Central America, the narrow region stretching between Mexico and Colombia, has long been one of the poorest, least advanced parts of Latin America. It has no booming cities, and the proportion of the population that lives out in the countryside is high. It has a heritage of semi-feudal, highly unequal social arrangements and relative isolation. Except for the Maya influence in Guatemala and Belize, it has no strong native civilization to draw from, and was considered a backwater by its Spanish colonizers. In recent times, the area was blighted by vicious civil wars along the traditional class lines of Latin America, aggravated by Cold War rivalry and perpetuated by callous and murderous dictators.
Now Central American armies have put down their guns and dictators have hung up their hats. But sadly, peace has not dawned on the area. In place of the militias and rebels that used to stalk its jungles, Central America has now been infested by maras (short for marabuntas, “army ants”), ruthless gangs that thrive on the drug trade. Central America, again, lies in between Mexico and Colombia. Mexico is the gateway to America and its thriving drug market, while Colombia (and other countries further south) is the world’s top cocaine producer. That meant that Mexico and Colombia were once infested with gangs and drug traffic, but they have both cracked down harshly on them. War-torn and fragile Central America has now become the main ant nest.
America lies at the root of the problem. It has a huge Latino population itself, many of whom work in the drug trade and form gangs in rough inner-city ‘hoods. Once the wars had died down in Central America in the ’90s, the US deported a lot of its worst gangsters back to Central America. America’s extremely liberal gun laws make it easy for gangsters to buy and export them south. Combined with leftover weapons from the war era, they make Central America a gangster’s paradise.
This deadly cocktail of drugs and guns is spiked even more with a cultural element, machismo. This is an extreme form of masculinity mostly inherited from Spain. Latino men, especially in the lower classes, often see their life’s calling as the pursuit of pure masculinity. This usually means lots of workouts and aggressive flirting, but sometimes it crosses into darker arenas. Mareros (the gangsters) are consumed with violence, often since they grow up in violent neighborhoods and violent households. Women are treated horribly and children are beaten or abandoned. Frequent beatings and physical abuse makes them rough and ready for action, but also callous and inured to the spectacle of murder.
The result: Central America is now the most dangerous part of the whole world, at least outside of war-torn places like Syria. The worst part is the so-called “Northern Triangle” — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They have been swamped with gang violence to the extent that refugees, especially children, risk the dangerous trip across Mexico (no safe haven either) to security and prosperity in America. Tourists largely avoid the region, since in addition to the usual hassle of robbery, they have to deal with the threat of death. (The gangsters have no mercy.) Only Belize, a tiny country east of Guatemala, is still a tourist destination, although it’s not very safe either.
Of these, 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’s only the country as a whole: San Pedro Sula, in the north, suffers from a staggering 169 (leading to a reputation as “the murder capital of the world”). That’s war zone levels. And 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. The police have been cowed by the gangs’ strength; only 2% of cases go investigated. Many times, police are on the gang payroll. Thus, the gangs can act with impunity: do what they want. Want to fight a gun battle in broad daylight? Sure, why not? Should we shoot this old lady for only giving us 20 lempiras?* Sounds like fun! How about kidnapping a former president’s daughter? Go big or go home.
Unsurprisingly, the crime wave is the biggest political issue in the Northern Triangle. Political parties split on how to cope with it. The traditional approach, long backed by the US 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; they are often described as the maras’ HQs. The gang leaders stay in jail and issue orders from their cells; wardens are virtually powerless. Bloody fights break out all the time. 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.
Honduras and its neighbors are learning to cope with the new reality of violence and horror. Storekeepers work behind bulletproof glass. Buses travel with armed guards. The middle class cowers behind walls, gates, and more security guards. Shootouts are common at night. Slums are covered with gang graffiti. Even schools have to pay the “war tax” or risk their students getting kidnapped. Corpses on the street, often covered with garbage bags, are such a common sight that performance artist Denisse Reyes lay on the street in El Salvador covered in plastic for a few minutes while passersby ignored her and police officers did little.
Mareros are recruited at a young age, sometimes as young as 10. They go through a 3-month trial period, which usually consists of scoping out targets and spying for the gang. When that’s done, they have to pass the final test (committing murder) and undertake their baptism (for boys, a brutal beating; for girls, gang rape). They cover themselves with tattoos to show off and display their gang identification. (Now this is falling out of favor, because it makes them targets too.) They beat, torture and rape their girlfriends, wives and children. They live short, nasty and short-sighted lives. Girls sometimes join too, mostly because the safest way to escape violence is to commit it yourself.
While Honduras slides toward “failed state” status, its southern neighbor Nicaragua is doing a whole lot better. It shares many of Central America’s woes. It’s centrally placed on the drug trafficking route; it has plenty of mountains, jungles and coastline to hide and smuggle in; it’s poor, rural and struggling; it has a history of social upheaval and civil war. So there are definitely gangs and gang violence. But its homicide rate is only 11, 1/9th that of Honduras. It has rejected the mano dura policy and seeks to rehabilitate its crooks rather than punish them. 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 (unless you count a few errant kicks). As a result, only 70 kids are in juvenile detention.
The other side of Nicaragua’s crime policy is to basically turn a blind eye to drug trafficking. Narcotics are illegal in Nicaragua, but most cops look the other way. 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 $500 million in anti-narcotics money from the US, little of it finds its way to left-wing Nicaragua. 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.
Meanwhile, in Honduras and El Salvador, mano dura rhetoric still dominates the discourse. In El Salvador, the government, along with the Catholic Church, brokered a truce between Calle 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, the two big maras, in 2012. It broke down last year, but was recently restored after the murder rate soared. Still, the government has mostly backed away from the deal and is looking into alternatives. Honduras’s new president, Juan Hernández, was also elected on a platform tough on crime.
Cracking down on brazen violence and curbing gang impunity will keep Central America from sliding into chaos. But any permanent solution will mean addressing its deeper rooted problems: its poverty, lack of economic opportunity, social inequality, culture of machismo, and widespread, easily available guns. That won’t be nearly as easy.
Eastern Nicaragua was colonized by Britain, so places have English names.