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.

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.