Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Our man in Honduras and a gang truce

Gang members, Adam Blackwell, in El Salvador jail
Canadians don't make the papers in Honduras very often.
But last week, Adam Blackwell got a full page in El Tiempo when he showed up to talk about peace talks between the maras in order to reduce the murderous turf battles.
Blackwell is a Canadian and career diplomat, currently the "Secretary of Multidimensional Security at the Organization of American States."
He's also Canada's representative on one of the many efforts to reduce crime and corruption here - the 
Honduran Public Security Reform Commission, created by Congress earlier this year. The notion is that the independent panel will design and oversee a process to improve security, including investigating the work of the national police and the courts. There are three members named by the Honduran government - a former university head, a sociologist and former cabinet minister. Blackwell, named by Canada, and Aquiles Blu Rodriguez, named by Chile, are to provide independent international advice. (Rodriguez, a retired general in Chile's national police force, is a controversial choice. He was accused of corruption in 2011.)
It's not a great job. No job that comes with both driver and bodyguard is. The problems of corruption and crime - Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world - are entrenched.
But Blackwell's effort to promote - or at least explore - the idea of peace talks between the gangs shows a welcome willingness to take real action.
He's already been involved in a similar effort in El Salvador, which seems to be working. Murders have dropped from 14 a day to four, the government reports, as gang members quit killing each other. The OAS has been monitoring and supervising the truce.
It's a controversial idea, and is at best a first step. Just because the gangs have stopped killing each other doesn't mean they have cut down on the robberies and extortion that push up crime rates. (In fact, some critics have argued crime has increased since gang members don't have to worry about being gunned down. Blackwell says there are no statistics to refute or support the claim.)
But something has to be done to reduce the murder rate and start to address the gang problem. Estimates have put gang membership at 36,000 in Honduras. (There are 14,000 in the national police.) The two main gangs - Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Mara 18, or M18, - have their roots in Los Angeles, started by the children of a wave of Central American immigrants in the 1980s. They've grown into full-scale multinationals, in part because of a U.S. policy of deporting non-citizen offenders instead of dealing with them in the justice system. That's helped the gangs spread rapidly throughout this region.
They are ultra-violent. That's not surprising in a country with lots of guns, few economic opportunities, a large population of young men and an ineffective police and justice system, but the extent to which the taboo against killing has been lost is striking.
And they touch the lives of many Hondurans in urban areas, collecting "a war tax" from businesses and bus drivers and others, on penalty of death. (Why call it a war tax? The name is a leftover from the civil wars in Central America when non-government forces collected what they called war taxes to fund their operations.)
The El Salvador truce was negotiated by MS-13 and M18 gang leaders sharing a maximum security prison, who called on a Catholic bishop and leftist former politician to broker the deal. The OAS has effectively been a guarantor. The gang leaders said they were tired of the endless war and revenge killings. Thought the government might have promised better prison placements as part of the deal.
Blackwell was in Honduras to meet with Bishop Romulo Emiliani, who already has credibility with the gangs. He walked into the middle of a prison riot in March - and prison riots here are grisly - and not only wasn't killed, but got them to quit fighting and allow police in.
Central American countries have tended to opt for the "iron fist" approach to gangs. That's crowded jails, but hasn't made a dent in crime and violence. (Sounds familiar.)
So a truce - between the gangs, and between the gangs and society, makes sense. Stopping the rampant killing isn't a solution, but it's not a bad first step. And the Salvadoran agreement includes a commitment to quit recruiting adolescents, another good step if it holds up.
The next stage involves finding alternatives to crime - not easy in a country with widespread unemployment and poverty, especially for 35-year-old gang members with a web of tattoos across their faces.
But talking is a start. And it's interesting that a Canadian is taking the lead.

La Prensa reports that a police raid on gang members seized Beretta, Ruger and Glock handguns, an Uzi submachine gun, three fragmentation grenades, 560 rounds of ammunition and homemade bombs. What makes the seizure particularly newsworthy is that gang members in question were in prison.