|Gang members, Adam Blackwell, in El Salvador jail|
The big news in Honduras this week is a gang truce, with a Canadian connection. The deal was brokered by the Catholic archbishop and a Canadian diplomat who works with the Organization of American States and played a similar role in El Salvador.
It’s a bit surreal. The gang leaders have issued press releases, just like any political leaders. (Except from prison, and with bandanas over their faces.)
It’s also a positive step, despite lots of questions. The two main gangs - Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Mara 18, or M18, - have signed on. They pledged to stop recruiting new members and committing acts of violence.
The truce in El Salvador, also brokered by the church and Adam Blackwell, the Canadian who is the OAS “Secretary of Multidimensional Security,” has made a huge difference in the murder rate. The rate in El Salvador fell by 52 per cent after the truce, the government says. (The murder rate fell to 38 murders per hundred thousand people. The Honduran rate in 2012 was 87; Canada’s was 1.7.)
The El Salvador truce was hardly a panacea. Gang members are still criminals, and - as in Honduras - extortion is still central to their business model. If you have a business, or drive a taxi or bus, or sell fruits and vegetables, gang members collect a weekly ‘tax.’
And truce or not, extortion only works when the victims fear violence and death if they don’t pay.
The numbers - in either country - are staggering. An El Salvador business group did an informal survey of members, asking if they or their business had been affected by crime in the previous 12 months - extortion, kidnapping, thefts, assault.
More than 70 per cent said yes; 55 per cent said they had been affected by crime more than once in the previous 12 months.
La Prensa reported last month that extortion is worth $63 million a year to the gangs, and that some 17,000 small businesses had just given up and shut down in the past year because of the gang’s demands.
And there are doubts that the impact will be as great in Honduras. Observers say the gangs are less well-organized, and the truce might be ignored on the street. And gangs here are claimed to be a smaller cause of violence than in El Salvador. A 2010 UN report found gangs were responsible for about 30 per cent of murders.
But people said much the same thing about the El Salvador truce.
Any reduction in the murder rate would be great news. The daily toll of some 20 dead bodies is terrible for families.
And the fact that Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world has become the only thing people know about the country. The news reports are grisly. Potential tourists don’t know that most murders are related to gangs, drugs or feuds, and crime is focused in poor urban neighbourhoods. Or that tourists are not targeted.
So perhaps only half the gang members will accept the truce. Based on the UN estimates, that would mean a 15-per-cent drop in the murder rate - almost 1,100 fewer murders in a year.
There are all sorts of issues still to be sorted. Gang members are worried about continuing police violence. Some Hondurans reject the idea that gangs might not face responsibility for past crimes as part of the deal.
And the government’s role and the future of gang members is unclear. Estimates vary wildly, but assume about 7,000 people are currently active gang members. They might stop killing each other, but without alternatives they aren’t likely to give up crime.
Still, even with all the caveats and unanswered questions, the truce is a good thing for Honduras.
Footnote: 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.
For more information
Insight Crime has an excellent briefing on the truce here.