Rolling Circle Press

Mill Valley, California

Gangs and the election in Honduras

Gangs in Central America are a parallel society in conflict with governments that can barely contain them. Honduras and El Salvador have the highest and next highest rates of murder in the world, and much of the violence is committed by the MS-13 and Dieciocho gangs and their allies and rivals. The root cause of gang activity is lack of economic opportunity at home in the wake of decades of civil war and the weakening of family ties brought about by family members having to travel abroad for work. To contain gang activity, Central American governments have tried the “mano dura” – get tough – policy of harsh treatment and long prison sentences while doing little in the way of providing rehabilitation, education or training for gang members. But as the murder rates show, mano dura does not reduce gang violence. What could work better to reduce violence and improve social stability?

In El Salvador a liberalizing tendency has begun to take root since 2009, when ARENA, the party of the land-owning elite, was voted out and replaced by FMLN, the party of the guerrilla fighters during that country’s 12-year civil war. Gang violence is down from the peak of the late 1990’s. For a while it seemed a similar shift might be happening in Honduras under the influence of the reforming liberal president Manuel Zelaya. But his presidency was terminated in 2009 in a coup by old-line conservatives, who thought his policies of providing school lunches and subsidized electric power to the poorest barrios were dangerously destabilizing and to be opposed. But many Hondurans were still hopeful. Wait until the next election, in November, 2013, they said.

Now that election has happened, and the iron fist party won. So the hard-line police state tactics against the gangs and unequal distribution of resources seem set to continue for another term.

Why does the old pattern of control by the haciendista elite persist in Honduras? Likely the negative example of Hugo Chavez is a factor. Zelaya was an acolyte of Chavez and the collapse of the economy in Venezuela repudiates Chavez’s progressive vision and how to pay for it. Voters eager for change are also aware of the disappointing outcome of the Arab Spring, whose ideals collapsed in confusion and violence. Stay with the devil you know, Honduran voters may have been thinking. Still, there’s hope that a sustainable society with lower crime and better opportunity for more people is possible in Honduras. Some day in the future, it is pleasant to dream, the gangs themselves could join the mainstream and, with their tattoos and rituals, metamorphose into colorful cultural institutions something like Mardi Gras krewes. The Hells Angels are reported to be following just such a path, according to a recent NY Times feature about their use of intellectual property law in lawsuits to protect their brand.