Ganging up on violence in Honduras

Although a recent truce between rival gangs in Honduras won’t provide a panacea to the violence, it’s a good first step.

Bishop Romulo Emiliani helped broker a truce between two deadly gangs in Honduras [AFP]
Bishop Romulo Emiliani helped broker a truce between two deadly gangs in Honduras [AFP]

Whatever problems existed prior to the June 2009 coup that deposed President Manuel Zelaya, worsening drug trafficking, organised crime, corruption, institutional dysfunction and the deterioration of the country’s finances have turned Honduras into the most violent country in Latin America today. However, a recent development provides a glimmer of hope for the people of Honduras.

Following several months of negotiations, Honduras’ two largest gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gangs, announced a truce brokered by Roman Catholic Bishop Romulo Emiliani of San Pedro Sula. Bishop Emiliani was assisted by Adam Blackwell, the Secretary of Multidimensional Security at the Organization of American States (OAS). As a result, many Hondurans and observers and friends of the country sincerely hope that their efforts will succeed in reducing the extreme level of violent crime that has made Honduras one of the most violent countries in the world with homicide rates of approximately 85 per 100,000 in 2011 and 2012.

The announcement of the Honduran gang truce comes nearly fifteen months after a similar truce between the MS-13 and the 18th Street gangs was announced in El Salvador. Leaders of the two gangs agreed to stop murdering each other in return for better prison conditions and an opportunity to work with governmental and non-governmental actors to develop a plan to create a sustainable and transformative peace. Since the announcement in El Salvador, the murder rate has dropped significantly, from approximately 12 to 5 per day. The National Civil Police registered 2,576 murders in 2012, down sharply from the 4,371 homicides registered in 2011. The significant drop in murders occurred even though the truce was only in effect for ten months.

El Salvador seeks to reform gang members

Unfortunately, President Mauricio Funes’ administration and the gangs’ leaders have been relatively unsuccessful at reducing extortion and the overall level of insecurity in El Salvador. The gangs have said that they will not give up extortion until they have other employment that provides them with opportunities to support them and their families. A recent report indicated that nearly half a million Salvadorans are linked to street gangs through family and close friends. After a decade of gang terror, Salvadorans understandably are not ready to accept a deal that looks like it rewards crime. Salvadorans remain fearful that gangs are simply disappearing their victims and that the murder rate hasn’t actually decreased as much as the government proclaims.

Will Honduras’ gang truce work?

Following so many years of violence, a sustainable truce is going to be difficult to achieve. There is a general consensus that the Honduran gangs are not as centralised as the Salvadoran gangs, which will make gang leaders’ enforcement of a truce more difficult. Gang members who are not in prison have fewer incentives to heed the orders of their incarcerated leaders.

Another real challenge is that it is doubtful that the Honduran government is capable of playing a proactive role in the truce. The breakdown of democratic institutions, corruption and the ongoing operation of death squads within the country’s security forces are problematic, as is the problem that the government is financially strapped. As it is right now, the government can’t pay its police.

Finally, there is good reason to be sceptical about how much of a reduction in violence will occur should the truce succeed. In El Salvador, it was believed that gangs were responsible for between 30 percent (the Institute for Legal Medicine [SP]) and 90 percent (President Mauricio Funes [SP]) of murders prior to the truce. In effect, no one really had a handle on the number of murders and other crimes committed by gangs. However, El Salvador’s single year 40-50 percent reduction from 2011 to 2012 was quite dramatic. While the murder rate has inched up ever so slightly in 2013, the truce has proven quite resilient.

In Honduras, the gang-related murders are thought to comprise a much smaller percentage of the country’s overall murders. Motive was determined in only 40 percent of the 7,172 murders committed in 2012. Authorities determined that slightly more than 1 percent (93) of all murders was gang-related. On the other hand, a 2010 United Nations study found that 30 percent of all murders were gang-related. A higher percentage of murders are thought to be related to drug trafficking, organised crime, personal revenge, and union organisation and land conflict. Reducing murders by one-third would be a tremendous achievement, but there is little reason to expect a Honduran gang truce to achieve the same immediate impact as the gang truce did in El Salvador.

Reasons for optimism?

On the positive side, negotiations have been ongoing for eight months and were made public when all sides were ready. In El Salvador, El Faro got the scoop on gang negotiations, which forced the negotiators’ hands. They had to go public before they were ready, and it does not appear that the negotiators, gang leaders, or government officials had time to get their stories straight. There was and remains confusion as to how involved the Funes government was in the negotiations and how much they offered in return for the truce. The conflicting stories and the lack of transparency have severely undermined public support for the one-year old truce.

In Honduras, Bishop Emiliani was involved in brokering the truce along with representatives of the OAS. Whereas President Funes has appeared to have wanted to be in a position to claim credit for the truce if it worked or distance himself from it had it failed, President Porfirio Lobo has come out in favour of the truce. He called the Bishop to congratulate him and to wish him the best of luck while offering his personal support where necessary and where possible. The OAS committed to the truce prior to its having gone public. Whereas the US has kept the Salvadoran gang truce at arms’ length, at best, even the US Ambassador to Honduras wished “all success to the truce” on Twitter.

Fault Lines: The US and Honduras

Obviously, negotiating a truce between Honduras’ two main gangs does not resolve the causes of violence. It’ll take more than a change of heart and an apology, however sincere, by gang members. Like El Salvador, however, the truce does provide an opening for the Honduran government and its people to take important steps to tackle the root causes of the country’s violence. It also gives the government an opportunity to change its zero-tolerance mano dura policies, supported by the US, that are believed to have contributed to the escalation of gang violence over a decade ago.

The Lobo administration and whoever wins November’s presidential election need to recommit the country to a comprehensive anti-gang strategy that emphasises prevention, reintegration and rehabilitation. There are likely to be highs and lows over the next few months with some violations of the gang ceasefire. If the truce is going to work, the Honduran government is going to have to make some serious efforts at reforming itself and show some flexibility with the gangs; how much flexibility I can not say.

In addition, the Honduran government might do well to be more transparent about its involvement compared to the Funes government in El Salvador. President Funes’ denial of having played any role in promoting negotiations and attacking anyone who said otherwise, including the media, has undermined public trust in the government and the truce. The government also needs to ensure that the truce extends beyond murders to extortion, robbery and assault quicker than the truce has in El Salvador. After fifteen months, Salvadoran gangs are engaged in just as much extortion, perhaps even more, than they were before the truce was announced.

A sustainable truce will require a great deal, including changes within the government and within the gangs, as well as a lot of patience from the Honduran people. Even then, the odds are not in their favour.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

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