing drug routes into Brazil would be top priority. In Colombia and Venezuela, which are more directly involved in the drug trade, PCC has similar activities, according to research. Efforts in Colombia involve “transfers” of senior PCC members to that country to negotiate the purchase of drugs and to manage their transport through chains that get the product into Brazil.

Although PCC’s corrosive influence is being felt gradually throughout the continent, Paraguay is clearly the group’s most vulnerable target. Its allies function as full franchises of the Brazilian PCC, and the prison escape, indicating that they have bought the cooperation of very senior officials, suggests it is able and willing to assume an even greater role in the country. PCC’s ability to negotiate among gangs in Brazil on issues as sensitive and strategic as levels of violence and truces means that in even more vulnerable societies, such as Paraguay, it could rise to play a kingmaker role on a range of security matters. In that context, prison escapes like last month’s enable it to do more than recruit local members and allies; they give PCC concrete leverage to use in interactions with Paraguayan authorities.

  • This possible contagion effect – infiltrating other countries and developing loyal followers – will increasingly challenge the regional and national security institutions in the region at a time that governments are distracted by other pressing issues and there is relatively little understanding of how organized crime is evolving.

February 6, 2020

Ludmila Quirós is a researcher at the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT) and the International Relations Institute, La Plata National University in Argentina.

New Leadership in El Salvador: Breaking from the Past?

By Eric Hershberg*

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele / Joint Base San Antonio / Public Domain

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s stunning defeat of both of his country’s two dominant parties in February was propelled by promises of change and new approaches to challenges that vexed his predecessors. His initial six weeks in office have featured notable gestures toward fresh directions but also grounds for concern. The country’s problems are many and severe. Decades of paltry private investment has produced anemic economic growth, worsened in recent years by a devastating internal security situation. The limited economic growth that has occurred relies disproportionately on remittances from migrants – the value of which exceeds that of exports – but the circumstances of Salvadorans in the United States are growing more precarious, potentially eroding future transfers. In addition, plausible shifts in trade policy by an erratic U.S. administration could undermine the U.S.-CAFTA-DR trade agreement, threatening critical manufacturing jobs. Corruption, meanwhile, is perceived by the population as no less urgent a challenge as joblessness and impunity for the gangs whose extortion and violence torment much of the population.

Bukele’s winning campaign formula was to promise to turn things around with a new vision and new people. One important signal of change was the President’s order to immediately remove the big block letters “Monterrosa” from the barracks of the armed forces 3rd brigade, in San Miguel, and his hosting a dinner at the Presidential residence for family of the victims of the El Mozote massacre that Lt. Col. Monterrosa had overseen. A handful of initial cabinet appointments signaled an inclination toward meritocracy and gender balance. Yet Bukele has more recently appointed to key positions dodgy veterans of the administration of former President Tony Saca (2004-09), who split (and was later expelled from) his ARENA Party to form a new party, GANA. While Saca is serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption, Bukele, who was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 and thus lacked a vehicle of his own with which to seek the presidency, opted to run on the vacant GANA ticket. The appearance of figures from Saca’s inner circle is thus not entirely a surprise, but it stands out given the degree that Bukele’s largely platform-less campaign highlighted the battle against corruption.

  • One of his pledges was to create a hybrid (national-international) anti-corruption commission – adapted from the experiences of CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras – to hold accountable political elites suspected of extraordinary levels of malfeasance. Yet both domestic and external constraints make such an effort less likely than Bukele might have imagined while on the campaign trail, and the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en El Salvador (CICIES) seems to have been relegated to a back burner.
  • Equally striking is the new President’s doubling down on militarized responses to gang violence, departing from both his campaign rhetoric and his mode of governance as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-15) and San Salvador (2015-18). Whereas he had entered into pragmatic if unspoken accommodations with the gangs in order to secure governability at the municipal level, he’s now declaring all-out war against the maras, sending the military into gang-ridden communities and clamping down on communication from the prisons from which gang leaders continue to direct operations. During the first week of July – a month after assuming office – he asserted that repression was but the first phase of a comprehensive anti-gang strategy, promising a second phase, focused on social opportunity, that would address the structural factors that draw youth toward lives of criminal violence. But details remain thin, and whether funds will be appropriated by a legislature in which GANA has only a small minority of seats remains to be seen.

Bukele represents El Salvador’s first Instagram and Twitter president – with a penchant for announcing sweeping personnel changes without having informed affected staff in advance. His recourse to social media for proclaiming “you’re fired” aligns him with other western hemisphere presidents eschewing traditional channels of communication with public employees and the citizenry, but in El Salvador as elsewhere this justifies concern over how governance through a cacophony of tweets may affect the quality of democracy.

Meanwhile, the new president has wisely emphasized that cordial relations with the United States are an imperative for his government. More than a third of his compatriots reside there, and he has already taken steps to gain Washington’s blessing for his administration. At U.S. urging, he invited the representative of Venezuelan assembly president Juan Guaidó to his inaugural, and when a Salvadoran father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande, Bukele exonerated President Trump’s border policies, saying “La culpa es nuestra.” Nonethelesss, he has been critical not only of Venezuelan dictators who Washington abhors but also Honduran ones who the Americans enable. Meanwhile, observers in San Salvador opine that, contrary to Washington’s wishes, he will not reverse his FMLN predecessor’s decision to deepen relations with China – he needs Chinese investment and recent history offers little reason for expecting analogous resources to arrive from the U.S. Finding the money needed to provide jobs, security and social welfare to the vast majority of Salvadorans who have lacked them may prove as vexing for the outsider president as it was for leaders of the dominant parties of the post-war period.

July 16, 2019

* Eric Hershberg is Professor of Government and Director of CLALS at American University. He took part in a delegation of AU experts for a weeklong visit to El Salvador in June, during which they met with political leaders across the political spectrum, as well as leading journalists, scholars, NGO leaders, policymakers and diplomats.

Guatemala: Mortal Doubt and Transnational Gangs

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite (Guatemala, 2005) / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Central America’s maras, or transnational gangs, are symptoms of societies suffering from legacies of Cold War-fueled atrocities and authoritarian rule, misguided law enforcement policies, and long-term entanglement with U.S. culture and foreign policy. Feuds between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio18, the region’s most powerful gangs, have helped make the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) the deadliest non-combat zone in the world. My fieldwork in prisons, police precincts, and urban slums in Guatemala City and other cities since 2010 for Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City has mapped their dystopian evolution. The gangs are not the problem, and the problem does not begin or end with them. But they are important symbolic figures for societies struggling with out-of-control insecurity that have obscured the complex structural factors driving the countries’ extreme peacetime violence.

When they first took root in Central America in the 1990s, the maras were little more than disorganized groups of kids imitating Latino gangs in Los Angeles, vying for turf in cities struggling to recover from decades of authoritarian rule and extreme inequality. Over the years, they became brutal organizations engaged in extortion, contract killings, and the drug trade.

  • The gangs’ evolution was driven by histories of mass incarceration in both the United States and Central America, making them a symptom of these societies’ predilection to punish. In Guatemala, through the early 2000s, the gangs fought to survive behind bars against cadres of ex-military officers, the most powerful of which was led by Byron Lima, a U.S.-trained special forces Army captain convicted of a 1998 assassination of a Catholic bishop who had catalogued military human rights abuses in the Guatemalan armed conflict. The violence and deprivations of prison life, alongside the unprecedented coordination between gang leaders that being locked up together made possible, drove the gangs to become far more brutal and organized in their street operations.
  • Mara extortion rackets, among the most feared and despised criminal enterprises, are also emblematic of the symbiotic relationships between the state, law-abiding society, and the underworld in Guatemala. While maras are responsible for much of the extortion, they have in fact become a mask and a model for others profiting from it. Bus companies, private security corporations, corrupt police, and even Guatemala’s biggest banks play key roles in the extortion commodity chain.

Perhaps the most painful truth about the maras is that their rank and file are very young – primarily 10-18 years old – and the average age of recruitment is dropping. Youths are killing each other. A young man named Andy had killed and tortured for MS-13 since he was eight, when the gang adopted him after liquidating his family, who were members of a rival gang. In interviews, Andy struggled to make sense of the violence of which he was both victim and perpetrator by seamlessly folding fantasy and reality – swinging between made-in-Hollywood montages, mara myths circulated in newspapers, and actual acts of murder and torture. MS-13 found and executed Andy, who was in a witness protection program, less than six weeks after his last interview. Very real suffering is powerfully intertwined with bloody fantasy, and the dichotomies dividing innocent from guilty, good from evil, are often false. These are key lessons for understanding the maras and for effectively confronting the crisis of criminal violence in Central America that they have come to represent in such spectacular fashion.

May 23, 2019

* Anthony W. Fontes teaches international studies at American University. Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City was published by University of California Press. The book was winner of the William M. LeoGrande Award for the best scholarly book or article on Latin American or Latino Studies published by a member of the American University community in 2017–2018.

Honduras: Narcotics Trade Accelerating Deforestation

By Luis Noé-Bustamente*

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (Honduras)

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras. / UNESCO / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The rapid increase in deforestation in Honduras is being driven to a significant degree by the narcotics trade’s use of logging, land purchases, and cattle operations to launder drug profits.  Honduras has lost approximately 30 percent of its total forest cover since 2000, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  Research indicates that the burgeoning drug trade connects businesses involved in illegal logging, timber sales, and the use of the cleared land for cattle ranching as a mechanism to launder drug trafficking money.  Criminal organizations insert illegal timber into the existing legal supply-chain, hiding illicit profits within legal revenue streams.

  • Drug traffickers’ access to capital gives them immense social, economic, and political influence in remote areas. Research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters shows that they are able to conduct unusually large, remote, and fast forest-clearing in areas where they also collaborate with illegal loggers to grab land, enabling them to later merge both activities through cattle ranching operations.  Last year, a spatio-temporal study led by Dr. Steven Sesnie, an ecologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimated that as much as 25 percent of the annual forest loss in Honduras during the past decade can be linked to the drug trade.

Even though these emerging regional bosses are growing in influence and audacity, the Honduran government does not acknowledge the scope of their illicit activities – even in the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR), the country’s largest natural forest reserve (approximately 800,000 hectares).  In 1997, the Honduran Congress designated three different zones in the RPBR to provide some long-term protection of its sparsely inhabited core zone and to promote sustainable development in its more populated buffer and cultural zones.  Available information indicates, however, that enforcement has been very spotty, with only very rare action against only low-level violators.

  • Parts of the RPBR have experienced what forestry experts call alarming levels of cleared forest patches – even in areas with limited or no road access, where only illicit traders go. The RPBR’s secluded “cultural zone” is experiencing forest clearing at an estimated rate of more than 100 hectares per year (50 times more than in 2005).  Sensie’s report directly correlates this with increased drug trafficking throughout the country.  Indeed, there is a positive and substantial correlation between the country’s recorded percentage of GDP from drug trafficking (based on the same study) and the amount of irregular forest loss.

Under current conditions, Honduras has limited ability to address the institutional, socioeconomic, and criminal factors that exacerbate deforestation.  Unemployment, corruption, weak law enforcement, and violence create an environment that facilitates the illegal triad attacking Honduran forests – the narcotics trade, illegal logging, and land grabs.  The country has shown little political will to use what few legal tools it has to keep illegal groups from bribing and, failing to buy them, intimidating the law enforcement and government officials who give them harvesting or transport permits.  High unemployment and poverty in rural Honduras also create a strong incentive for local residents to cooperate with criminal organizations to obtain income and protection for their families – and severely dissuading them from with what few investigations might be undertaken in their areas.

  •  The increasingly obvious link with the narcotics trade, however, offers a way to squeeze illicit logging and livestock operations. Earlier this year, two months after U.S. prosecutors indicted Honduran Congressman Fredy Najera Montoya for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, Honduran courts finally – after years of allegations against Najera for “operational irregularities” – accused him of environmental crimes related to his illegal use of wood products and forging official documents.  Such actions, as well as a recent agreement to work with USAID to better enforce environmental laws, are good signs, but meaningful progress addressing deforestation must take into account the underlying causes: the country’s weak rule of law, lack of economic opportunity for most of its population, and the near-total lack of institutional presence in much of rural Honduras.

July 17, 2018

* Luis Noé-Bustamente is a CLALS research assistant.  He is on a team dedicated to a new two-year project by CLALS and InSight Crime investigating the clandestine wildlife trafficking and logging industries throughout the region.

MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.

Guatemala: Are Governments Missing the Story on Homicides?

By Steven Dudley*

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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*

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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.