Where would you guess is the most dangerous place in the world. Iraq? Afghanistan? Maybe Colombia or Mexico with its spate of cartel violence?
Actually, it’s none of the above. In fact, in comparison to the world’s most dangerous nation - Honduras - Mexico seems downright cushy. A citizen of Honduras is over six times more likely to be murdered than a Mexican national. While a young man in Honduras is roughly 91 times more likely to be violently killed than a young man in Western Europe. Even the world’s second most dangerous country, El Salvador, has only about 2/3 of Honduras’s murder rate. Why are these Central American countries so violent? As is always the case - there isn’t a single, simple answer but there are definitely some undeniable contributors. Chief among these is the increasing size and escalating violence of entrenched, drug-trafficking, cartel-connected street gangs- Central America’s “Maras.”
While more than 900 Maras reportedly operate between South America and Mexico, with anywhere between 70,000 and 200,000 members, two of them are responsible for a huge percentage of the violence- Mara Salvatrucha (aka MS-13) and 18th Street (aka Mara-18, M-18, Calle 18, Barrio 18, etc.). MS-13 is fairly well known, having received a considerable amount of press, often as a variation of “The World’s Most Dangerous Gang,” 18th St., however, is far less likely to draw the attention of media outlets, and mentions that are made usually manifest as a name in front of a bullet point on a list of big gangs. This is a strange oversight as 18th St. is at least as violent, cartel connected and organized as MS-13 and far larger- twice as big by some estimations.
Beyond their originally majority El Salvadoran constituency, MS-13 and 18th St. have a lot in common. Both were born in Los Angeles, both recruit members young (18th St. is sometimes referred to as “The Children’s Army” due to the youth of their recruiting pool); both are “Surenos” (Southerner- a Hispanic gang from Southern California) gangs that are allied with and often pay tribute to the Mexican Mafia. Both gangs have a leadership core in North and Central American prisons and both are aligned with Mexican drug cartels. Likely as a result of these similarities- their great size, dope connections and shared turf, Mara Salvatrucha and Mara-18 are bitter enemies.
Unfortunately, the U.S. government is largely responsible for the King Kong and Godzilla of the Maras becoming the monsters they are. As mentioned, once upon a time MS and 18 were just two Surenos gangs among the 500-plus operating in LA County. It was a gang-suppression program that elevated them from street gang to brutal international organized crime syndicates responsible for drug smuggling, trafficking and street-dealing; human smuggling; robbery; arson; high-tech crimes including identity theft, electronic fraud, etc; prostitution (an MS-13 member was recently arrested for a child prostitution racket); murder for hire and pretty much any other criminal enterprise that generates a profit.
From 1998-2005 more than 40,000 gangsters from LA were deported to Central America. Many, perhaps most, of these were members of MS-13 or 18th Street. Wherever they landed the deportees established “sets” of MS and 18. (A “set” is like a larger gang’s local branch or franchise.) This was inevitably going to turn out badly for Honduras, El Salvador and, to a lesser degree, Guatemala. It graduated from “bad” to full-blown calamity, however, when American gang culture met bloody Latin American history.
El Salvador’s recent past has been troubled to say the least. Exacerbating the affliction of seemingly-perpetual Salvadoran civil war was the contribution of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation; better known as the School of the Americas (SOA). The American SOA trained El Salvadoran officers and soldiers in advanced military tactics, espionage, interrogation and guerilla warfare.
Many of these newly trained soldiers were directly responsible for the establishment of the infamous “death squads” upon their return to El Salvador, including General Roberto D’Aubuisson - commander of the most infamous squad. (Remnants of those death squads, particularly “Sombra Negra,” currently add to El Salvador’s body count with their vigilante killing of MS and 18th St. gangsters.)
When the military violence died down there remained a population of Salvadoran men familiar with great violence and possessing a specific skillset but nowhere to employ it. That is until the formation of LA-style street gangs presented a framework within which these men could apply their training and experience to make money.
Soon after, both Maras had grown exponentially, acquired military training and access to military weapons and found themselves smack dab in the middle of the South-to-North American dope corridor through which 90 percent of America’s cocaine and marijuana traveled. Alliances with the drug cartels was inevitable. Soon after (and to this day) both 18th St. and MS-13 have solidly occupied drug-distribution networks stretching from Honduras to British Columbia.
For Central American locals this means contending with sophisticated and ferocious local gangs and the pitiless Mexican cartels using their countries as docks and depots for a multi-billion dollar drug trade. And the gangs have began branching out.
Honduran sets of 18th St. and MS-13 have recently upgraded their extortion rackets to include people’s homes. Unable to afford the gangs’ “protection taxes” entire neighborhoods have fled the country. Women are often particularly victimized. More than 3,000 Honduran women have been murdered in the past decade, 40 percent of whom were killed in the last two years and 90 percent of these killings are never investigated. Due to fear of retaliation many more have never been reported.
In 2010 there were 6,239 homicides in Honduras alone. That’s roughly 17 a day. And the numbers have not been improving. Although it’s unclear what can curb this epidemic of violent murder, many Latin American and Mexican officials have suggested that recent votes to legalize marijuana in several American states is a good start. The opinion being- if America can’t moderate the national appetite for narcotics, legalization should be considered. It’s estimated that marijuana legalization alone would cut the drug cartels’ profits in half. Though that solution too is, of course, loaded with its own political and social controversies and difficulties.