Gangs in Central America have wielded a considerable amount of power throughout communities in Honduras and El Salvador. Along with Guatemala, these countries comprise what is known as the Northern Triangle.
The residents of the Northern Triangle have been adversely impacted by their government and law enforcement’s inability to control these gangs. In these countries, the gangs are responsible for murder, human trafficking, drug trafficking, extortion and many other crimes.
For example, gangs have extorted an estimated $400 million in extortion fees each year in El Salvador and around $200 million in Honduras each year, according to InSight Crime. For those who oppose them, powerful gangs and cartels use extreme violence, bombing, and kidnapping to exert their control over communities.
How Honduras and El Salvador Are Cracking Down on Gangs
Local 10 ABC News says that Honduras has addressed the gang problem in two large cities within the Northern Triangle by suspending some constitutional rights involving associations, free movement, searches and arrests. According to Local 10 ABC News, Leandro Osorio, a retired national police commissioner in Honduras, said that “the intent is to penetrate these criminal structures to get to the (leaders), [and] it would also be important to go after lesser criminals, as well as repeat offenders.”
[Related article: Demographic Shift in Border Crossing Migrants from ‘Northern Triangle’]
This approach of iron-fist policies to go after gangs is similar to measures taken in El Salvador. Since declaring a similar exception to the constitutional rights of gang members in March of 2022, more than 53,000 suspected gang members have been arrested. As a result, El Salvador has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
BBC News notes that El Salvador Defense Minister Merino says that extortion has dropped since emergency measures have been put into place. Merino stated that the “aim is to make these gangs disappear altogether from El Salvador.”
Rehabilitation Could Help Some Gang Members in the Northern Triangle
Despite these steep policies to crack down on gang members, there is still very little opportunity for young men to work and escape poverty in the Northern Triangle countries. I believe that there has to be rehabilitation to fully solve the problem.
Simply incarcerating these gang members does not solve the problem of gang-related violence in the Northern Triangle. Providing opportunity to make an income aside from gang life through teaching trade skills, agricultural skills, or other skills would be more effective, coupled with teaching these gang members life skills such as anger management and conflict resolution. Belize Central Prison is a great example of how effective rehabilitation programs can create meaningful change in prisoners’ lives and futures.
When gang members are released, they commonly return to gang life. They may remain in their country or move to a neighboring country, which only transplants the problem of gang violence to another location.
Neighboring Countries Should Remain Vigilant for Gang Members Moving into Their Territory
As governments in the Northern Triangle use more aggressive approaches to stop gangs, neighboring countries should remain vigilant for gang members who may leave El Salvador and Honduras to escape law enforcement. In addition, proactive border security and proactive law enforcement is needed by countries in the Northern Triangle to mitigate the risk of gang members moving to new communities or other Latin American countries.