Rumors that the MS13 prohibited women from having blonde hair in marketplaces have sparked panic in Honduras, demonstrating the terror triggered by the country's gangs and possibly marking an attempt at more far-reaching social control.
On May 17, alleged gang members in Honduras boarded a bus and attacked a woman, beating her and cutting off her dyed blonde hair with a knife. The following day, alleged gang members attacked another woman with blonde hair, stabbing her in the neck.
The assaults came almost a month after police announced they were investigating claims that the MS13 had notified all women who work in markets in the city of Comayaguela -- which, together with capital city Tegucigalpa, forms Honduras' Central District -- to stop dyeing their hair blonde. The alleged reason for the order was so that gang members could differentiate the women who work in the markets from those who are members of rival gangs.
The main rival gang in question is a group known as "Los Chirizos," whose female members reportedly dye their hair blonde and wear leggings. These "Chirizas" were allegedly encroaching on MS13 territory by extorting businesses in the markets. A police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Tiempo that "there are territorial disputes, and only the women from the gangs can have dyed hair, or wear leggings or sneakers of a certain brand."
As a result, MS13 members allegedly informed blonde women who worked in the markets that they had to change their hair color, and also reportedly prohibited tiger print leggings, certain facial piercings, and specific shoe brands. Women were told that if they did not make the necessary changes, they ran the risk of being killed.
Such rumors and reports have not only caused a panic among women who work in the markets, but also reportedly prompted many of those who shop in the markets to adhere to the new rules as well.
However, Leonel Sauceda, spokesman for the National Police, told La Prensa the rumors were baseless, and that no credible evidence had surfaced demonstrating a threat against women in the marketplace. Instead, he said the reports were being circulated by "malicious people" intent on "creating a climate of insecurity and instability".
In addition, a rumor that taxis and busses in Tegucigalpa with stuffed animals in their windows are affiliated with certain gangs has also been circulating. Drivers allegedly use the animals to signal to gang members that they have not paid extortion fees, but that the gangs have permission to rob their passengers.
Skeptics of both rumors have pointed out that gang members know who their female members are, and that criminals do not need the consent of drivers to rob passengers.
InSight Crime Analysis
If true, the rumors suggest that the MS13 is attempting to instate far-reaching social control. To an extent, such social control has been seen before with gangs in Honduras; the MS13, Barrio 18, and Los Chirizos have all been known to impose curfews and force residents to keep quiet about criminal activities in areas they control. Yet the alleged prohibition of certain hair colors and types of clothing takes such measures a step further, and increases the element of uncertainty for civilians by expanding the pool of potential targets.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles
As a result, according to media reports, a layer of tension and anxiety now infuse day-to-day life in the markets of Comayaguela and Tegucigalpa. This unease is fueled by a lack of knowledge and certainty about what is truly happening -- for example, some sources have told InSight Crime that it was Los Chirizos, not the MS13, who prohibited blonde hair, contradicting news reports. Indeed, Honduran officials' denial of threats in the markets -- and alleged gang attacks motivated by hair color -- have combined with rampant rumors to create a mix of misinformation and fear.
In the end, while misinformation has allowed these unconfirmed rumors to take root, it is the fears of a population traumatized from living with gangs and the threat of violence that has allowed them to spur a general panic.
The rumors also underscore the intense rivalry between gangs in Honduras. The MS13 -- one of the country's most dangerous and sophisticated gangs -- has historically fought the Barrio 18, Honduras' other major street gang. In recent years, the MS13 has also disputed Los Chirizos, a smaller group which allegedly has its origins in the markets of Comayaguela.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
Los Chirizos originally served as drug couriers and lookouts for Hector Portillo (also known as Juan Osorto), alias "Gato Negro," a major drug distributor in the Central District. After the loss of their benefactor in April 2010, Los Chirizos decided to go into business for themselves. Working in the markets and various neighborhoods of the Central District, the group has developed a reputation for brutality, and reportedly relies on extortion, drug sales, and hired assassinations as its main sources of income. In 2014, law enforcement suggested the group was increasingly professionalizing, and becoming a major player in Comayaguela's criminal underworld.