Gangs and Gang Members: A Challenge To Public Safety In Central America

first_imgBy Dialogo March 04, 2009 Extracts of this interview were published in volume 19, number 1 of Diálogo, titled ‎‎“Gangs.”‎ Gangs have become a serious concern for governments as well as a source of fear for the ‎population. Retired General Álvaro Antonio Romero Salgado, Honduran Public Security ‎Minister and Secretary of the Honduran Chapter of Transparency International, spoke ‎about the proliferation of these groups in all social spheres, as well as the local and ‎regional initiatives to fight this problem.‎ *Are there any differences between “maras” and gangs?*‎ They do not like to be called maras, but prefer we call them gangs. They consider mara to ‎be a derogatory term, so we use it to irk them.‎ ‎*_Are they considered a subculture? _* ‎ Sociologists have identified them as a subculture. Why? Because they have a particular ‎way of speaking, identifying themselves and communicating, they dress a certain way, ‎and use specific tattoos. However, I think that all countries have subcultures, vestiges of ‎ancient civilizations, but they are positive subcultures; ones that are associated with ‎society, that are integrated, and proactive. I would classify this as a negative subculture, ‎in the sense that, although they integrate with society, they do it with a premeditated ‎focus on crime. ‎ Within this gang subculture we can distinguish different levels. This is the case with ‎white-collar maras, the ones involved in corruption. They debilitate their countries by ‎sucking the life of their employers and of society. Perhaps these do more damage than ‎maras, which are labeled as negative subcultures. Th[is] question is vital when one ‎speaks of subcultures because it is like a game of chess. In the opening of a chess match, ‎you know what can happen at the end. If a guerrilla is labeled a rebel, the government ‎must take actions against that classification.‎ When speaking about these subcultures, if we classify them as a negative subculture, the ‎state must respond by taking coercive action against them. Positive subcultures receive ‎support from international organizations and the support of the government; they form ‎part of development plans because they have remained stragglers. In fact, within gangs ‎and maras, very rarely do we find members of the subcultures from our society. You ‎won’t find a “tahuac,” or “mesquitos,” or the “negritos,” since they do not participate in ‎that kind of thing. One really sees that if we want to label [gangs] as a subculture, it has ‎to be a negative subculture involved in crime.‎ ‎*_Are white-collar maras linked to street maras? _*‎ It is difficult to identify white-collar maras. They move in high spheres, and there can be ‎some elements of those maras that have a legitimate function and position within an ‎agency. They may manage some areas of organized crime, such as the laundering of ‎assets. It is like a cancer; they really cause more damage, sometimes, because they are ‎killing a society. Now with the process of globalization, we see how such groups have ‎legal functions and agency positions, forcing us all to discriminate against most of ‎society. ‎ ‎*_Returning to the subject of maras, do you think that they are evolving or that they have ‎ties with organized crime? How about with terrorist organizations? _* ‎ ‎[This] is an evolving phenomenon; they are learning. These gangs were born from the ‎exodus of Central Americans caused by the political crisis. Most of them emigrated to the ‎United States. These children of guerrillas, or ex- guerrillas, were raised in a culture of ‎violence and were already predisposed to it. When they arrived in the U.S., they felt ‎isolated. The gang phenomenon grew out of loneliness, being without a family and ‎wanting to find kinship with someone. In addition, in the U.S., they endured the pressure ‎of the gangs that were already organized there; it was like a self-defense mechanism. But ‎after sating their feelings of vulnerability, they moved on to their economic problems. ‎They found the opportunity to administer regions, zones, and territories. ‎ The rest is common knowledge. After the policy of repatriation took effect, the gang ‎culture was introduced back into Central America. Maras are not native to Central ‎America, but are instead a phenomenon imported by those who emigrated to another ‎country. They learned their craft from orthodox gangs in the U.S., and their evolution has ‎been constant. Leadership was primarily maintained in the U.S.; they were like Central ‎American subsidiaries of U.S. organizations. But they have been evolving gradually and ‎they have their own recruiting systems. They have evolved into administrative roles. ‎ They are always involved in crime, and we believe that this evolutionary process can ‎eventually lead to the emergence of criminal tycoons and the control of sectors of ‎organized crime. ‎ We should be wary that this evolution may lead to long-term political aspirations and to ‎the joining of forces with organized crime due to the development of similar expectations ‎and interests. Organized crime would favor the creation of a ‘narco-state’ for their ‎purposes. If the interests of organized crime unite with the expectations of maras, then we ‎could see an evolution that would be very difficult to handle. ‎ But there is also an involution process. Where there is evolution, there is also involution. ‎Maras are disciplined, organized, secretive, and hierarchical, but in this process they can ‎evolve [and] make contact with elements of organized crime. If they move to this level, ‎gangs or maras will more than likely decrease, but they will be replaced with organized ‎crime. There will be much more violence. This is what is happening in many Mexican ‎cities. ‎ ‎*_What is the role of society and government in that evolution? _* ‎ I believe that government should use its investigative resources to constantly pursue all ‎types of maras and gangs. If they are aligned with other groups, it is fundamental that the ‎government remembers that groups like these should not be allowed to have political ‎expectations. We had a serious situation like that already in Central America. There was ‎an experience during the cold war of governments here facing guerrilla organizations that ‎were rural in nature. But the result of the cold war was that they became urban guerrillas. ‎This situation is very dangerous because urban wars are much bloodier than rural wars.‎ ‎*_Do you think that the community would support them if they decided to demonstrate a ‎political interest? _* ‎ It is fundamental that a strategy be developed at all levels of government with an ‎expectation against the institutionalization of crime. These groups must be watched very ‎closely in every possible way so that they do not become a serious problem for society.‎ ‎*_Is there a connection between the maras and organized crime? It has been said that ‎there is a link between the MS-18 and Mexican cartels. _* ‎ It is assumed that such a tie exists because crimes have been witnessed that involved the ‎participation of the maras. Some resolved crimes indicate the intervention of members of ‎the maras. But it is a very tenuous link. Why? If a gang member leaves any trace of his ‎involvement, it would lead law enforcement to the heads of organized crime. ‎ This tie has not been proven. But in fact there are some activities that seem to indicate ‎that the bond exists. However, organized crime is much more subtle and tends to favor its ‎own organizations, so that [if a gang member is investigated] by law enforcement, the ‎trail will not lead to organized crime.‎ ‎ ‎ Organized crime is more disciplined and has greater defined characteristics than gangs, ‎which are not subject to the same level of control. For example, drug trafficking –one of ‎the requirements of the organized drug business is that those in control do not consume ‎the drugs. Normally, a gang member is part of the drug chain and uses drugs. Organized ‎crime avoids this connection. We could say the same of the even more critical issue of ‎terrorism. The terrorist has ideological motives, whereas the gang member does not feel a ‎sense of commitment to the cause. To him it is just a way of life. The gang is his family.‎ He may be loyal to his gang but he does not have to be loyal to a drug trafficker or a ‎terrorist. If the link existed, it would be very weak, very subtle. I almost feel that they ‎could not be used, unless it is for terrorism within their own population. Gang members ‎sometimes commit acts of terrorism to instill fear, but normally it is to instill fear in those ‎whom they want to extort, always relevant to their lifestyle, but not due to loyalty to an ‎organization such as organized crime.‎ ‎*_How do maras in Honduras compare to their neighbors in El Salvador and Guatemala? ‎‎_*‎ When referring to maras, the total region is their turf. Honduras is a small section within ‎it. We have seen that Honduran maras have tried cutting ties with other regional groups. ‎If we compare the case of Honduras with other Central American countries, their rapid ‎growth is a clear indicator that they have been gaining momentum. They are equally ‎violent. They all commit atrocious crimes, but the growth in Honduras has been more ‎significant. ‎ International organizations have determined that in Honduras there are at least 70,000 ‎organized gang members and an equal amount of supporters. The case of Honduras has ‎been extreme. However, it is different from what happened in El Salvador, but remember ‎that the maras of El Salvador already were infected by the syndrome of war where they ‎lived. In their civil war, they had 80,000 dead. Many of those gang members are children ‎of those dead guerrillas who were left orphans. There, they are much more violent ‎because they have a military culture. They made their own weapons.‎ ‎ ‎ The phenomenon in Honduras, although quite widespread, was essentially an imitation.‎ ‎*_How is Honduras working with its neighbors to eradicate gang violence? _*‎ ‎ There is a regional organization called the Central American Integration System, or ‎SICA. This system of integration deals with the economy and social concerns, as well as ‎gang-related and similar issues. At the diplomatic level, the vice chancellor of the ‎republic of each country is responsible for setting up security conferences with the ‎undersecretaries of government and the undersecretaries of security, as is the case in ‎Honduras. They meet regularly. Certain indicators must be constantly re-evaluated to ‎determine how the process is evolving. ‎ But important decisions have also been reached. For example, communication between ‎countries is taking place in real-time. Interpol, which has already had an ample history in ‎Central America and in the rest of the continent, will communicate with far greater ease, ‎and this will allow us to inform other countries of what is happening. When a gang ‎member goes to a country and is captured in that country, we are immediately informed ‎and he is extradited. The extradition process is also working. ‎ The integration process is quite fast in Central America – they no longer require ‎immigration documents – and this allows gang members to speed up the process. Gang ‎members communicate with each other more easily than governments. This has ‎motivated us to find ways in which government institutions can act more quickly in ‎enforcing appropriate measures. The U.S. has supported a process known as the Mérida ‎Initiative. Decisions have also been made to create regional training centers, like the one ‎operating in El Salvador, allowing us to communicate more efficiently between countries. ‎ ‎*_How do you think the Mérida Initiative is going to help Honduras? _*‎ It is actually already helping. The U.S. has donated funds for this project, which have ‎been evenly distributed among Central American countries to carry out operations such as ‎permanent monitoring crime observatories. The Mérida Initiative has also ‎institutionalized a general operating procedure among Central American nations to fight ‎this type of crime. ‎ ‎*_What other types of initiatives does Honduras have in place to fight the problem of the ‎maras? _*‎ The needs are very extensive since it has been established in many countries that to ‎rehabilitate a gang member you need an average of four years in order to detoxify the ‎psychological distortions present in these young people. Very specialized centers are ‎required, equipped with sociologists, criminologists, and experts in reversing the damage ‎endured by most gang members. ‎ They have not only committed robberies. Their entrance tests [to gangs] involve ‎committing other crimes, and they continue doing so to reach different levels within the ‎hierarchy. They must commit more crimes. Their tattoos speak of that. These countries ‎are then faced with the dilemma of investing their small budgets in the process of ‎rehabilitation instead of all the other vital social issues that abound in society like ‎education, health, roads, agriculture, and migration. Since all these needs of society have ‎to be neglected to take care of 70,000 mara members, the political agenda has been to ‎promote organizations like the ONG’s and international aid. However, the needs are ‎quite extensive.‎ Honduras does not have any government-subsidized centers for rehabilitation or reform. ‎The maras that are captured are in prison. Although they are separate, we must remember ‎that there are maras like the Salvatrucha and the MS that are different and cannot be put ‎in the same category. In addition to that, we must note that some members are separating ‎from the maras. These individuals are referred to as the “pesetas”. The state should be ‎paying extra attention to them. The costs to take care of all that would be extremely high. ‎At this time, many of these needs are being covered by international organizations, [like] ‎the United Nations. We are beginning to see that private enterprises are getting involved, ‎particularly with homeless children considered at-risk. But these needs are too large for ‎the State.‎ ‎*_What about prevention? How difficult is it for the states with smaller budgets to invest ‎in prevention? _*‎ At least at the state level, we do have a prevention mechanism that is carried out as ‎community policing methods, sort of like the “prevention police”. This project is getting ‎very good results. Graduations have about 200 participants that have added up to 100,000 ‎graduates. The project is called Anti-Gangs, Anti-Sexual Harassment and is taught in ‎primary and secondary school. It is taught to the teachers and parents so that there is a ‎multiplying effect on the parents and families. They attend every Saturday to receive ‎education about maras, drugs and the exploitation of children. We cover regional capitals, ‎highly populated communities and primary and secondary education levels.‎ ‎*_What is the role of the police in the eradication of gangs? _*‎ The police have special statutes against maras. The state formulated a law against illicit ‎association that has been effective because it has served as a deterrent against these ‎sectors. The police also attempt to infiltrate these groups. ‎ It is a procedure using the same police or the same maras. It involves getting to know ‎them, to the point where they know their structures and then there are positive results ‎because taking this policy of approach with them lets them know their expectations. This ‎cannot be done if one does not really try to connect with them. The police do that, but we ‎also prefer that the organizations that interact with them (the maras) try to ascertain their ‎expectations. There are some that are non-recoverable. But there are others that ‎voluntarily accept that they must leave that system. ‎ I remember that President Diaz Ordaz of Mexico said a very important thing referring to ‎Communism: Adolescents who are communists are idiots, but those who continue being ‎communists after 20 are stupid. This is a phenomenon of imitation, an imitation of young ‎people. The police must watch young people. ‎ ‎*_As far as white-collar crime, what is being done to eradicate corruption? _*‎ The justice system is the best tool for this, but there are institutions that are dedicated to ‎that like Transparency International, of which I am the secretary. The approach is to ‎educate in order to eradicate corruption. Government officials need to respect the law and ‎serve the public with unbiased and fair treatment for all. ‎ As far as criminal prosecution, we still have not reached the capacity of other law ‎enforcement agencies in developed countries to infiltrate all white-collar crimes, for ‎example, money laundering. ‎ In addition, the state has the Superior Court of Accounts where each civil employee, ‎together with the general office of the public prosecutor of the republic, watches for ‎sudden, excessive growth of income; where people who had nothing to start with, ‎suddenly start making money. Everybody sees it, and they just say these are remittances ‎from the U.S., but how much can a young person send from the U.S.? He is expected to ‎send money to feed his family, for education, to buy land for a house, but it should not ‎reflect a sudden growth in income. Seeing that the growth of wealth is unusual they could ‎use this as a control mechanism, but nobody is following up on it.‎ Society always complains about justice not being efficient and that judges and public ‎prosecutors are easily compromised by organized crime. In fact, lately, there have been ‎many deaths of attorneys defending people accused of drug trafficking or organized ‎crime.‎ ‎*_Do regional efforts exist to avoid corruption? _*‎ We use the same procedures against petty criminals, gang members and organized crime. ‎We have this connection, a direct line of communication between countries. But policing ‎it is difficult to do: when an industrialist of one country receives funds from money ‎laundering and tries to use them in the economy of another country, that is very difficult ‎to catch. We have never detained anybody here for sheltering organized crime proceeds ‎from another country, but communication exists between law enforcement and justice ‎systems to figure out how to lessen this problem. The laws exist; it is just hard to enforce ‎them.‎ ‎*_In your position as Minister of Security, what progress did you see in the eradication of ‎violence? What lessons have you learned? _* ‎ A good diagnosis is needed. I have learned that security should not become politicized. ‎Politicized security breeds more insecurity. In addition, it creates suspicion. If a political ‎party uses the lack of security in its campaign as a step to gain power, it is safe to assume ‎that that party wishes for insecurity to motivate people to vote for them to protect them. ‎ My experience is that a national policy needs to be created – with the participation of ‎society and in particular of political organisms and leaders – against insecurity. It should ‎be both a medium and long-term policy. In the short term, we have security institutions ‎that are dedicated to this. It is my experience that promoting security it is vital to ‎establish a unanimous strategy in the form of a national project. ‎ ‎*_Do you have anything to add on the subject of gangs? _* ‎ Everything that we have spoken about is integral to the subject, but without strategy, all ‎those questions, although they are understood perfectly, do not solve anything. They say ‎that everything old is new again, but in the decades from the 1960s to 1989, a strategy ‎that the West used to be able to confront the threat of Communism was very effective ‎because it was very simple, comprehensible and feasible. ‎ First, development must be evenly distributed. Now, since everybody wants to use new ‎terms to modernize things; they call it integral development; it has been called ‎sustainable development, but it is the same thing– balanced development. I am referring ‎to the fair distribution of wealth among the people. And as we reach the point of balanced ‎development, we notice an evident departure from globalization, supported by neoliberal ‎capitalism. But, in the long run, this will reveal that there is a great concentration of ‎capital in the hands of a minority and a great majority that lives in poverty. This must be ‎evaluated correctly to develop a strategy. ‎ Second is the propagation of ideas. Culture and education must be promoted. Emphasis ‎needs to be placed on education because the world today is competitive and ‎technological. In countries like ours, still primarily rural, education does not reach ‎everybody. Our country has a 30% illiteracy rate, with a functional illiteracy rate of ‎‎50%, and perhaps a small minority has managed to rise above that and is at a competitive ‎level of the system. The movement of ideas is fundamental. But so is social mobility, so ‎that a farmer can receive an education and have the option to be involved in government ‎and thus he can then rise within the political system. If there is social mobility, there will ‎soon be a movement of capital. This way a single sector of society will not hold on to all ‎the capital and the tasks will be distributed. ‎ Finally, use of force is the third element. These elements must be clear to us and we must ‎learn the lessons of past wars and past conflicts. Military troops cannot be brought in to ‎solve a problem of a political nature. The lesson we learned from the Cold War is that ‎societies must understand that the police cannot be used to solve a social problem. There ‎must be consistency. The powers-that-be need to realize that deterrence cannot only be ‎achieved by law enforcement. It is necessary to eradicate a problem starting from the ‎bottom. Our tools to knock down this wall of insecurity should be the control of territory ‎and the fortification of moral values. Our educational goal in this aspect should simply be ‎to control mass media. Uncontrolled television has a large impact in societies like ours. ‎People think that it is the normal way of life. These are degrading systems that in the long ‎term produce more distortion in our society. ‎ The use of force is a general strategy abused by governments in past decades, which ‎brought about the triumph of capitalism. This comes hand in hand with the strategy of ‎institutionalization. Nothing should be done to make things easier for these groups. The ‎heroes of the young people are themselves young, able to easily promote themselves ‎within the media. They are not the Nobel prizes winners for peace or for medicine. The ‎media, in general, is promoting that young people, delinquents and those who exhibit ‎aggressive behaviors are the heroes of our time. They should not be permitted to promote ‎themselves with such ease. ‎ They must also be infiltrated, use the maras themselves as a means of internal ‎communication. It is also necessary to erase the legitimacy of those groups. In that sense, ‎I suggest one basic strategy (involving government support): the government must ‎prioritize the popular support of the people. Without the support of the people, the police ‎can do nothing. We see that the maras in order to survive must fight for a territory; just as ‎the state, they cannot exist in the air. The maras cannot act if they do not have territory. ‎The basis of all secure societies is to have control of a territory.‎ Society can have control of territory only if it is organized. When discussing security, one ‎should consider that the reverse of the coin of security is insecurity. Insecurity is an ‎indicator that tells us the degree of organization we have as a society. There is insecurity ‎because society is not controlled. There is insecurity because society does not control its ‎public spaces. We have allowed criminals to have access to public spaces. Honest citizens ‎live imprisoned in the isolation of their homes, while the gang members and the maras ‎have taken over the streets. ‎ Finally, we must reorganize our forces strategically. The government must emphasize the ‎use of very good intelligence. For the police forces, quality must become the priority, not ‎the number of police. There is one point within that strategy that is essential: the loyalty ‎of the police to the community. The police must really be an institution dedicated to ‎service. They must be valued by the community. If the government gives priority to ‎mobilizing the community against crime, the police must have the loyalty and ‎commitment of their people. If the police extort the population, if they have criminal ties, ‎if they have allowed organized crime to permeate, they will be shunned by the people. If ‎there is no harmony between the police and the people, we will never be able to gain ‎control of the territory. The fundamental requirement for criminals to be able to thrive, ‎especially maras, is territory. For that reason the primary fight must be over territory. ‎ ‎ ‎ Soon we would have what I call a cascade against delinquency. First, it is necessary to ‎knock them off their pedestals, so they are not the heroes of society. Second, it is ‎necessary to debilitate them. What sustains a gang? They must have human resources. It ‎is necessary to try to prevent young people from joining them. (You must have) a policy ‎of security that monopolizes the minds of young people so they are not attracted to gangs ‎and so there are other options for young people. What other thing sustains them? ‎Economic resources. ‎ After discrediting them, isolating them and debilitating them, it is necessary to start the ‎infiltration process. Then, to prosecute them, it is necessary to apply a law to them that is ‎powerful and place them behind bars, rehabilitate them and return them to society. Within ‎this policy we must be clear: society must understand that once they have gone through ‎the rehabilitation process, it is necessary to give them options so that they really find in ‎society the hope to live, to develop, to regenerate. If society does not accept them, they ‎return with more aggressiveness, to form other more aggressive gangs. ‎ ‎*_As far as the support of the community, do you think that the citizen roundtables are ‎improving the community’s perception of the government or government efforts toward ‎fixing the gang problem? _*‎ At least in our environment, the population thinks that matters concerning safety are ‎strictly the responsibility of the police and that it is nobody else’s obligation to contribute ‎to public safety. When I mentioned that the government must prioritize the support of the ‎people, I meant that we must look for the mechanism to earn that support. If there is no ‎security, it is because there is no organization. The citizen roundtables are not an ‎invention of Honduras. In the U.S., President Clinton used them in the various ‎neighborhoods and called it Project Safe Neighborhood; other communities refer to them ‎as a “Safer Community”. We call them Citizen Roundtables for Security and Citizens for ‎Security. ‎ The government project was meant to organize the two largest cities: Tegucigalpa and ‎San Pedro Sula. However, either due to a sudden awareness or the need of the population ‎to feel safe, having felt discouraged or intimidated, they began to unite. We started seeing ‎the emergence of youth roundtables in the schools aided by teachers to help protect ‎adolescents from drug dealers and gangs. A fundamental part of the citizen roundtables ‎for security was the study I did with the help of the European Economic Community, as ‎well as the U.S. government, of the real situation in Honduras. We reached the conclusion ‎that there was a permanent block: the police were rejected by the community; the police ‎did not have the complete confidence of the community. The first order of business was ‎therefore for the police to become closer to the community. ‎ Citizen roundtables help local police organize communities and establish relationships. ‎But this works both ways. It helps in controlling a community territory, but it also allows ‎the community to supervise police behavior. ‎ ‎ I believe that in both respects, citizen roundtables are garnering results because there are ‎law enforcement agents who believe that the community is working for them and not the ‎other way around. That is how you can tell. The goal was for the community to stop ‎fearing criminals and to stop fearing the authorities. In both cases it has worked.‎ ‎*_Regarding intelligence, are there police initiatives to improve intelligence? _*‎ In this area, we must improve our skills; deliver a strategy based more on quality than ‎quantity. During the period in which I was minister, we placed much emphasis on ‎improving the intelligence services. We require a law that allows a system of capturing ‎images, to be able to monitor the radio electronic airspace of organized crime. They ‎watch us. Members of organized crime will readily abandon a small plane (while) we in ‎the police do not have the capacity to buy a small plane. They abandon one a month. ‎ They have sophisticated satellite equipment and they use listening systems, in addition to ‎infiltrating the police. Our intelligence systems must be improved. When I spoke with ‎members of the DEA or law enforcement agents that work in the area of international ‎antiterrorism, I would say to them that by controlling the prisons, one can control ‎organized crime and the gang system. Likewise, it is necessary to allow them to ‎communicate but by using a system enabling us to intercept their conversations. It is ‎fundamental to have legislature in place allowing the intelligence services to listen in on ‎people. This has been an area of no compromise where citizens do not want to be ‎monitored, yet criminals can listen to us. ‎ For that reason, the improvement of the intelligence services is fundamental. In our case, ‎the preventive police analysis division was created to pursue and obtain practice and ‎experience with common criminals and gangs. Once they have learned, they are ‎transferred to specialized intelligence services so they can work with public prosecutors ‎and ultimately with the general directorate of criminal investigation, which is the highest ‎level. Now we do have a more standard procedure to produce and accept intelligence aid. ‎The U.S. gives us aid, but sometimes we do not have the technological capacity to ‎receive that aid. That is where the intelligence service must be ahead of the maras; the ‎intelligence service must be considered a priority. ‎ ‎_General Romero is professor of geopolitics at the School of National Defense of ‎Honduras and was Minister of Defense (1990-91). He served as Honduran Ambassador to ‎Nicaragua (1992-93), Presidential Chief of Staff (1994-98) and Minister of Public ‎Security (2006-2007)_‎last_img

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