The Gangs of Central America

Central America’s presidents recently met in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to devise a united policy to deal with the region’s rampaging street gangs. Honduran President Ricardo Maduro, himself elected on a campaign slogan of Zero Tolerance, summed up their collective wisdom: “The gangs have internationalized and we are going to respond with force, with a strong hand.”

The problem of juvenile gangs in Central America is not new. In El Salvador, the gangs became an issue at the end of the 1980’s; in Guatemala and Honduras, the gangs appeared in the first half of the 1990’s. Since then, their membership has multiplied.

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Most explanations of the gangs’ growth focus on two causes: the prolonged civil wars that savaged Central America during the 1980’s, and America’s deportation policies. These theories, however, fail to reflect local realities. Honduras, the country with the most serious gang problem, never had a civil war. Nicaragua and Mexico, which receive many deportees from the United States, have never had the number of gang members seen in El Salvador and Guatemala.

There is no denying that the region’s civil wars and American deportations aggravate the gang crisis, but the fundamental reasons young men and women join gangs can be found in domestic social conditions. Gang members emerge out of dysfunctional and violent families, the historic and systematic socioeconomic marginalization of the region’s poor, and a culture of aggression. Gangs flourish because weak institutions fail to guarantee and respect the fundamental rights of children and young people.

True, such conditions exist throughout Latin America, but elsewhere they do not have the same potency. Not even in Nicaragua, which shares many of the characteristics of the other countries of the region, have gangs become dedicated to killing and terrorizing the population in the way that they do in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and now in Chiapas, Mexico.

Part of the problem lies in how Central American governments confront the phenomena. For many years, officials simply ignored the emerging gang problem. They were more interested in the process of political transition and putting in place the Washington Consensus. As a result, they disregarded social problems and devoted their energies to reforming their political and economic systems. Far from strengthening social institutions, this lack of attention weakened them.

Sheltered by indifference, the gangs grew. Officials saw increased crime as the natural cost of war, and many predicted that as young members matured, the gangs would disappear.

This hasn’t happened, and officials now acknowledge that they have a huge problem on their hands. But it wasn’t increasing homicide rates that made officials pay attention; it was the realization that the violence hurt the region’s image abroad and made it difficult to attract foreign investment.

The response of the countries involved has been fragmented and repressive. Plans with names like “Strong Hand” in El Salvador, “The Broom” in Guatemala, and “Blue Liberty” in Honduras have been created to deal with the problem, but all ignore prevention, overlook the social roots of the phenomena, and concentrate on applying force.

Instead of articulating policies to return fundamental rights to the region’s young people, Central American governments are preparing to wage war against gangs in the name of national security. Such policies yield substantial political benefits: they help to win elections and attract the admiration and favor of the Bush administration. Officials from America’s FBI and Department of Homeland Security have visited Central America to share experiences in combating gangs.

Still, this war on gangs, like the so-called war on drugs, is only making matters worse. The gangs are now more organized in El Salvador because the authorities confine many of them in separate jails according to their specific group. This gives each gang an opportunity to recruit new members among prison inmates, elect national leaders, and establish lines of authority and decision-making that are respected by all.

In Honduras, the gangs are more connected with organized crime, because the policy of cleaning the streets has pushed many gang members to align with drug traffickers for protection. And now the gangs appear to be invading southern Mexico, because Central America’s repressive policies have sent many gang members running north.

Internationalizing the “strong hand” model across the region will incite the gangs to spread to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which have so far been successful in preventing gang violence. If we continue to ignore the social conditions that create gangs, their numbers will grow.

But the outlook for a new, sensible policy is not promising. At the end of the summit of Central American presidents, El Salvador’s President Antonio Saca talked about a regional prevention plan. Unfortunately, no one paid much attention to his idea.