The gang leader known as “Chele” is unable to hold back the tears as he remembers how a rival mara kidnapped and killed his sister and mother. But the wiry, 23-year-old assassin quickly regains his composure when he talks about the six revenge killings he carried out in retaliation. His tears have dried when he gets to the part about how he dumped two of the victim’s bodies in their mothers’ kitchens, just to make the families suffer more.
Chele, whose nickname means “Blondie” for his flaxen hair, has allegedly killed more than 100 people, according to estimates by fellow gang members and rival groups. He and others like him are a driving force in the violence that has pushed the world’s murder capital toward new, unfathomable levels of mayhem.
Violence in Honduras is rising unabated, thanks mostly to the region’s main transnational gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and their long-time rivals, the 18th Street gang (M18).
The gangs, which have long tendrils that reach throughout the region and into the United States, have long dominated the regional crime scene in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador— Central America’s so-called “northern triangle.” But as these well-armed street gangs partner with deep-pocked Mexican cartels, the worsening turf war is displacing entire neighborhoods of law-abiding citizens and threatening to reshape the local political map with a new generation of narco-officials.
In neighboring El Salvador, the two-year gang “truce” is rapidly unraveling. The administration of former President Mauricio Funes initially vaunted a drop in El Salvador’s homicide rates as a clear indication that the gang truce was working. But senior government officials now admit that the diminishing murder rate was largely a mirage; rival gang members, it turns out, simply buried their victims in clandestine cemeteries or otherwise had them “disappeared.”
El Salvador’s gang truce did, however, help to position the gangs on the national stage as genuine political actors who are able to deliver blocs of votes to the highest bidder, even while aspiring to elected office themselves.
Photo Credit: AFP
Some jailed gang leaders have been granted generous concessions, including sophisticated military training behind bars prisons. Fusion had access to several hours of videos of outside trainers teaching incarcerated Salvadoran gangbangers new tactics in hand-to-hand combat, small-unit maneuvering and other specialized activities.
But when it comes to violent lawlessness, Honduras’ San Pedro Sula, with a homicide rate of 180 per 100,000 residents, is in a league of its own. The local murder rate in Honduras’ “economic capital” is double the national rate, which is already the highest in the world. In contrast, the murder rate in the United States is 4.6 per 100,000, Chile’s is 3.5 and most of Western Europe is fewer than 2 per 100,000 people.
Cops and criminals wear the same uniform
Impunity reigns supreme in Honduras. Fewer than 5 percent of murders get solved in San Pedro Sula, where gangs have bought off entire police units. The blurring of the line between the gangs and the police is especially hazardous for civilians; gangs have been known to rent the policemen’s uniforms and badges to set up roadblocks to rob passing vehicles.
“It costs $400 to rent a uniform and badge,” one 17-year-old gang member explained dryly, under the condition of anonymity. “If we want to kill someone, we set up a roadblock; they think we’re police because we are in uniform and have the guns the police use. We can take the person in a police car and no one will bother us. Or we can stay at the checkpoint for a while and make some money from the cars that drive by. No one dares not to stop because they know if they try to run, we will shoot them.”
Photo Credit: Jose Cabezas/AFP
With the exception of the gruesomely prolific hit man called “Chele,” all the gang members interviewed for this article asked to remain unidentified, even by their street names. None of the gang members interviewed was older than 23.
These youthful but hardened Central American criminals now form a major part of the supply network for cocaine distribution with Mexican cartels.
“We are at war now,” said a second gang member, standing in the middle of a dirt road that runs through his barrio on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. “We used to shoot maybe once or twice a week. Now we’re shooting all day, every day. People are dying like flies. We are not just defending our territory, but trying to expand to take more territory. If you control the territory you control what passes through the territory.”
Turf war empties neighborhoods
According to testimony from six gang members interviewed for this article, the war between the 18th Street Gang, which dominates San Pedro Sula, and the MS-13, which dominates the greater region, is over specific drug-trafficking routes and rights to work as local fixers for the Mexican cartels.
The turf war is having a devastating impact on local families living in or near gang-controlled areas. Many families move to other parts of the country simply to protect their children. Particularly at risk are younger girls, many of whom are “chosen” by local gang leaders to be a sex slave. These girls can be as young as 11 years old when they get plucked from their homes and gang-raped into the gang culture. Any adult who stands in the way gets executed.
The situation has sparked intra-regional migration, as well as a northward exodus of emigrants fleeing to the United States.
“If you have a daughter or granddaughter you care about, you have to get her out of gang territory if you want her to survive and have a normal life,” said one young gang member, who moved his own family to another country in Central America. “Otherwise, even if she is ugly, the gangs will take her and use her. That is our reality.”
Entire neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula now lay abandoned; the occupants have simply left everything behind to seek safe harbor. In order not to alert local gang members, most of the internal refugees take very little with them, stuffing what they can fit into the trunk of their car and leaving the rest behind.
“Once you leave your house, you will never get it back,” said one resident of La Planeta, a violent neighborhood of San Pedro Sula. “The gangs just move in, steal everything that is left and start burying bodies in the back yard.”
Still, the gangs aren’t satisfied with being the kings of the neighborhood. They want more. And the Mexican drug cartels are their ticket to more money, new weaponry, better training, and their ultimate goal: political power.
“We call ourselves ‘anti-socials’,” one gang leader said. “But soon the anti-socials will be the new social order.”
Douglas Farah is the president of IBI Consultants and a Senior non-resident associate for the Americas Program at CSIS, a Washington-based think tank. He is a national security consultant and analyst and has been working in Latin America for more than three decades. His work, published in peer-reviewed journals and the media, studies transnational organized crime, transnational gangs and criminalized states. In 2004 he worked for nine months with the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, studying armed groups and intelligence reform. For the two decades before that, he was a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter for the Washington Post and other publications, covering Latin America and West Africa.