The declaration by El Salvador’s Supreme Court in August that the MS13 gang and its rival Barrio 18 are terrorist groups is just the latest in a long history of anti-gang policies in the region, most of which have failed to have any lasting impact.
The designation of the gangs as terrorist organizations came as the result of both gangs carrying out crimes that fall under the “Special Law Against Terrorist Acts,” which was passed in 2006. Their status as terrorist groups permits the government to attack in a more efficient manner and with better tools these gangs, or “maras,” which were responsible for a large portion of the 907 murders committed in August, the highest figure since the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992.
The move is part of a long list of measures taken over the past 20 years — both in the Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala) as well as the United States — to contain the violence and expansion of these groups. Nonetheless, history has demonstrated that instead of weakening the gangs, persecution has made them stronger and permitted them to expand.
The first major recorded attempts to combat the maras with legal action dates back to 1997 in Los Angeles, the birthplace of both the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). That year, the Barrio 18 received two “gang injunctions,” which prohibited 68 of its members from being within one square mile of each other. These injunctions were imposed on members of the “clicas,” or cliques, located on Alsace and Pico Union avenues.
One year later, the MS13 received the same injunction against 40 members of the Hollywood Locos clique, which managed to diminish crime, but not the gang’s proliferation. According to statistics produced by the anthropologist Thomas Ward, in 1999 the MS13 had swollen its ranks to include up to 3,000 active members in Los Angeles, while the Barrio 18 was still considered the largest gang in all of southern California, according to reports from the Los Angeles Times.
At the end of the 1990s, the MS13 expanded to the East Coast in states such as Maryland, Virginia and New York as well as the nation’s capital, Washington DC. During the 2000s, various crimes committed by this group lead authorities to apply a pair of laws, “Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations” (RICO) and “Violent Crime in Aid of Racketeering” (VICAR). These laws, initially implemented to attack mafia organizations, were used against the increasingly dangerous MS13 gang. By 2011, the gang was operating in 32 states across the country, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Gang Intelligence Center.
Meanwhile, in California the application of gang injunctions was repeated on several occasions, but it did not result in reduced violence or fewer gang members.
Honduras was the first country in the Northern Triangle to launch offensives against the gangs. When former President Ricardo Maduro took office in 2002, the “Blue Freedom Plan” was launched, a zero-tolerance strategy against the gangs that was the first of its kind. The plan consisted of mass captures of gang members who had no criminal record via the use of force, and included the police as well as the military.
The gangs were charged with illicit association simply because of their appearance. To legally justify these actions, on August 7, 2003 parliament reformed article 332 of the penal code, which established the first anti-gang law in all of Central America.
One of the most violent episodes in the history of Honduras occurred as an alleged response to the law, one year and four months after its passage. On December 23, 2004, the MS13 shot dead 28 innocent passengers that were travelling on a bus to San Pedro Sula, an attack the government said was a response to its the anti-gang legislation.
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The law not only generated a series of violent episodes; it also transferred part of the problem to the country’s prisons. Four months after the implementation of the law, MS13 member Gerson Ramon Belisle Castro was jailed for illicit association, with no other criminal charges against him. He was brutally assassinated behind bars, a demonstration of how the anti-gang law was costing lives.
Statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) make it clear that the number of homicides went down, but according to Honduran analyst Tomas Andino, the level of cruelty and violence reached its peak during those years. Gang violence and expansion had not been resolved. From the beginning of the anti-gang law until December 2006, 6,711 gang members were arrested for illicit association, 66 percent of which were eventually released.
Last July, the anti-gang law was reformed to dramatically increase penalties and place the decision over whether an accused is a gang member or not in the hands of judges and prosecutors as, after years of evolution, they no longer dress like gang members or display prominent gang tattoos.
In El Salvador, the government of former President Francisco Flores replicated the anti-gang model used in Honduras as a response to the growing number of heinous murders being committed. The country’s anti-gang framework was implemented on October 10, 2003, as part of the “Mano Dura” (“Iron Fist) plan, which was carried out extralegally until reforms to the penal code were made.
The difference in El Salvador was that both the MS13 and Barrio 18 generated more murders and had a deeper penetration across the country. As such, the capture of thousands of gang members saturated the prisons and permitted both groups to organize themselves in a more sophisticated manner. The leaders began to send orders from within the prison walls, and as they increased extortion operations the incarcerated members began receiving the proceeds. The leaders also started ordering witnesses who testified against the gangs to be killed, and asking retired gang members to become active once again.
Mano Dura resulted in 19,275 arrests between July 2003 and August 2004, according to police, of which 17,540 were later freed on lack of evidence. During that time, the country’s homicide rate rose from six murders per day to seven.
The law was repealed on April 1, 2004 on the grounds that it violated fundamental principles of equality before the law, but that same day the Legislative Assembly approved the “Law to Combat the Illegal Activities of Special Illicit Groups and Associations,” which the ARENA political party promoted during the electoral campaign.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
After Mano Dura, every presidential administration has implemented anti-gang programs in order to gain legitimacy before the Salvadoran people.
Just 60 days after taking office, on August 30, 2004 President Antonio Saca announced his Super Mano Dura strategy, in order to increase the number of arrests of gang members. The new wave of repression forced the gang members to change their operations so that they would not be captured so easily.
Once again, the majority of the 12,725 suspects arrested during Super Mano Dura were freed for lack of evidence. Statistics from the Pan American Health Organization estimate that the homicide rate rose from 57 per 100,000 residents in 2004 to 60 per 100,000 the following year, suggesting that, far from improving the country’s security situation, anti-gang policies were only making things worse.
Five years after Super Mano Dura, the government of President Mauricio Funes approved on September 1, 2010 another piece of anti-gang legislation, this one called the “Law for Proscription of Maras, Gangs, Groups, Associations and Organizations of a Criminal Nature.” It was so inefficient that in 2012, the Salvadoran government negotiated with both gangs in order to diminish the number of homicides in what would eventually become the country’s gang truce.
In June 2003, the Guatemalan government also began making mass arrests of gang members via its “Plan Sweep”. But unlike in Honduras and El Salvador, in 2005 Guatemala’s Congress rejected the “Anti-Gang Law” and the “Law to Prevent, Control and Eradicate Gangs, Illicit Groups and Organized Crime,” leaving the country without a legal framework to confront the gang issue.
Nonetheless, the police created the National Action Unit Against the Development of Gangs (PANDA) in order to target the gangs. The zero-tolerance policy was unsuccessful, as only 1.1 percent of the over 5,000 arrests lead to a conviction, according to data from the Institute of Comparative Studies on Prison Sciences of Guatemala.
Half a year later, on August 15, 2005, the penitentiary system was drenched in blood following a rupture of the prison based non-aggression pact between the MS13 and Barrio 18. Confrontations in four different prisons left 36 gang members dead, and since that incident the gang phenomenon has been more visible to Guatemalan society.
In 2010, in the face of rising violence, authorities once again sought to pass the anti-gang law, but it failed to receive the necessary number of votes.
Anti-Gang Policy at the International Level
In response to the flow of gang members between the United States and Central America, in December 2004 the FBI created the first federal task force targeting a single gang. The goal of the MS13 National Task Force was to neutralize and dismantle the group before it became more sophisticated. The Barrio 18 became a target of the task force in 2007 and El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras opened Transnational Anti-gang Centers in order to share information with the FBI.
Eight years later, on October 11, 2012, the US Treasury Department labeled the MS13 as a “transnational criminal organization.”
These measures have helped to better trace the gang phenomenon, but have failed to eradicate their transnational criminal activities. Between 2013 and 2015, the Treasury Department sanctioned nine MS13 leaders for possession of assets via illicit means, all of whom are Salvadoran.
Since the end of El Salvador’s gang truce in mid-2014, violence in the country has been increasing at an alarming rate. Last July, both gangs ordered a bus strike, providing a clear demonstration of their power. In response, President Salvador Sanchez decided to attack the gangs by labeling them as terrorist organizations under the “Special Law Against Terrorist Acts.” For its part, Honduras’ Congress has shown an interest in replicating the same action even though the number of crimes committed by gang members is much smaller than in El Salvador.
Once more, the authorities are looking for a solution to counteract the gang phenomenon. Will these measures fail once again? That is now the key question facing the region.