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THE MS-13 INFLUENCE IN HONDURAS

Stacey Casas, Leidy Castellanos, Anonymous Writer, SOUTHCOM

Week of Monday, December 13, 2021


Providing protection from urban violence[1]


Over the past decades, there has been a significant rise in criminal activity, gang violence, and gang membership in Honduras.[2] The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is one of the most prominent and dangerous gangs in Honduras today.[3] Political instability and increased poverty levels have almost certainly aided gangs, such as MS-13, to exploit vulnerable communities. Gang violence has very likely contributed to current economic issues and increasing poverty levels through extortion and threats to small businesses and neighborhoods. Lack of funding for social programs, such as education, has very likely contributed to increased unemployment and encouragement of youth to join gangs for survival. Governmental inability to protect its citizens from increasing gang violence has likely caused many Hondurans to flee to neighboring countries in search of safety and security.


MS-13’s influence in Latin America led to the Northern Triangle region of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador becoming the most violent region globally that is not at war.[4] Gangs benefit from poverty and unstable government environments, and with a poverty rate of over 48%, Honduras is opportune for gang violence.[5] With a history of civil wars, these fragile governments in the Northern Triangle region have almost certainly seen an increase in the rise of gang violence, exploiting the most vulnerable citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected vulnerable citizens in Latin America and very likely exacerbated safety and security issues. The rise in gang violence from groups such as MS-13 and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) almost certainly affects all aspects of society in Honduras, contributing to political, economic, and social instability in the country.


Main gangs’ territory distribution in Honduras[6]


In January 2020, the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States (GS / OAS) announced that the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) and the government of Honduras would not renew the mission’s mandate due to a failure to reach an agreement.[7] MACCIH emerged from the demand of tens of thousands of Hondurans to investigate President Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado for embezzling funds from the social security system.[8] The disbandment of MACCIH by President Hernández Alvarado has very likely contributed to protecting corrupt government officials and elite members of society from being investigated and prosecuted. Removing MACCIH from Honduras will very likely lead to a loss of credibility that the government can effectively protect its citizens from gang violence. Violence from MS-13 will likely increase as MACCIH is no longer combating crime to counter these actions. Relying on drug trafficking and extortion activities, MS-13 and other prominent gangs in Latin America will almost certainly continue utilizing weak political systems to facilitate their illegal operations.


Over the past few decades, residents of neighborhoods under MS-13’s control have experienced poorer living conditions and less income than those living outside of the gang’s territory.[9] Criminal gangs’ extortion and threats have led to the shutdown of more than 20,000 small businesses in Honduras over the past decade.[10] This almost certainly hinders economic development. Economic issues in local communities are very likely attributed to the draining of funds from local businesses through racketeering by gangs in areas under their control. MS-13 will likely cause more local firms to close, as their methods of violence and stealing make it difficult to maintain profits. As long as the gang threatens small businesses, poverty levels in these neighborhoods will almost certainly continue to increase. If the Honduran government and the US do not take measures to dismantle MS-13 and similar organizations, the negative economic trend will very likely continue in Honduras, and almost certainly further compel locals to flee to neighboring countries or the US.


Since 2010, Honduras has had the fastest-growing emigrant flow among Latin American and Caribbean nations at around 29%.[11] Violence has pushed many Honduran citizens to flee the country for safety. The lack of security, high poverty rate, and compromised justice system are factors that will likely continue to be the primary reason Hondurans emigrate. As many neighboring countries face economic difficulties, fleeing Hondurans will likely face xenophobia in the country where they seek refuge. With the lack of job opportunities and economic development in the region, there is a roughly even chance that some refugees will choose to join gangs or drug traffickers for monetary and safety reasons. The government’s inability to protect its citizens from gang violence and extortion has likely caused many citizens to lose faith in the political system, causing many to believe that fleeing the country is their best option.


Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with an underfunded public education system vulnerable to gang violence.[12] Street violence among rival gangs has led to territorial disputes, making Honduran neighborhoods extremely dangerous for children still attending school.[13] Conflict near educational institutions very likely reduces parents' willingness to send their children to school because of the danger MS-13 represents. The newly-elected President Xiomara Castro will likely enact social policies to prevent MS-13 recruitment of Honduran youth. Policies will likely include after-school cultural activities, anti-drug and anti-gang prevention campaigns, and higher education scholarships. If the new government does not prioritize education, there is almost no chance that any future efforts to counter youth gang recruitment will work.


Support programs such as the Association For a More Just Society (AJS) and Skate Brothers play a significant role in stopping gang violence in Honduras.[14] The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has also been working to prevent violence and alleviate poverty in Honduras.[15] Reinforcing education through social outreach programs will very likely contribute to reduced numbers of youth joining gangs and provide employment opportunities that otherwise would not be available. Without support from the government, these social programs are unlikely to make a significant difference in reducing MS-13 influence in the country. It is becoming increasingly important that the international community continue to monitor gang violence in Latin America, and more transparency in Honduran policies will almost certainly help combat MS-13 influence in the country.


Castro will be the first woman president in the country’s history and the first leftist after a decade of right-wing governments, and she will have the challenging task of tackling MS-13’s influence and activities.[16] The Castro government will likely represent a change in the management of the security threats, incorporating lessons learned over the past 20 years. Castro will likely implement a social approach, addressing the need for Honduran citizens to join MS-13 by enacting programs to reduce poverty. Collaboration efforts with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International, who are following the current political corruption in Honduras, will likely provide support in the fight against gang violence. The Castro Administration will likely work to bring back the MACCIH initiative, and if this occurs, focus should be placed on joint operations against MS-13 to dismantle their power. A multi-perspective policy is almost certainly necessary to disrupt the organization's influence. A softer approach, focusing less on military forces, combined with social policies, is likely to reduce the influence of MS-13, and strengthen public support for the government.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) and the SOUTHCOM Team recommend that the US and Central American governments, human rights groups, and NGOs increase their collaboration efforts so that better communication and countermeasures are put in place to address Honduras’ security issues. The focus should shift to include more cross-regional support in Central America. By building a stronger bilateral relationship, both the US and Honduras can work as allies in combating MS-13’s growing international influence. Monitoring by the US and other allies will almost certainly better equip Honduras to deal with the changing nature of MS-13 that affects the region’s stability. The intelligence community should continue monitoring and disseminating intelligence to prepare for increased violent and migratory consequences caused by MS-13, as it will almost certainly affect safety in neighboring countries.


The SOUTHCOM Team will continue to monitor and analyze the evolving political, economic, and social situation in Honduras. Through its Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers, CTG continuously tracks events to provide current, fact-based analysis. The SOUTHCOM Team will utilize Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) to ensure optimal recommendations are provided to key stakeholders. Collaboration with other CTG Teams will assist in creating well-rounded, up-to-date analysis regarding Latin America and the Caribbean.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is a subdivision of the global consulting firm Paladin 7. CTG has a developed business acumen that proactively identifies and counteracts the threat of terrorism through intelligence and investigative products. Business development resources can now be accessed via the Counter Threat Center (CTC), emerging Fall 2021. The CTG produces W.A.T.C.H resources using daily threat intelligence, also designed to complement CTG specialty reports, which utilize analytical and scenario-based planning. Innovation must accommodate political, financial, and cyber threats to maintain a level of business continuity, regardless of unplanned incidents that may take critical systems offline. To find out more about our products and services visit us at counterterrorismgroup.com.


________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] "Honduras: providing protection and education to children victims of urban violence" by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[2] Gangs in Honduras, Insight Crime, 2015, https://issat.dcaf.ch/Learn/Resource-Library/Policy-and-Research-Papers/Gangs-in-Honduras

[3] Ibid

[4] El Salvador MS13, Insight Crime, September 2021, https://insightcrime.org/el-salvador-organized-crime-news/mara-salvatrucha-ms-13-profile/

[5] STOPPING GANG VIOLENCE: SUCCESS STORIES FROM WITHIN HONDURAS, The Borgen Project, December 2020, https://borgenproject.org/tag/gang-violence-in-honduras/

[6]After Govt Crackdown, Honduras Gangs Rethink Tactics” by Insight Crime licensed under Creative Commons

[7] ​​Comunicado de la Secretaría General de la OEA sobre finalización de la MACCIH, OEA, January 2020, https://www.oas.org/es/centro_noticias/comunicado_prensa.asp?sCodigo=C-003/20 (Translated by Stacey Casas)

[8] The death of the MACCIH and CC-4’s uncertain future, Envio, March 2020, https://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5754

[9] How organised crime can affect economic development: Evidence from El Salvador, VoxDev, October 2020, https://voxdev.org/topic/labour-markets-migration/how-organised-crime-can-affect-economic-development-evidence-el-salvador

[10] Extortion Shuts Down Over 17,000 Honduras Businesses, Insight Crime, May 2013, https://insightcrime.org/news/brief/economic-impact-honduras-extortion/

[11] Latin America, Caribbean no longer world’s fastest growing source of international migrants, Pew Research Center, January 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/25/latin-america-caribbean-no-longer-worlds-fastest-growing-source-of-international-migrants/

[12] Hopes of better education for their children is driving force for many in refugee convoy, Relief Web, November 2018, https://reliefweb.int/report/honduras/hopes-better-education-their-children-driving-force-many-refugee-convoy

[13] Ibid

[14] STOPPING GANG VIOLENCE: SUCCESS STORIES FROM WITHIN HONDURAS, The Borgen Project, December 2020, https://borgenproject.org/stopping-gang-violence-in-honduras/

[15] THE OUTLOOK OF POVERTY IN HONDURAS, The Borgen Project, July 2020, https://borgenproject.org/tag/poverty-in-honduras/

[16] Honduras poised to have its first female president, leftist candidate Xiomara Castro, NBC News, November 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/honduras-poised-first-female-president-leftist-candidate-xiomara-castr-rcna6938



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