Alleged gang members in Honduras
In the last two decades, Honduras has seen a significant increase in gang membership, gang criminal activity, and gang-related violence. The uptick in violence has been particularly troubling. In 2014, Honduras was considered the most violent nation in the world that was not at war.
Although high impunity rates and lack of reliable data make it difficult to assess how many of these murders are gang-related, it's clear that the gangs' use of violence -- against rivals, civilians, security forces and perceived transgressors within their own ranks -- has greatly contributed to these numbers.
Among the areas hardest hit are the country's urban centers. Honduras' economic capital, San Pedro Sula, is, according to some, the world's most violent city, with a homicide rate of 142 for every 100,000 people. The political capital Tegucigalpa has a homicide rate of 81 per 100,000. The third largest city, La Ceiba, has a murder rate of 95 per 100,000. These are also the areas where the gangs, in particular the two most prominent, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, have the greatest presence and influence.
The emergence of hyper-violent street gangs happened relatively quickly in Honduras. In the late 1990s, following legislation in the United States that led to increased deportation of ex-convicts, numerous MS13 and Barrio 18 members arrived in the country. By the early 2000s, these two gangs, along with several local groups, had begun a bloody battle for territory -- and the extortion revenue and drug markets that goes with it -- that continues to this day. The government responded by passing so-called "iron fist" legislation and arresting thousands of suspected gang members. Instead of slowing the growth of gangs, however, the policy allowed them to consolidate their leadership within the prison system, expand their economic portfolios and make contact with other criminal organizations.
This report covers the current state of gangs in Honduras. Specifically, it examines the history, geographic presence, structure and modus operandi of Barrio 18 and MS13 in the country. It also analyzes how the gangs may be developing into more sophisticated criminal organizations. It looks closely at examples that illustrate how some parts of these two gangs are winning the support of the local communities in which they operate. Finally, it gives an overview of some of the other street gangs operating in Honduras.
Barrio 18 and MS13 are smaller operations than previously understood. Membership comes at a high price, and those seeking entry are frequently used as cannon fodder. The youngest members may be forced into service, and many of them leave without ever becoming full members.
Both gangs are nominally hierarchical in structure, but the true nature of their operations is more horizontal. Many leaders have relative autonomy in their zones of influence, especially those in Barrio 18's structure.
Barrio 18 remains dependent on extortion within their areas of influence, which is turning the local population against them. MS13, meanwhile, has a policy of eschewing local extortion, which has helped the gang forge a more benevolent image compared to its rivals.
MS13 relies heavily on revenue from local drug peddling. Barrio 18 is increasingly seeking to control this criminal economy, and authorities believe that the battle for the proverbial "corner" is driving much of the violence in areas where the two gangs operate.
All major gangs in Honduras rely on extortion revenue from the public transport sector. A gang that is extorting public transportation in Tegucigalpa can net as much as $2.5 million per year. There is possibly some participation of authorities -- particularly the police -- in these extortion rings.
A comparison of areas in Tegucigalpa controlled by Barrio 18 with areas controlled by MS13 showed no statistical difference in the number of homicides. This is despite the fact that Barrio 18 has the reputation for being the more violent of the two gangs.
Barrio 18 has a policy of fighting the security forces if officials enter their territory, while MS13 has a policy of not fighting. The different approaches may impact their ability to corrupt security forces.
There is little evidence to suggest that Barrio 18 is close to developing deeper relationships with transnational drug trafficking organizations. It remains a subsistence-level criminal group whose modus operandi primarily depends on extortion and its willingness to use violence.
Many authorities say the MS13 leadership in both El Salvador and Honduras are moving towards becoming a transnational criminal organization, deepening their involvement in the wholesale drug trade and possibly becoming international traffickers. Cases in Honduras illustrating this tendency, however, remain scant, notwithstanding the US Treasury Department's recent designation of the group as a transnational criminal organization.
This article was previously published by InSight Crime.
*This is an extract from a report by InSight Crime on Honduras' gangs, comissioned by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and developed in collaboration with the Association for a More Just Society (Asociacion para una Sociedad mas Justa - ASJ). See the full version of InSight Crime's report here (pdf). Read the report in Spanish here (pdf).