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War on Drugs - Central America

Homicide Rate
Honduras 90.4 per 100,000
Venezuela 53.7
Belize 44.7
El Salvador 41.2
Guatemala 39.9
Jamaica 39.3
Swaziland 33.8
Saint Kitts and Nevis 33.6
South Africa 31.0
Colombia 30.8
United States4.6 per 100,000
There were 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in Honduras in 2012, according to the April 2014 report from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. The report analyzed the intentional homicides of about 437,000 people around the world in that year. Honduras also topped the list in the office's last report, released in 2011. In the Americas, homicide rates have been five to eight times higher than those of Europe and Asia since the mid-1950s, the study says, describing the phenomenon as "the legacy of decades of political and crime-related violence."

Honduran President Juan Hernandez blamed US drug policy for sparking violence in Central American countries and driving a surge of migration to the United States, according to an interview published in Mexican daily newspaper Excelsior on 14 July 2014. "Honduras has been living in an emergency for a decade," Hernandez told. "The root cause is that the United States and Colombia carried out big operations in the fight against drugs. Then Mexico did it." Those operations pushed drug traffickers into Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, he suggested, adding: "This is creating a serious problem for us that sparked this migration." Hernandez, who took office in January 2014 after winning on a pledge to be tough on crime, said only a drop in violence would curb the wave of families and unaccompanied minors who have overwhelmed temporary detention facilities on the US border.

Central America has become the key trans-shipment zone for illicit trafficking in the hemisphere; approximately 90 percent of cocaine destined for the United States now transits the sub-region. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are experiencing alarming increases in murders and brutality. The rising wave of violence and illicit trafficking, coupled with the expansive resources of transnational organized crime, is challenging the law enforcement capacities of some Central American governments.

Accordingly, these countries view their militaries as the only entities capable of responding to these threats. In 2011, El Salvador extended the 2010 deployment of its military to support domestic law enforcement, while Guatemala and Honduras repeatedly relied on their armed forces to counter the spread of transnational organized crime. Guatemalan law enforcement institutions struggled to bring violence under control in 2011; after the massacre of 27 farm workers in Petén by operatives of the Mexican-based Los Zetas organization, Guatemala declared a 60-day military state-of-siege, the second in less than a year.

Transnational gangs like Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Calle 18 (M-18) have a long-established presence in Central America and maintain active ties to US-based affiliates, engaging in extortion, kidnapping, and murder-for-hire in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the United States. Increasingly, these gangs are collaborating with larger trafficking organizations to provide a range of criminal services. Transnational criminal organizations possess a critical enabler that many states in Central America lack: enormous financial reserves.

Due to its direct impact on public security, homicide committed by “professional” criminals often attracts the full attention of law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system. But the relationship between other criminal activities, particularly the most clandestine among them, and homicidal violence is not a straightforward one. Homicides committed while perpetrating other crimes such as robbery (homicide is not the primary goal) show constant trends and levels across regions, while trends and levels of homicides related to organized criminal groups (homicide is instrumental and premeditated) vary over time and by region.

Significant efforts have been made to distinguish between organized criminal groups, gangs and drug trafficking groups. They frequently overlap and it is often difficult to draw a distinction between them due to the heterogeneity and dynamics of the phenomena in different regions. Much of the debate centers on the degree of organization or sophistication in the operations of the group and how such groups use violence. Gangs are thought to be less sophisticated than organized criminal groups and to focus their use of violence on short-term, more tactical goals and delinquency, whereas organized criminal groups are characterized as profit-driven, relatively sophisticated criminal enterprises that use violence strategically in order to further their goals and to assert power.

Despite the use of violence being a key characteristic of organized criminal groups, it is preferably used as a last resort, as violence tends to draw attention to their operations. Organized criminal groups aim to keep a low profile in order to protect their illicit activities from law enforcement attention, but will use violence instrumentally to protect their interests.

Central America experienced a declining homicide rate from 1995 to 2004, followed by a marked increase from 2007, often related to drug trafficking and high levels of organized crime-related violence, which has resulted in one of the highest sub-regional homicide rates in the world (26.5 per 100,000 population). Much of the high rate in the sub-region can be attributed to very high rates of homicide in the “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

The decline in El Salvador’s homicide rate by 40 percent since 2012 followed a gang truce in that country. Organized criminal groups are clearly susceptible to the effect of specific policies aimed at fighting or mitigating violence stemming from their activities. Central America’s gang-related homicides have been driving the extremely high levels of homicide in the sub-region. In El Salvador, major changes in homicidal violence took place after a “truce” between two major gangs was agreed upon in March 2012. The truce, brokered by local government, the international community and religious leaders, had an immediate impact on homicide levels.

After the truce, the monthly homicide rate was more than halved (averaging 2.8 per 100,000 population) from March 2012 to February 2013. This sudden reduction provides an indirect quantification of the homicidal violence that could be directly attributed to gang-related conflict in the period before the truce. In parallel with the decline in homicides since the truce, there also appears to have been a slight decline in some other criminal activities, according to data on crime reported.

Elsewhere in Central America, gang truces have seen mixed results. For example, in Honduras, a truce agreement has been in place since May 2013 but, in contrast to the situation in El Salvador, the number of homicides did not decrease in the period immediately following the truce. This may be attributable to differences in the gangs themselves, as gangs in Honduras may be less organized and less hierarchical than those in El Salvador, possibly making it more difficult for gang leaders to impose their will over the various factions.

Honduras has hundreds of known street gangs, totaling more than 7,000 members. Violent, well-armed, US-style street gang growth continues; 18th Street Gang and MS-13 ("Mara Salvatrucha") are active. Gangs concentrate on narcotics and arms trafficking, murder-for-hire, carjacking, extortion, and violent street crime. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely, targeting affluent areas for burglaries. Gang members are quick to engage in violence if resisted. Many of the gangs comprise unemployed youth who are street trained and do not hesitate to use deadly force when perpetrating crimes.

Since 2010, Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world. The National Violence Observatory, an academic research institution based out of Honduras’ National Public University, reports that the murder rate was 79 murders per 100,000 people for 2013, down from 85.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2012 and 86.5 in 2011. The Honduran National Observatory against Violence reported an average of 19 murders per day in 2013. The number of murders for 2013 was 6,757 a 5.8 percent decrease over 2012. This represented the first decrease in the number of murders per year since 2004.

Transnational criminal organizations also conduct narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout the country, using violence to control drug trafficking routes and carry out criminal activity. Other criminals, acting both individually and in gangs in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and other large cities, commit crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion, carjacking, armed robbery, rape, and other aggravated assaults.

Kidnappings and disappearances are an ongoing concern throughout the country as well. Kidnapping affects both the local and expatriate communities, with victims sometimes paying large ransoms for the prospect of release. Kidnapping is believed to be underreported. Many extortion attempts are telephonic, random cold-calls from imprisoned gang members with cell telephones. Subsequent extortion threats against the victim are made through social engineering and/or through flimsily obtained information on the victim’s family.

The vast majority of serious crimes in Honduras, including those against US citizens, are never solved; of the 50 murders committed against US citizens from 2008 through 2013, police have only solved two. Members of the Honduran National Police are known to engage in criminal activity, including murder and car theft. The Government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and police often lack vehicles or fuel to respond to calls for assistance. In practice, this means police may take hours to arrive at the scene of a violent crime, or may not respond at all. As a result, criminals operate with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras. The Honduran government is in the early stages of substantial reforms to its criminal justice institutions.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were caught trying to sneak over the US-Mexico border between October 2013 and June 2014, double the number from the same period the year before, which was likewise double the same period two years earlier. The surge in immigration from Central America was influenced by the perception that the United States was softening its immigration enforcement and a false rumor that US Border Patrol agents would give immediate asylum to any child crossing the border. But Obama administration officials, as well as independent observers in Central America, say poverty and fear of violence from drug gangs drove many parents to send their children north to seek safety. President Obama has sent Vice President Joe Biden and other officials to Central America to discuss ways of addressing the problem at its source.

The truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival gang Barrio 18 helped reduce the Central American nation's murder rate in mid-2013 to around five per day, a 10-year low. In February 2014, two gang leaders said the truce was falling apart after the government stopped helping gang leaders in prison to communicate with members on the street. The government, which said it was not involved in brokering the truce, blamed Barrio 18 for breaking the accord.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said January 25, 2015 the deployment of special military police had cut the country's murder rate, one of the world's highest. In a speech marking his first year in office Sunday, Hernandez said the murder rate last year fell 23 percent - from 86 to 66 per 100,000 people. He said the government was having success in battling international drug gangs and organized crime that have infested the country.

Violence rose steadily in El Salvador since a 2012 truce between the country's two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival Barrio 18, began unraveling. The government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren rejected any truce, and launched a new crackdown, putting gang leaders back in maximum-security cells. The change meant the streets were controlled by younger, better-armed criminals who were willing to be reckless. El Salvador experienced one of its most violent months since the end of the civil war in 1992, with 635 homicides reported in May 2015 for the country of just over 6 million people.

Homicides in El Salvador jumped by 56 percent in 2014 as the truce between its most powerful street gangs crumbled. The National Civil Police reported 3,875 homicides in total as of December 30, compared with 2,490 in 2013. In December 2014, police said there was an average of 12 homicides daily.

The surge of gang violence in 2015 pushed up homicides in El Salvador by about 70 percent from 2014, making it a top contender to overtake Honduras as the world's most murderous nation. Miguel Fortin, head of the National Forensics Institute, said that 2015 would end with about 6,650 Salvadorans murdered, against 3,912 last year.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 03-01-2016 20:13:28 ZULU