by Eric Stimson
A region long blighted by ferocious civil wars and callous dictators, Central America now has a new problem to attend to: A pervasive infestation of ruthless gangs, known regionally as marabuntas.
Central America has been infested by maras (short for marabuntas, “army ants”), ruthless gangs that thrive on the drug trade. As a result, the so-called “Northern Triangle”—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—is now the most dangerous part of the whole world, excepting active war zones.
These countries have been inundated with gang violence to such an extent that refugees, especially children, risk the dangerous trip across Mexico to security and prosperity in the United States. Tourists largely avoid the region, since they face the threat of death. Nearby Belize remains a tourist destination, although it is hardly safe there either. Nicaragua, on the other hand, is far safer and more stable than its northern neighbors, a situation that stems from its different approach to handling crime.
Central America has long been one of the poorest, least developed parts of Latin America. It has a predominantly rural society and a heritage of semi-feudal, highly unequal social hierarchies and relative isolation. The region has been blighted by vicious civil wars aggravated by Cold War rivalry and perpetuated by callous dictators. Although rebel militias and dictators are now things of the past, a deadly cocktail of drugs from Colombia, guns from the United States (and left over from the civil wars), and a cultural element, machismo, an extreme form of masculinity, have produced a nightmarish scenario. Mareros (gangsters) are consumed with violence, often because they grow up in violent environments. Women are oftentimes treated horribly and children are beaten or abandoned. Frequent beatings and physical abuse accustom these men and women to the spectacle of murder.
Among the Northern Triangle countries, Honduras is the Crime King. Guatemala has a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000; El Salvador has 41; Honduras has a whopping 90. And that is for the country as a whole: San Pedro Sula, a city in the north, suffers from a staggering 173 (rendering it “the murder capital of the world”). These are war zone levels. (Honduras suffered 7,172 homicides in 2012, while the war in Ukraine cost 4,771 lives last year.) Indeed, Honduras is basically a war zone. Maras have such a grip on the country, civilians live in fear. The gangs extort from their neighborhoods, with swift death as the punishment for failure to pay. The police are almost useless as protection; only 2 percent of cases are solved. Often, police are on the gang payroll, so the gangs can act with fearsome impunity. Gun battles are fought in broad daylight; the most vulnerable, including the elderly and children, are gunned down without hesitation. Even children of former presidents are not safe.
Unsurprisingly, the crime wave is the biggest political issue plaguing the Northern Triangle. Political parties split on how to cope with it. The traditional approach, long supported by the United States and applied in Mexico and Colombia, is the mano dura (“hard hand”). That means tough sentences, lots of prisoners, and aggressive policing. So far it has not paid off much. Central American jails are overcrowded and unruly. In fact, they are often described as the maras’ headquarters. Bloody fights break out frequently. After prisoners are released they are typically only more hardened, caustic, and steeped in gang culture than before. The police forces are starved for resources and poorly trained and paid, which only incentivizes corruption and abuse of their power.
While Honduras slides toward “failed state” status, its southern neighbor Nicaragua is doing much better because it has rejected the mano dura policy and seeks to rehabilitate its crooks rather than punish them. While it shares many of Central America’s woes (a location on the drug trafficking route, mountains, jungles and coastline to hide and smuggle in, a poor and rural population, a history of social upheaval and civil war), its homicide rate is only 11 per 100,000, one-ninth that of Honduras. Its socialist government emphasizes community revival and creating economic opportunity instead of throwing gangbangers in jail. Organizations like the Center for the Prevention of Violence train boys to be nice to girls and each other and counsel them to overcome their wretched home environments. Troubled kids play baseball or soccer to get the communal solidarity and friendship gangs bring without the violence. As a result, only 70 kids are in juvenile detention.
The other side of Nicaragua’s crime policy is to turn a blind eye to drug trafficking. Most cops do not make pursuing drug smuggling a high priority. Bluefields, a port on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, slumped after a drug bust in 2012, so the authorities let the trade revive. Although Central America has received $800 million in anti-narcotics money from the United States, little of it finds its way to Nicaragua, which is left-wing and hostile to the United States. This means the police force has to make do with less. The president, Daniel Ortega, had a good relationship with Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s notorious drug lord, and might be tapping into drug money for political campaigns.
Cracking down on brazen violence and curbing gang impunity will stem the chaotic state of affairs in Central America. But throwing gangsters in jail and taking a hardline posture— Honduras’s strategy—will only work to a certain extent. Any permanent solution will mean addressing its deeper rooted problems: its poverty, lack of economic opportunity, social inequality, culture of machismo, and easily accessible guns. That will not be nearly as easy, but Nicaragua’s approach is paying dividends, and the beleaguered countries of the Northern Triangle should take note.
Eric Stimson is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in History. He serves as the Editor for YPFP’s Programming Department. For more of his takes on foreign affairs, see his blog at Transnational Topics.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.