Las maras, at the epicenter of the “epidemic of violence” in the Northern Triangle

Gangs feed on young people from poor families in slums without incentives for legal life


The Northern Triangle, formed by El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, suffers an “epidemic of violence” because of maras or gangs, an imported phenomenon that has evolved from the identity issue to the criminal organization thanks to a context of poverty, lack of opportunities and weak institutions that expel their citizens by thousands.

“In Central America there were street gangs before the civil wars, but the phenomenon of the maras as it is understood today was born in the 80s in Los Angeles,” explains María Luisa Pastor Gómez, in 'The Central American Maras, a problem of almost three decades', an analysis for the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE).

Las maras, at the epicenter of the “epidemic of violence” in the Northern Triangle
Las maras, at the epicenter of the “epidemic of violence” in the Northern Triangle

The civil wars pushed numerous citizens of the Northern Triangle to the United States, with Los Angeles being the preferred destination. Between the 80s and the 90s “the Central American immigrant population in the northern neighbor tripled, which translated into” social exclusion and even ethnic violence. “To defend itself, the Central American diaspora first joined the” Chicano gangs “and ended forming yours.

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) was erected as the main gang and exercised a kind of tutelage with Barrio 18, although the alliance broke in 1988 “following a fight on a night of a gang party on King Boulevard and from that day war – 'the cause', in gang jargon – between 'the boys of the letters' and 'the boys of the numbers' became unstoppable. ”

The United States took action and in 1996 enacted a law to regulate immigration with which in the following decade returned to the Northern Triangle 46,000 gang members and 200,000 “common deportees.” The returnees reproduced in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras their way of life in Los Angeles and captured young people already linked to local groups, causing a “hybridization”.

According to Pastor Gómez, gangs were imported with such ease because there was a favorable framework. In the 90s, the Central American countries were immersed in the peace processes that followed the civil wars, so the gangs found weak states and took advantage of the power vacuum. “Since then, they keep a large part of the population subjugated and frightened,” he says.


The maras have their field of operations in the cities and their fishing bank in the young. Its members come from slums with little or no presence of the State and poor families that survive on less than $ 250 per month. “For these boys, gangs become an alternative space for socialization and solidarity in the middle of an adverse and hostile environment,” says the IEEE expert.

Although “there are multiple reasons for requesting entry into a mara”, the search for social recognition – “the enthusiasm to 'vacillate' your peers” – is one of the main reasons. “There are also those who enter to protect themselves from enemies, to avenge the death of a close friend or as a way to obtain financial resources, drugs or women.” “The less” were forced to do so.

Pastor Gomez draws attention to the relationship between early paternity and youth incursion into gangs. In El Salvador, “40 percent become parents before finishing school or before age 18, which in turn reduces the chances of finding a stable job.” Thus, the need to obtain resources to support their family, together with the lack of training to obtain them legally, “can push them to join the gang.”

To enter, they must pass “hard tests as strong aggressions” and, once inside, they are subjected to “rigid norms and values” that lead them to develop “bonds of belonging (…) with the new 'family', which weaken the bond with the family itself and with society. ” The rise occurs as they commit homicides to gain respect from their peers.


The maras “have an obsessive territorial logic.” They consider that the place where they live and act belongs to them and, consequently, they impose codes of conduct for their members and the inhabitants, some of whom lend their support, either because some of their relatives are from the gang, or as “hawks, a kind of spies that are his eyes and ears.”

One of his great activities is extortion. By establishing themselves as an alternative power to the State, they charge taxes – “rents” or “flats” – to small businesses and neighbors ranging between $ 100 and $ 5,000 per month. Those who do not pay or are late in payment are exposed to kidnapping or even death. To this are added the 'narcomenudeo', the hired killer and the collection of prostitutes.

As a result, Central America has reached “one of the highest homicide and crime rates in the world.” According to the latest report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in America, with only 13 percent of the world's population, 42 percent of the victims are registered. The World Health Organization (WHO), for its part, estimates that when the ten homicides are exceeded per 100,000 inhabitants, an “epidemic of violence” is experienced, a threshold widely exceeded in the Northern Triangle.

El Salvador came to beat record, with 69 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, a level of violence comparable to that of the civil war. In recent years, it has been falling to 36 in 2019, according to Insight Crime, which attributes it, rather than to the new approach of the Nayib Bukele Government, to “a plan agreed between MS-13 and Barrio 18 to leave of committing murders in order to maintain territorial control and avoid lethal clashes with security forces. ”

Honduras, on the other hand, remains at 41.2, placing it on the podium of the most violent countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2019, only behind Venezuela (60.3) and Jamaica (47.4). Guatemala, on the other hand, registered a rate of 21.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, which shows that it is the country least affected by the maras, “although it has more organized crime.”

“These countries have gone from the political violence of the time of the civil wars in the 80s, to the postwar violence” starring gangs and gangs, already associated with economic, not ideological or identity, a new crime that “is it has been spreading like a cancer throughout this area until it becomes one of the most insecure areas in the world. ”

The departure of the band is not easy either. “Calm down” is a process that involves constant negotiation with the gang until they get their placet. “Without permission it is a certain death,” says Pastor Gómez. A frequent route of abandonment is the path of religious conversion and entry into an evangelical church. Still, former gang members “are watched closely.” And, outside, they suffer social stigma – their past becomes visible in tattoos – and “the total lack of work skills.”

For the rest of the population, “the only way out in many cases is flight,” which translates into internal displacement –174,000 in Honduras between 2004 and 2014– or external, for example, through the Central American caravans that They emerged in 2018 with thousands of citizens of the Northern Triangle crossing the region to conquer the so-called 'American dream'.

Violence “detracts important resources from the states while suffocating individuals”, so the expert proposes, rather than hard-handed policies, which have proven to be a failure, a commitment to social reintegration programs and bring the State where it is absent.

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