By 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)_
Northern Ireland are now just a place above Martin O’Neill’s side after a one-place drop. Argentina remain in top spot, while Brazil are up five places to fourth.