How ‘Mano Dura’ is Strengthening Gangs

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The United Nations and U.S. Southern Command estimate there are approximately 70,000 gang members, or so-called maras, most of them concentrated in the Northern Triangle: 36,000 in Honduras, 10,500 in El Salvador and 14,000 in Guatemala. Most of these are concentrated in two gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18). The gangs have a grave impact on the security situation in the region. Maras extort, kidnap, and murder local rivals, neighbors and security personnel. Their grip on many communities has crippled them and forced governments to reassess their security strategies. Their rise has also corresponded to higher murder rates. The Northern Triangle currently ranks as the most dangerous place in the world, according to the United Nations.·

Throughout the region, in particular in the Northern Triangle, the governments have responded to the real and perceived threat of street gangs with a so-called “Mano Dura,” or “iron fist” approach. In El Salvador, this included rounding up thousands of youth based on their appearance, associations or address. Most of these arrests did not hold up in Salvadoran courts but served to further stigmatize already marginal communities and may have accelerated recruitment for the gangs themselves. Far more troubling, from a criminology standpoint was the effect Mano Dura had on the prison system, the mara leadership and its operational structures.

Mano Dura operations were successful in jailing many mara “soldiers” and leaders for everything from petty crimes to murder to extortion. By some estimates, between 2004 and 2008, the number of gang members in El Salvador’s jails doubled from 4,000 to 8,000, representing about a third of the total jail population. The already clogged and inadequate prison systems were overwhelmed. The jump in mara jail population strained the system even further and immediately changed the dynamic of the prisons. The fighting on the street between the two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha-13 and the Barrio 18 spilled into the overcrowded jails. Hundreds died in several riots. The authorities, seemingly desperate for a short-term solution, split the groups up. Now, MS-13 and 18 members are sent to different prisons, a de facto nod to their increasing power and a de facto admission that the state was relatively powerless to stop them.

Grouping the leaders and large portions of the hard-core soldiers together in Salvadoran jails had an additional effect, especially once the two gangs were separated. The leaders of these gangs had more time to organize, strategize and plan their activities. They were safer in jail, from both their enemies and, ironically, from criminal prosecution. They could communicate easier: Their near total control of the facilities gave them ready access to cellular phones, which they used to hold meetings with leaders in other jails via conference calls, as well as messengers to pass more sensitive information. The facilities themselves were also well-suited to their communications since they have electrical outlets throughout to recharge their cellular phones. The leadership of both gangs took advantage. They formed more hierarchical command structures, reinforced old codes of conduct and instituted new ones. These included forbidding tattoos and instructing new initiates and cell leaders to dress less “gang-like,” i.e., blend in, which they have.

They also began entering new criminal territory, specifically extortions and kidnappings. These criminal activities are almost exclusively run from the prisons. The Salvadoran prosecutor in charge of the anti-extortion unit estimates that 84 percent of all extortion operations are run from jail. Some are very sophisticated rackets that target entire public transportation routes or transportation companies that deliver food and beverages to poor neighborhoods. Others are quick hits of individuals that the gang members see on television, read about in the paper or hear about through the network of outside informants that include other gang members, family, girlfriends, friends and other associates. The more sophisticated extortions involve multiple players, each with a specific role such as driver, lookout, pickup and negotiator. Most of the money collected from these operations goes to the gang leader in jail and his immediate circle of family, friends and close associates. What’s left goes to logistics and further operations.

These further operations include controlling drug distribution networks in mostly poor neighborhoods where the maras peddle crack, powder cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines. While academic observers and police intelligence officials all said that maras have long had a hand in this aspect of the drug trade, they also acknowledged that the gangs are increasingly seeking to wrest total control of this market from the traditional distributors and that part of the recent increase in the homicide rate in El Salvador can be attributed to these battles.

Notes

This report is based on a visit the author made to El Salvador in February 2010, during which time the author spoke to numerous Salvadoran security officials, diplomats, foreign intelligence officers and analysts. See also, “Gangs in Central America,” Congressional Research Service (CRS), December 4, 2009 (pdf).

Calderón: Drugs Increasingly Shipped Through Guatemala, Honduras

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Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced that authorities have detected a change in flights carrying cocaine shipments from South America, which are increasingly landing in Honduras instead of Mexico, reported El Salvador’s El Mundo.

Although the exit points for illicit drugs are the same, the routes have changed, moving from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  In a speech delivered to the Inter American Press Association, Calderón said that the first changes to landing patterns occurred in the past few years, when flights began to arrive in the Petén, a remote tropical zone in the north of Guatemala, and added that since 2009 they have mostly landed in Honduras.

The president cited a lack of capacity to combat drug trafficking in countries across Central America, stating “the situation in the region worries me.”   

Drug Plane Stolen in Honduras

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Armed men stormed a military-protected hangar at a major airport in San Pedro Sula, stole a small airplane that had been confiscated by authorities for its use in drug trafficking and flew off with it on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.

Armed men stormed a military-protected hangar at a major airport in San Pedro Sula, stole a small airplane that had been confiscated by authorities for its use in drug trafficking and flew off with it on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. The country’s security minister, Oscar Alvarez, called the assault “very professional.” San Pedro Sula is facing a wave of drug trafficking violence, including the massacre of 14 people at a soccer pitch on Saturday.

Massacre in Honduras Linked to Barrio 18

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In the most complete account of the October 30 massacre of fourteen youth at a San Pedro Sula soccer field, Honduras’ newspaper La Prensa recounts how nine masked men with assault rifles corralled the players, then shot them one-by-one after checking for weapons and tattoos.

In the most complete account of the October 30 massacre of fourteen youth at a San Pedro Sula soccer field, Honduras’ newspaper La Prensa recounts how nine masked men with assault rifles corralled the players, then shot them one-by-one after checking for weapons and tattoos. The massacre left another eight injured, including a referee. Some reports say the armed group took several other players with them when they drove away from the scene. Authorities blame the Barrio 18, a multinational gang with roots in Los Angeles. The Barrio 18 operates in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States. It is struggling for control over the street corner drug business with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) which also has roots in Los Angeles and operates throughout the region. In addition to drugs, the two gangs are involved in extortion and human smuggling. They may be making connections to more sophisticated criminal syndicates such as the Zetas from Mexico. Indeed, witnesses said some of the suspects in this Honduran massacre used M-16 assault rifles, the Zetas preferred choice of assault rifle, since the Mexican group’s core is former military personnel.

Mexico Denies Kidnapping of Honduran Consuls

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Two Honduran diplomats reported being kidnapped temporarily by unknown perpetrators in Veracruz, Mexico last Saturday. But the state governor has already denied the version of the story presented by the Hondurans, indicating there may be a drawn-out, diplomatic spat.

 According to La Prensa, the vice consul and a friend reportedly left the Honduran consulate at midnight, driving the car belonging to the Honduran consul Raul Morazán. Captors supposedly took over the vehicle then crashed it, and the two victims were found, beaten and wearing handcuffs, on a road outside the city at 5 a.m. But as quickly as Honduras closed its consular offices in Veracuz, Governor Fidel Herrera was just as quick to come forth with an even stranger version of events. The vice consul was detained briefly by police due to “excess celebrations”, said Herrera, adding, “there never was a kidnapping.” Honduran officials have strongly denied this and have delivered warnings that other Honduran consulates across Mexico may be closed, if security measures are not increased.

17 Dead in Honduras Gang Massacre

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Honduras is seeing the fallout from Tuesday’s grisly massacre inside a shoe factory, when three perpetrators used AK-47s to slaughter 17 people.

Honduras is seeing the fallout from Tuesday’s grisly massacre inside a shoe factory, when three perpetrators used AK-47s to slaughter 17 people. The minister of security has said the incident is related to a turf war between gang rivals, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18, as the factory allegedly operates on 18 territory (it could also be a vengeance killing, as among the dead is the factory owner’s son, the minister said). The factory owner himself was spared as he supposedly left just before the massacre, in order to buy a present for his son, and says that his 25 employees were not linked to the maras. It could be this was a copy-cat killing of the massacres often employed by Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to terrorize and intimidate the local population. San Pedro Sula, Cortés, where the factory is based, is one of the two municipalities in Honduras where the Zetas reportedly operate, and the region is a key area where gangs refine and traffic cocaine to the US. With an estimated 36,000 members of the maras operating in Honduras, it looks as though the shoe factory slaughter is the latest indication of the country’s growing security crisis.