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Feb 29, 2016 | Uncategorized

Crime and law enforcement are often entwined in a co-evolutionary process by which the actions of one prompt behavioral changes by the other that demand new strategies from the initial actor. While this dynamic is often recognized and anticipated by both law enforcement and criminal groups, it frequently yields perverse effects – unintended (and generally unforeseen) outcomes that exacerbate the very issue they were deployed to remedy (or create new problems). The evolution of the Central American youth gangs known as the maras provides a highly informative example of this phenomenon. This blog post outlines the ways in which enforcement measures have inadvertently escalated the threat posed by these gangs, and how they may evolve in the future.

In a recent Woodrow Wilson Center publication, Gema Santamaría describes three major transitions in the evolution of the Central American maras; each of these transformations was spurred by law enforcement efforts intended to reduce gang violence but which inadvertently escalated the mara threat. The first transition turned a localized gang phenomenon into a transnational one.

From Los Angeles “back” to Central America

The maras formed in the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s when marginalized and victimized children of Central American refugees found protection and belonging by either joining the Dieciocho (the 18th Street Gang, formed in the 1960s by Mexican youth) or by forming the rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Amidst escalating gang violence and undocumented migration, the Clinton Administration in 1996 passed the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act which sent thousands of these young gang members “back” to Central American societies they scarcely knew. (The United States today continues to send criminal offenders back to Central America by the thousands).

The Central American republics, as some of the world’s poorest countries reeling from civil war and structural adjustment policies, were unable to integrate these massive flows of deportees into productive society. Many of these youth thus relied upon their mara identities and affiliations in order to survive. While each receiving country had long featured a variety of local gangs, Central American youth were attracted by the American gang culture of the returnees and quickly adopted one or the other mara brand. The maras quickly flourished, expanding their reach throughout the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), back up to the United States and even into Canada. In this way, the American deportation strategy helped turn a Los Angeles gang phenomenon into a transnational one spanning multiple countries of the Western Hemisphere.

The ‘transnational’ nature of the maras, however, is easily and often misinterpreted. The maras are composed of local cliques of 30-150 members bolstered by a number of supporters, and tied to a specific neighborhood. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, deportees from Los Angeles tended to occupy central places within the cliques, but their importance has subsequently waned as the gangs put down more local roots. Cliques do not relate according to overarching structures of command and control, but informally, in more ad hoc and decentralized ways based on reputation and fealty. The maras do not comprise coordinated networks of transnational organized crime; rather, they are primarily identity-based groups with deep ties to local turf. The former, by contrast, are profit-driven, clandestine, and organized around flows rather than place.

As Sonja Wolf contends of the MS-13, “crime is a product of gang affiliation rather than its purpose. Gangs exist because they fulfill their members’ psychosocial aspirations (notably status, identity, respect, friendship, and fun) and legitimate antisocial behavior.” She suggests that crime serves to facilitate gang membership more than gang membership exists to facilitate crime.

Mano Dura: Law enforcement and the escalation of violence

The second transition in mara evolution arose from a series of mano dura (hard handed) enforcement-first policies mounted in the early 2000s by Central American governments, which unintentionally escalated the coordination and criminality of these gangs. The governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras responded to the rapid spread of the maras by implementing draconian penal measures and militarized crackdowns. The offensive put the maras on a war footing and compelled them to find new modes of survival.

As the number of imprisoned mareros burgeoned well beyond the judicial capacity of these countries, prisons became important hubs of mara coordination, recruitment, and training. Imprisoned leaders gained contacts with more sophisticated organized crime groups in order to deepen their links to the drugs and arms trades. Where they once engaged primarily in small scale crimes, mara leaders developed the ability to coordinate more sophisticated criminal operations, such as kidnapping, extortion, and assassination. Gang members simultaneously learned to be less conspicuous in their appearance and actions.

Since the inception of the mano dura, the general trend has been an increase in homicides attributed to gang violence and an escalation of their criminal acts. The policy is widely castigated as a failure in the expert and scholarly communities, yet remains the dominant approach in Central America due to its popular appeal. The gangs offer a convenient scapegoat for a multiplicity of violence, and the mano dura policies distract attention from the high-level corruption and institutional deficiencies that facilitate organized crime throughout the region.

While the mano dura inadvertently deepened the maras’ coordination and connections to organized crime, the gangs retain their fundamental basis in identity and territory, falling short of truly transnational criminal organizations. They remain place-based identity groups rather than profit-driven transnational organized crime. The maras provide local security for drug shipments of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (such as the Zetas and the Sinaloan Federation), engage in local drug distribution, and exercise protection rackets on illegal migration, but they lack the infrastructure to coordinate transnational criminal ventures of their own. Indeed, their conspicuous, undisciplined, and violent nature renders them unattractive partners for transnational organized crime groups.

Evolving into transnational organized crime?

These first two transitions are well established within the literature; but Santamaría proposes a third transition, one that is yet uncertain and speculative but could see the maras evolve into transnational organized crime. Amidst escalating violence between gangs, the continuation of harsh state enforcement measures, and the meager livelihoods associated with gang membership, present and prospective gang members may be increasingly attracted to the more lucrative and professional opportunities afforded by transnational organized crime groups. These opportunities are the perverse effects of enforcement efforts elsewhere.

In the 1990s, successful interdiction efforts closed Caribbean trafficking routes and shifted drug flows to the Central American isthmus. Alongside this geographical shift, crackdowns on the largest drug organizations in Colombia empowered Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in the supply chain to the United States. When in 2006 Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a military offensive against his country’s DTOs (which were already warring with each other), they increasingly moved southward into Central America to escape enforcement efforts and rearguard their operations. Central America accordingly became more deeply ensconced in the Western Hemisphere’s drug trade.

These events open the possibility – though still a speculative one – that the maras will evolve into organized criminal groups rather than the gangs they have been up to now. The gang logics of identity, territory, rivalry, and belonging would be replaced by the organized crime logics of profit, clandestinity, professional discipline, sophisticated organizational structure, and official corruption.

Already there are some indications – though sporadic ones – of such a transition unfolding. More experienced mareros have been recruited into larger criminal organizations, such as DTOs, based on their individual skills (rather than their gang affiliations). A report co-authored by InSightCrime and the Asociación para una Sociadad Más Justa for USAID found that “Many authorities say the MS13 leadership in both El Salvador and Honduras are moving towards becoming a transnational criminal organization, deepening their involvement in the wholesale drug trade and possibly becoming international traffickers.” In a recent joint statement, the MS-13 and Dieciocho claimed to have the ability to deliberately influence national elections, which would represent a new, political facet of the maras.

Finally, a recent World Bank report on Honduras noted a decline of neighborhood gangs alongside the rise of larger organized criminal groups: “As the drug trade has generated new opportunities for economic gain, violent crime appears to be driven less by turf battles linked to gang identity. Homicides have evolved from visible gang violence to hired killings with unknown motives and perpetrators. The local sale and consumption of drugs have increased substantially, while a wide range of economic crimes, from extortion to assault and robbery, has become more common.”

Moving Forward

A “third transition” from gang activity into organized crime could generate some benefits –the violence of turf wars and prevalence of petty crimes might decline – but it would also provide a new pool of recruits to national and transnational organized crime groups. Hosting fewer gangs but more organized crime is hardly a victory for the countries of Central America. Yet it remains too early to determine such a transition is unfolding, and what specific direction and impacts it will have if it does.

In sum, the history of the maras provides an instructive example of the coevolution of enforcement and crime, and of the perverse effects security efforts sometimes yield. Santamaría (2013: 92) thus concludes that “Recent history demonstrates that what is today a success for one country can become a disaster not just for other countries but for it as well.” Policy-making tends to be very focused and linear in approach, but the illicit drug market is a very complex phenomena marked by high interconnectivity, sensitivity to context, path dependence, and non-linear change. It is thus imperative to remember a crucial insight provided by biologist Garrett Hardin: “We can never do merely one thing.”


Michael Lawrence is a PhD Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, and an Associate of the Security Governance Group. His research focuses on post-war violence in Central America.


The following are highly recommended sources on the maras and related phenomena; they were utilized heavily in the writing of this post.

Arnson, Cynthia J. and Eric L. Olson, eds. (2010). Organized Crime in Central America: The Northern Triangle. Woodrow Wilson Center Reports on the Americas #29. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Available at: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/LAP_single_page.pdf.

Arana, Ana (2005). “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 3. Pages 98-110.

Berg, Louise-Alexandre and Marlon Carranza (2015). Crime, Violence, and Community-Based Prevention in Honduras. World Bank Security, Justice and Development Series Research Report. Available at: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2015/07/24746742/crime-violence-community-based-prevention-honduras-research-report.

Cruz, José Miguel (2010). “Central American Maras: From Youth Street Gangs to Transnational Protection Rackets,” Global Crime, vol. 11, no. 4. Pages 379-398.

Garzón, Juan Carlos (2013). “The Criminal Diaspora The Spread of Transnational Organized Crime and How to Contain its Expansion.” Wilson Center.

Hume, Mo (2007). “Mano Dura: El Salvador Responds to Gangs,” Development in Practice, vol. 17, no. 6. Pages 739-751.

Insightcrime.org. See InSight Crime’s profile of MS-13 at: http://www.insightcrime.org/el-salvador-organized-crime-news/mara-salvatrucha-ms-13-profile, and their profile of the Dieciocho at: http://www.insightcrime.org/honduras-organized-crime-news/barrio-18-honduras.

InSight Crime (2015). Game Changers 2015: Tracking the Evolution of Organized Crime in the Americas. Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/images/PDFs/2015/GameChangers2015.pdf.

InSightCrime and the Asociación para una Sociadad Más Justa (2015). Gangs in Honduras. Report for USAID. November 20. Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/images/PDFs/2015/HondurasGangs.pdf.

Jütersonke, Oliver, Robert Muggah and Dennis Rodgers (2009). “Gangs, Urban Violence, and Security Interventions in Central America,” Security Dialogue vol. 40, nos. 4-5. Pages 373-397.

Santamaría, Gema (2013). “La Difusión y Contención del Crimen Organizado en la Subregión México-Centroamérica,” in La Diáspora Criminal: La Difusión Transnacional del Crimen Organizado y cómo Contener su Expansión edited by Juan Carlos Garzón and Eric L. Olson. Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Reports on the Americas #31. Pages 58-99. Available at: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/LA_DIASPORA_CRIMINAL.pdf.

Seelke, Clare Ribando (2014). “Gangs in Central America,” Congressional Research Service Report RL34112. Washington, DC, February 20. Available at: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL34112.pdf. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC] (2012). Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment. Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Studies/TOC_Central_America_and_the_Caribbean_english.pdf.

Wolf, Sonja (2012). “Mara Salvatrucha: The Most Dangerous Street Gang in the Americas?” Latin American Politics and Society, vol. 54, no. 1. Pages 65-99.