On May 28th Honduras released a rare piece of good news, with the announcement that two of the country’s major criminal gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara 18 (M-18), had agreed to a truce. The agreement was negotiated by Romulo Emiliani, the Catholic bishop of San Pedro Sula, the country’s most violent city, and Adam Blackwell, the Secretary for Multidimensional Security at the Organization of American States (OAS).
A tale of two neighbours
The agreement is open-ended and aims to reduce violence between the two gangs, which have an estimated combined membership of 12,000. The maras (urban gangs) are heavily involved in violent crime, extortion and drug distribution. MS-13 and MS-18 come into frequent conflict over control of territory, leading to a high gang-on-gang murder rate and killings of civilians caught in the crossfire. This has contributed to Honduras’ surging murder rate, which the UN estimates at 87 murders per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world.
Honduras is experiencing a similar gang problem to neighbouring El Salvador. Both MS-13 and M-18 are the dominant gangs in both countries, as they are throughout much of the Central American isthmus. Both gangs originated in the US in the 1980s among young Salvadoran and Honduran immigrants fleeing from the civil conflicts in the region. From the 1990s onwards, gang members began to be deported back from the US to their countries of origin, spreading the mara gangs into Central America.
The truce is similar to one introduced in El Salvador in March 2012, which was also part-mediated by the OAS. The Salvadoran truce has proven surprisingly durable, leading the country’s murder rate to halve in the past year, particularly in the capital, San Salvador. The Honduran authorities are hoping that the May 28th agreement could emulate the success of the one reached by its neighbour, leading to a similar decline in violence.
The Salvadoran example
Although the Salvadoran truce has proven effective in reducing murder rates, there are some concerns about the extent of this success. Some local NGOs have reported an increase in disappearances, suggesting that the gangs are still carrying out murders but are being more careful to conceal them in order to maintain the impression that they are complying with the truce. In addition, as the truce referred specifically to gang murders, this has left the maras relatively free to continue with their other illicit activities, especially extortion and drug trafficking. Indeed, this may mark the beginning of the gangs’ emergence as predominantly business-focused entities, rather than concentrating on gang-on-gang rivalry.
As such, a concern in El Salvador is that the truce has had only a limited impact on the civilian population, as the decline in the murder rate mainly reflects a reduction in gang-on-gang killings, rather than those targeting civilians. Furthermore, the gangs’ new focus on extortion may be detrimental for civilians, as local businesses come under increasing pressure to finance the gangs.
This is not to say that the truce has been counter-productive; any reduction in the high murder rate offers an opportunity for the state to focus on rehabilitation and preventative programmes that seek to reduce gang membership. However, the aforementioned concerns do demonstrate the challenges facing any attempt to capitalise on the Honduran truce, where the same tentative evolution towards criminal rather than street gangs may also begin.
Challenges in Honduras
The agreement to a truce will be a test for the leaderships of MS-13 and M-18 in Honduras, as these two gangs have generally looser connections and are less answerable to a centralised leadership. Even if the truce does hold, the decline in the murder rate may not be as marked as in El Salvador. This is because gang membership is lower in Honduras, at 12,000 compared to 20,000 in El Salvador, meaning that a lower proportion of Honduras’ violent crime is likely to be due to the maras. In addition, Honduras has a number of other criminal groups operating in the country, such as the major transnational drug-trafficking organisations moving drugs through Central America towards Mexico and the US. Add to that the increasingly criminalised environment as a result of the country’s high level of political instability, and the potential for violent crime remains high.
The implementation of the truce will not be helped by the upcoming presidential and legislative elections in November 2013, as the term in office of Porfirio Lobo, the president, comes to an end. Xiomara Castro, the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya (who was ousted in a military-led coup in June 2009) and presidential candidate, is currently heading the polls, ahead of Juan Orlando Hernández, of the ruling Partido Nacional (National Party), and Salvador Nasralla, a former sports commentator. Given the ongoing tensions stemming from the coup in 2009, political issues are set to dominate in the run-up to the vote, most likely accompanied by rising instability and potential street violence. This may prevent either the government or the opposition from providing major support to the agreement between the maras, particularly in terms of government-backed rehabilitation and job-creation programmes.
Moreover, there may be fears that the timing of the truce could have political implications. If the truce holds, this would be an ideal way for the Partido Nacional to claim that it is making progress on tackling crime, despite the high murder rates characterising Mr Lobo’s tenure. The mara gangs would therefore be well-placed to put pressure on the government by threatening to break the truce ahead of the elections. Although the gangs have as yet shown few signs of attempting to influence the political arena (although they have done at a very local level), if they aim to increase their criminal activities they may seek to gain leverage over local law enforcement and state entities; national elections would therefore provide a good opportunity to do so.