The Murder Capital of the World: Comparing Anti-Gang Policy in Central America

By Megan Abbot

Honduras has held the title for Murder Capital of the World for the last several years running, but new data suggests that from 2014 to 2015 the murder rate has dropped about 30%, from 84 to 60 per 100,000 people.  What is behind the high rates of murder across Central American countries?  What is behind such a significant decrease?

The answer is unclear.  Some point to intentional manipulation of the numbers.  Others to discrepancies in record-keeping. The Honduran government may point to mano dura or (“iron fist”) policing techniques.  But crediting hardline policing is risky.

Gangs are a big driver of the violence in Central America, which has been increasingly hitting the news and driving the migrant crisis.  There is broad consensus that the gang phenomenon in Central America started in the U.S., as Central American refugees, especially Salvadorans, fleeing armed conflict in their home became integrated into the Los Angeles gang scene, and many of these Central American native gang members spent time in U.S. prisons.  When the U.S. changed its immigration regulations in 1996, many of these gang members were deported, which accelerated the growth of gangs across the region. 

Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) have all implemented some sort of mano dura policy over the last ten years in the face of gang violence.  The current Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hern├índez, was elected on a platform promising a recommitment to mano dura by expanding the military police.  Whether or not mano dura is behind the decreasing murder rate, Honduras should be careful of the long-term effects of hardline approaches to gang-control and consider applying the lessons its neighbors have learned.

In El Salvador, mano dura policing has been credited with strengthening the gangs.  In the early 2000s, police had a mandate to arrest and detain anyone that they suspected of being a gang member, and as a result arrested large swaths of the youth population.  These techniques caused backlash, increased gang recruitment, and turned parts of the public against police.  El Salvador dealt with its swelling prison population by segregating the inmates based on gang affiliation, which enabled the gangs to strengthen their coordination and operations.  Overall, mano dura made El Salvador’s gang problems worse. 

In Nicaragua, on the other hand, gang violence has barely become a national issue.  Although there are local gangs, transnational gangs such as MS-13 and M-18 have not taken root.  Nicaraguan police take a much softer stance on youth engagement, and interact closely with the population. Nicaragua is not a Northern Triangle country, but it shares a border with Honduras; the fact that gangs have not overwhelmed Nicaragua is noteworthy. 

Honduras has its own unique history, and Nicaragua’s soft-line approach might not work for a country that is already embroiled in gang violence.  However, if mano dura is driving the murder reduction, Honduran policymakers should pay close attention to the potentially detrimental long-term consequences.

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