Crime & Violence in Central America

Puamelia / CC BY-SA 2.0

On May 1, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted a discussion with José Luis Sanz and Carlos Martínez on security issues in Central America. Sanz and Martínez, both of whom are journalists for El Faro’s “Sala Negra” section on crime and violence, are also the authors of a recent book, Crónicas negras.

Sanz and Martínez were motivated to write the book in light of what they called the “absolute failure” of Central American journalism to explain issues of insecurity in the region, noting that much ink had been devoted to the topic, but with little to show for it in the way of meaningful insight or analysis. Crónicas negras, which draws from interviews with gang members and other primary sources, analyzes the causes and consequences of the region’s high crime rates.

The book also provides a more nuanced analysis of criminal organizations themselves. One of the most important things for policymakers and the public to understand is that gangs are “in constant evolution, undergoing radical transformations,” Sanz argued. In addition, gangs are not homogenous; there are important differences across gangs and even within the same gangs across different regions that manifest themselves in their codes of behavior and their decision-making processes. Because gangs are heterogeneous and constantly changing, “they are a complex phenomenon that can be very difficult to define,” Sanz noted.

As part of El Salvador’s super mano dura – or iron fist – stance on crime, which has widespread popular support, punishment for criminal activity is severe. A large population is incarcerated in jails that function more like “torture chambers,” Martínez argued. Inmates are kept in overcrowded, inhumane conditions with inadequate access to medical care, he noted.

Responding to concerns that jails were breeding grounds for gang violence, El Salvador established separate facilities for each major criminal organization and one facility for “civilians,” that is to say, those inmates without a gang affiliation. However, this system had the troubling, unintended effect of creating higher levels of national unity and cohesion within previously heterogeneous, loosely-affiliated criminal groups, Martinez argued.

It remains to be seen how the incoming Sánchez Cerén administration will handle security issues such as these. However, it seems likely that it will allow the gang truce to continue, Sanz said, since would be “irresponsible” to ignore this new dynamic. If the truce were to fail, conservatives in the country could garner support for an even harsher stance on crime, Martínez noted, with potentially dangerous consequences for civil liberties.

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