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CHAPtEr 7 Government Responses and the Dark Side of Gang Suppression in Central America josé miguEL cruz Why have Central American maras become so violent and organized? How did youth gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras turn into a major threat to security in North America, while in Nicaragua they still remain street bands? What is the key difference in the evolution of the gang phenomena in these Central American countries? Most of the studies on maras in the region have focused on the factors that supposedly lie behind their emergence, such as migration, poverty, social exclusion, a culture of violence, and family disintegration.1 Although some of these explanations help us understand the early development of Central American street gangs, they have failed to elucidate why organizations such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang have not taken root within the impoverished and troubled society of Nicaragua. More importantly, those hypotheses also fail to explain why maras have institutionalized and developed into powerful, armed groups. Some authors have pointed out that states themselves have been major players in the growth of maras because governments have not always enacted the right policies and strategies to curb the maras phenomenon. In most of the literature about gangs, and about Central American maras in particular, there is an assumption that the role of the state in the development of gangs is just a matter of successful or failed institutional policies: gangs appear and expand in those countries in which the government fails to enact the appropriate policies and enforce the law. In societies where intelligent policies and strategies effectively enforce the law, the conventional wisdom says, gangs are contained and deactivated. So the task of creating public policies regarding youth crime and gangs is often reduced to attempting to hit on the “right formula” to tackle gangs. In several cases, these assumptions can be deemed correct. A sound policy and an effective law enforcement strategy are indeed conducive to 138 responses to Gang Violence the control of gangs or, at least, to the reduction of their felonies and violence . But this prescription presupposes that the state and its formal institutions of security are in full control of the forces that carry out the rules, plans, and strategies to curb gangs and their violence; it also presupposes that institutions of security operate only within the limits established by the law. In other words, the notion that the problem of gang reproduction and expansion has to do exclusively with the types of implemented policies and the effectiveness of law enforcement implies that the state is represented only by formal institutions that practice law-abiding behavior. This chapter will refute such notions, based on an examination of the maras phenomenon in Central America. The main argument is that in order to understand why youth gangs have evolved into criminal organizations in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras but not in Nicaragua, we should study the degree to which government attempts to curb gangs involved a significant share of informal measures. Such measures have entailed state actors operating on their own, as well as the use of illegal activities , to suppress and control gang violence. This is not to say that government responses in Central America, particularly in the gang-ridden countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, were all illegal or that top government officials deliberately sought to break the law in their battle against maras. It means that in the institutionally weak and unstable states of Central America, every policy to tackle maras has been accompanied by a significant amount of informal activity that transformed gang behavior in unexpected ways. Behind this proposition lie three theoretical premises and one factual point about gangs in northern Central America. First, gangs in general , and particularly Central American maras, have never been a static phenomenon, and as Joan Moore has pointed out regarding Los Angeles gangs, they have never been allowed to evolve by themselves.2 Therefore it is impossible to understand the current character of Central American gangs without addressing the particular contexts within which they have developed. Second, gangs respond to threats of violence or attacks by increasing group cohesion and strengthening their organization.3 And third, as gangs grow stronger, they integrate what have been called “networks of criminal governance,” which contribute to the overall levels of violence.4 As for the reality of gangs, research shows that current maras in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have become a new expression...


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MARC Record
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