Gang violence and extortion in Central America

Born in the aftermath of civil war and boosted by mass deportations from the U.S., Central American gangs (maras) in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are responsible for brutal acts of violence, chronic abuse of women, and more recently, the forced displacement of children and families.

But it is extortion that forms the maras’ criminal lifeblood and their most widespread racket. By plaguing local businesses for protection payments, they reaffirm control over poor urban enclaves to fund misery wages for members. The maras have helped drive Central American murder rates to highs unmatched in the world: When the gangs called a truce in El Salvador, homicides halved overnight!

The maras are both victims of extreme social inequity and the perpetrators of brutal acts of violence. Many of the murders in El Salvador and Honduras can be ascribed to confrontations with the police, rivalries, score-settling or intimidation carried out by the two outstanding mara organizations: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13); and the Barrio 18, or Eighteenth Street gang (B-18).

While difficult to know the exact number of mara members today, the U.S. military Southern Command’s estimate of 70,000 in Central America continues to be cited, even though it dates from a decade ago. More recent and specialized studies assert there are 70,000 members in El Salvador alone, while the UN Office on Drugs and Crime provides modest estimates of 22,000 in Guatemala, and 12,000 in Honduras. Though imprecise, these figures underline the magnitude of the challenge posed by the gangs.

Violence meted out by the gangs include killings of transport workers, the criminal control exerted over prison systems and the forced displacement of families from their homes. In Guatemala, an estimated 80 per cent of extortions are commanded from prison. El Salvador’s gang-run extortions have been described as a “system of terror that subjects community dwellers to see, hear and remain silent”.

Extortion is the economic engine and represents the largest share of gang income – with an estimated direct cost to businesses of $756 million a year in El Salvador alone. So extreme is extortion in Honduras that the Chamber of Commerce no longer publishes a registry of its members. It is one of the leading causes of forced displacement in gang-controlled communities through the threat it poses to powerless civilians, especially women and children.

[Excerpts from 2017 report by International Crisis Group]

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