Theme: For the United States the war against the Central American youth gangs is second only in importance to the war against international terrorism.
Summary: In a speech delivered last March, the US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales characterised the war against the Central American youth gangs, and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in particular, as second only to the war against al-Qaeda in importance. Unfortunately, much like the war against international terrorism in Iraq, the US is faring poorly in combating the gangs. In fact, the evidence indicates that the maras –as the gangs are generally referred to in Central America– have become larger, meaner and better organised, raising the threat that they represent to Central America and the US to an alarming level.
There are striking parallels between the maras and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. To start with, both are non-state actors, whose presence extends across numerous countries. S-13 is most entrenched in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, but its tentacles extend to Mexico, Canada and over 25 US states. The maras, like al-Qaeda, resort to violence as their principal currency of influence. In their competition to outdo each other’s acts of violence, competing Central American gangs often leave the decapitated bodies of their victims in the streets of Central America, recalling the scenes during the countries’ civil war 20 years ago that devastated the region. Save for the highly publicised MS-13 killing of 28 bus passengers in San Pedro Sula in December 2004, little of the violence is reported outside the region. But the statistics say it all: save for those countries at war, the three affected countries in Central America have earned the dubious distinction of recording the highest homicide rates in the world.
It is also telling that the maras, like al-Qaeda, tend to gravitate to where the rule of law is weakest, or as in the case of an increasing number of ghettos in Latin America, virtually non-existent. Presently, entire municipalities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are under gang control. To those unfortunate enough to live in these areas, this translates into being forced to pay taxes to avoid being assaulted when they enter and leave their neighbourhoods. Businesses in these neighbourhoods are also preyed upon, compelled to pay taxes as high as 50% of their income. It should therefore come as no surprise that basic goods and services end up costing significantly more in these areas. For the poor, it adds up to another indirect tax that they must shoulder to survive.
The similarities between al-Qaeda and the maras are uncanny even among the rank-and-file. Like al-Qaeda recruits, the typical gang member tends to be male, young, poor and uneducated. Furthermore, many of the recruits grew up in war-ravaged nations. However, important differences also exist, such as the fact that a majority of the maras come from broken homes, primarily as a result of parents moving to the US, often illegally, to find work.
Similarities also exist in how the US and its allies have sought to combat these new non-traditional threats. Both campaigns have relied primarily on a military solution. However, the heavy-handed (Mano Dura) policies employed in recent years by Central American governments have yielded few results. The governments essentially tried to make their way out of the gang problem by indiscriminately throwing anyone even remotely suspected of being a gang member in jail. This approach backfired and resulted in gangs lowering their profile and becoming more discriminating in their recruiting (women are now less welcome as they are deemed more susceptible to snitching). Furthermore, the gangs now control the prisons and use them as bases to coordinate their activities and recuperate. To the extent that there is any international hierarchy within the gangs, the leadership is likely to be found in the jails.
In Central America, as in Iraq, the US has discovered that its local partners demonstrate less than an optimal level of commitment, are easily distracted by ulterior agendas and are woefully incapacitated by their weak institutions. The Guatemalan police, for instance, are deemed so corrupt that they have completely lost the trust of the citizenship. In El Salvador, the challenge has been to push the government to assume its fair share of the burden in combating the problem and to work in cooperation with potentially important allies, like the churches, NGOs and the political opposition. Washington has been particularly frustrated with San Salvador’s resistance to raising taxes on the little-taxed economic elite to beef up the size of its relatively competent police force.
It has also become painfully obvious that Washington’s efforts have been hampered by a lack of a clear understanding of the enemy. While the shortcomings of US intelligence in Iraq have been glaring, providing plenty of fodder for a lucrative market in books on the subject, the intelligence gap on the gangs is ostensibly as great. The tendency has been to underestimate the strength and organisational capability of the maras –a potentially costly mistake as the Brazilian authorities have recently discovered in dealing with their own home-grown gangs–.
Various factors can explain Washington’s inability to gather intelligence on the gangs. One is the failure to cultivate intelligence officers who can penetrate them. The task is likely to become even more difficult, as these gangs get more paranoid and further develop their own code of communication. Legal impediments have also surfaced. For example, Salvadorean laws make it illegal to wiretap telephones. Another factor hampering the effort is the small number of US personnel deployed to address the problem. While there are hundred of bureaucrats in Washington spread throughout various agencies working on the gang problem, only three US officials (one from the Department of Justice and two from the FBI) are positioned on the ground in El Salvador, the uncontested epicentre of the maras.
At the start of 2007, Washington finds itself at a crossroad in confronting the threats of both al-Qaeda and the maras. Like Washington has with respect to Iraq, Central America has finally come to the long overdue recognition that the current course of action is not working and that changes must be made. While bipartisan task forces have come out with a long laundry list of recommendations, as of yet no consensus has been reached on whether tinkering with the current approach will suffice or whether a complete overhaul is warranted. The bad news is that time is short. The Central Americans must get it right before the problem reaches unmanageable proportions. Many Central Americans –both rich and poor– have already thrown in the towel and are fleeing their countries in droves.
A solid plan of action can take various forms but success ultimately depends on increasing the level of commitment, coordination and understanding of the problem. Central America’s commitment will be gauged by the governments’ willingness to invest more resources in the problem. This war cannot be fought on the cheap or with only the generosity of donors. Sacrifices, especially by the privileged, must be made. Here, Colombia provides a valuable model. In that Andean country, the elite stepped up to the plate when asked to pay an emergency security tax. Colombian taxpayers have been handsomely rewarded with a dramatic drop in general criminality, especially in the large cities of Bogotá, Medellin and Cali.
Washington too must ratchet up its commitment to fighting the gang war. Presently, US assistance is mostly relegated to a piecemeal approach of training, equipment provision and intelligence sharing. With no dedicated pool of funds provided by Congress for the task, US government agencies pay for the little work that they are doing from their operational budgets. However, throwing money alone at the problem will not do it. Washington must do a better job in its deployment of human resources. More people have to be deployed on the ground to provide a helping hand to overstretched and underpaid local authorities toiling on the front lines of this war. Currently, the disheartening lack of US manpower on the ground lends credence to the criticism that Washington merely wants to dump the gang problem onto the Central Americans.
Better coordination is also urgently needed. US government agencies often complain that they do not know what other agencies are doing. To address this lack of coordination and to increase the issue’s profile, a gang czar should be appointed. In addition to coordinating the work of different bureaucracies, a gang czar could play an important role in improving coordination with foreign donors, mainly the Europeans and the Canadians. The US can also play a catalytic role in improving cooperation between the affected Central American countries just as the CAFTA negotiations managed to do on trade issues.
Lastly, Washington has to improve quickly and dramatically its understanding of the gangs. The challenge for the intelligence services is to go beyond providing a current snapshot of the gangs –the Agency for International Development and NGOs have already done a good job at that– and predict what the gangs will morph into in the coming years. Most likely, the gangs of the future will not fit any of the traditional models of Latin American threats such as cartels, guerrillas or mafias. Thus, it has been a mistake, and will continue to be a mistake, to base a response on these old paradigms, as Washington appears to be doing in urging the adoption of anti racketeering laws such as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to combat the gangs. Thanks to the strength of America’s judicial system, RICO laws have worked in crippling the Italian mafias in the US, but they are unlikely to pay dividends in highly politicised, inefficient and corrupt Central American judicial systems.
One black hole of knowledge that needs to be addressed immediately by the intelligence services is an understanding of gang finances. US government officials confess that they are baffled by how the gangs can generate millions of dollars in revenues from illicit activities, while continuing to live in squalor. The money is obviously not being channelled through formal conduits such as banks as was the case with cartel earnings, but is circulating somewhere in the underground economy –a universe that in the case of some countries in the region may be as large, if not larger, than the formal economies–.
For Central America, nothing short of democratic governance and their economic future are at stake. CAFTA, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funding and other bilateral and international development schemes will be of little avail if businesses refuse to invest because of insecurity. Democratic governance is being threatened, ironically, both by the gangs and by the governments’ own tactics. In carrying out their Mano Dura (Heavy Hand) policies many Central American governments have trampled on hard-won human and civil rights, thereby weakening the rule of law and poisoning the environment for political cooperation. Meanwhile, the gangs have steadily whittled away at the electorate’s faith in democracy by underscoring the government’s inability to meet its most fundamental obligation –to protect its citizens–. Consequently, to an increasing number of Central Americans, elections have degenerated into a burdensome and empty ritual.
While the stakes may not be as daunting for the US, they are nonetheless significant. Central American gangs are deemed responsible for the recent spike in murders across the country. MS-13 and other gangs are also becoming more involved in the trafficking of human beings, arms and drugs. Increasing evidence indicates that MS-13 is also beginning to prey on the weak and vulnerable in the US –especially Central American immigrants who live in the shadows of US society– by extorting money to keep harm from befalling their relatives in Central America. Most worrying is the spectre of future al-Qaeda and gang cooperation in areas such as the mara-assisted transport and illegal entry of al-Qaeda operatives to the US through Central America and Mexico.
Conclusion: The parallels between Al-Qaeda and the maras should not be exaggerated, however. There are important differences that shape the nature and potency of the threat each group represents. Clearly these differences need to be appreciated in order to develop an adequate response. Religious zeal and a rejection of western values drive al-Qaeda, with the US being the focal point of its wrath. The maras, on the other hand, do not have an ideology, and can better be characterised as an amalgam of social outcasts. Al-Qaeda is also believed to receive support from traditional nation states, which the maras do not. Perhaps most importantly, al-Qaeda has reached a far more advanced level of hierarchical organization than the maras have been able to achieve, at least up to now.
Nevertheless, the comparable dynamics and trajectory of the campaigns to combat these two groups is more than mere coincidence. For the Bush Administration, comparing these two campaigns can be instrumental in designing a new plan of action for the next stage of the war against both groups. The most important of these lessons is probably an understanding of the need to tackle the threats of the maras and al-Qaeda holistically, rather than primarily through a military response. Let us hope that those responsible for providing advice to US policymakers are able to draw such lessons before more time, money and effort are wasted on ill-conceived initiatives.
Former Director of the Americas Programme of the CSIS