HomeNewsAnalysisReport Recommends Less Repressive Approach to Gang Problem in CentAm
ANALYSIS

Report Recommends Less Repressive Approach to Gang Problem in CentAm

BARRIO 18 / 12 APR 2017 BY DAVID GAGNE EN

A new report by a leading watchdog and policy group says that Central America's Northern Triangle governments should find a middle ground that balances the need for engaging with the region's violent street gangs, while still maintaining the rule of law and the governments' legitimacy.

The report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) enumerates several steps that the Northern Triangles countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador should take to curb gang-related violence and improve citizen security. One of the principal recommendations is to "engage transparently in confidence-building measures with the maras [gangs] without necessarily engaging in direct dialogue." 

The report is careful to distinguish between "confidence-building measures" and the open-ended talks that led to El Salvador's so-called gang truce in 2012. The truce led to lower levels of violence, but critics say it bestowed greater political legitimacy upon the gangs. Violence began to rise precipitously after the breakdown of the truce, with the homicide rate eventually reaching over 100 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015. 

"The unsuccessful truce process in El Salvador has stigmatized the notion of 'negotiation' with gangs," the report states. "But governments need not enter into direct dialogue with maras for a process of pacification to get underway." 

The ICG argues the gangs should likewise adopt "goodwill measures" to show that they are serious about reducing violence. These include ending forced recruitment and permitting people to move through gang-controlled communities unmolested. 

Here again, the ICG notes the potential negative side effects of implementing such a policy. The establishment of these safe corridors could become a way for the gangs to increase their "political and social clout." 

The governments should also address chronic overcrowding in the prisons, the report states, by cutting down on the use of pretrial detention and finding alternatives to jail such as GPS tracking devices. This strategy would signal a shift away from the extremely punitive approach known as "Mano Dura" (Iron Fist) and place a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Along those same lines, the ICG counsels the Northern Triangle governments to concentrate on high-impact crimes such as murder, rape and forced displacement. Authorities should respond to other, less harmful gang activities through the lens of crime prevention strategies that seek to address the underlying social and economic factors at play, the report states. 

The report pays special attention to extortion, which it says is the gangs' "criminal lifeblood" and their "economic engine." In just El Salvador, extortion costs businesses an estimated $756 million per year, it says. Finding ways to integrate gang members into the legal economy, such as providing them with job opportunities, would reduce their economic dependency on illicit activities like extortion, the report adds.

But the ICG recognizes that providing "development aid in the context of gang-run communities poses huge challenges." The report cites examples of small business initiatives set up by non-governmental organizations in Honduras that were shuttered because they started receiving extortion threats. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

What's perhaps most noteworthy about the ICG report is that it provides few, if any, unequivocal policy endorsements. The document is not so much a call for a particular strategy as it is an attempt to explore alternatives to the current Mano Dura approach. Many of these alternatives carry their own associated risks, and the authorities would have to prepare for them accordingly. In the end, it concludes, there is no silver bullet to the Northern Triangle's gang problem. 

"In seeking to address the insecurity and crime these gang perpetuate, states and the judicial system cannot ignore the conditions that have given rise to maras, nor expect gang identity -- and the existential gaps it has filled in young people’s lives -- to vanish," the report states. 

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs 

Nonetheless, there are promising initiatives happening in Central America and elsewhere that exemplify the type of recommendations made by the ICG. A 2016 meta-review of crime prevention strategies found that focused deterrence, which involves identifying the most violent offenders and having law enforcement officers repeatedly communicate with them and give them clear signals as to the consequences of continuing the violence, reduced homicides by anywhere from one-third to two-thirds in 90 percent of all interventions.

While that report only analyzed data collected in the United States, it was conducted by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in order to determine how this and other approaches could be implemented in the Northern Triangle. The founder of an innovative gang intervention program in Los Angeles has already begun adapting his model to the local security dynamics in Honduras and El Salvador. 

While these programs won't break the endless cycle of gang violence in the Northern Triangle overnight, it may be a step in the right direction to focus authorities' towards the professionalizing the police and their approach so that they are focused on the small amount of the population that is committing a disproportionate amount of the criminal acts. 

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

EL SALVADOR / 3 OCT 2022

Extortion in the Northern Triangle is predominantly done from prisons, yet prison populations have been on the rise.

COCAINE / 8 JUL 2021

A US investigation has shed light on the alleged participation of Guatemalan soldiers in a cocaine smuggling network linked to…

CONTRABAND / 18 MAY 2022

Cattle from Mexico and the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua help feed the domestic beef markets of…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Join Us This #GivingTuesday in Exposing Organized Crime

24 NOV 2022

For over twelve years, InSight Crime has contributed to the global dialogue on organized crime and corruption. Our work has provided policymakers, analysts, academics, journalists, and the general public with…

THE ORGANIZATION

Like Crime, Our Coverage Knows No Borders

18 NOV 2022

The nature of global organized crime means that while InSight Crime focuses on Latin America, we also follow criminal dynamics worldwide. InSight Crime investigator Alessandro Ford covers the connections between Latin American and European…

THE ORGANIZATION

Using Data to Expose Crime

11 NOV 2022

Co-director Jeremy McDermott made a virtual presentation at a conference hosted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The ‘Sixth International Conference on Governance, Crime, and Justice…

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime ON AIR

4 NOV 2022

InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley was interviewed for the podcast The Rosenberg Case: A Tale of Murder, Corruption, and Conspiracy in Guatemala, which explores the potential involvement of then president, Álvaro Colom,…

WORK WITH US

Work With Us: Research Internship and Editorial Internship

31 OCT 2022

InSight Crime, a think tank dedicated to the study of organized crime and citizen security in the Americas, is seeking interns and investigators to join its dynamic, multinational team.