WASHINGTON - Just a few kilometres away from the CIA headquarters in Washington D.C. live thousands of marginalized young people involved in Latino gangs called maras. They are pawns in a violent game being orchestrated by international drug cartels, which in recent years have increased their activity in both Central America and the United States.
“They use the maras for transport, logistics and the local distribution of drugs… and in some cases (but not all), the maras provide the cartels with muscle,” says James Bosworth, a security analyst based in Nicaragua and with many years of experience in Central American affairs.
Together, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala make up the area with the highest homicide rate in the world. Murders have spiked drastically in recent years. The excessive violence is due to various factors: the weakened rule of law, a general lack of law enforcement, endemic poverty and, more recently, new corporate involvement in the management of criminal activities. Paradoxically, this increased violence is really the result of the war on drugs itself.
During the 1980s and at the start of the 1990s, thousands of Latino youths joined gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, in the eastern United States, or the 18th Street Gang in Los Angeles: for many it was the only possibility they had of feeling like they belonged. In the 1990s, U.S. authorities began deporting them en masse back to Central America. It was there – often within local prisons – that they started to formalize their activity, transforming their gangs into truly multi-headed, multi-talented organizations. They boosted their presence and networks in the United States via cells that recruited young disadvantaged Latinos. U.S. security agencies estimate that the maras now have more than 170,000 members in different countries.
Also during the 1990s, Colombian cartels established themselves as the principal drugs suppliers to traffickers in Central America. This was a direct consequence of efforts by the administration of Ronald Reagan to block off the flow of drugs through Miami, previously the main port of entry.
The business strategy was simple. Basically, the drug producers paid the Central American traffickers in order to ensure safe and reliable transportation for their products. The families or local networks involved (known as transportistas) received a small profit. The drug trafficking happened alongside the movement of other types of contraband, especially of people and essential goods, such as rice and gasoline. The same gang networks and ringleaders – the capos – were involved, as well as landowners, business men, benefactors and local community leaders. But it wasn’t just about drugs: the capos built roads, clinics and football grounds; they guaranteed law and order, safety in the streets and job prospects. Would they have achieved all this without the protection of the military, intelligence services and civil servants? Unlikely. It was a stable, steady market that also managed to stay relatively free of violence… until everything changed.
Fighting fire with fire
At the end of the 1990s, ever more aggressive military and police activity from the Colombian government reduced the capacity of the local cartels to oversee the international drug routes. At the same time, the demobilization of armies that took place in Central America after the region’s various civil wars ended had the unintended effect of putting more guns into circulation and of reshaping local trafficking networks.
Colombian influence waned; new members and suppliers emerged from Mexico. The once stable business system crumbled following multiple arrests of transportistas and new practices appeared, such as the theft of drugs while in transit and their resale, better known as tumbe.
The Mexican groups introduced new practices. The Gulf Cartel created a paramilitary branch called Los Zetas, an organized gang trained in large part by ex-soldiers of Mexican special operations teams who used to fight drug trafficking. The speciality of the Zetas was their speedy attack and willingness to kill even the highest-ranked capos and cartel members. But then, in 2010, the Zetas complicated matters by splitting with the Gulf Cartel, after closing deals with other gangs.
Faced with this violent situation, the response of the Central American governments was to ask the United States for help and to “militarize security.”
“The U.S. Congress almost always agrees to strong military support with very little public debate, whereas every cent of aid donated to social and civil programmes is questioned,” says Bosworth.
Countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have implemented “mano dura” (iron fist) policies, putting the military in charge of what had previously been police tasks. Panama and Costa Rica have also taken action to strengthen their police forces with help from the United States and European Community. But will it be enough?
Not according to Renata Ávila, a Guatemalan lawyer and director of the citizen media platform Global Voices Online. “Popular perceptions, which are frequently misinformed, have serious adverse effects because they cause further exclusion and fear, which leads to demands for mano dura policies,” she says. Avila, also a public policy analyst, believes that this emphasis on mano dura “relegates social rehabilitation for former gang members and social protection networks for their families to an afterthought.”
As Ávila notes, the maras strike fear in the population and this generalized fear “has affected urban development, increasing the number of gated communities and middle- and upper-class buildings with strict security in place.”
Various specialists in Central America agree that the chain of violence has had significant negative consequences for the State, public spaces, small local economies and even people’s mental health: in short, serious consequences for the fabric of society as a whole. In cities like Tegucigalpa, San Salvador or Guatemala, “it is no longer acceptable for teenagers or young adults to hang around in the street or to express themselves with language, clothes or signs that are linked to the maras,” says Ávila.
Lacking resources and cohesion
Any comprehensive solution will end up facing two enormous obstacles: a lack of resources and a lack of regional cohesion when it comes to planning and public policy. U.S. police vis-à-vis Central America has changed during the Obama administration, with a greater emphasis on reforms of the police and the judicial system, as well as on social support. “Although the U.S. government has finished with the rhetoric of the war on drugs, these areas remain the principal focus,” says Bosworth.
Ávila has suggested that the respective governments analyze and evaluate the measures adopted in Italy where “they passed a law permitting the confiscation of all goods from the mafia.” Similarly, authorities in Mexico and Central America could seize the property of organized criminal gangs and use the proceeds to combat social problems faced by the young mara members.
The U.S. government has prioritized working with international organizations such as the Central American Integration System and the Organization of American States. It is a slow and bureaucratic process that is often all talk with little action when it comes to the topic of civil aid.
“The U.S., Mexican and Central American governments work together to draw up a regional strategy, and then to obtain the necessary resources and fulfil their part of the strategy,” says Bosworth. “There is nothing that can be done by one country alone.”
Read more from América Economía in Spanish.
Photo - Javier Ramirez