San Salvador: Central America’s northern three countries — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — remain among the most violent in the world despite intensified security crackdowns on their lawless gangs.
According to a compilation of the latest official figures, there were 15,809 murders last year in those three nations, collectively known as the Northern Triangle.
“The situation remains difficult. Even though the number of murders has dropped, the pain and suffering of many families in the Northern Triangle continue,” the head of El Salvador’s Human Rights Commission, Miguel Montenegro, told journalists.
The Northern Triangle is a major source of US-bound migrants fleeing gangs and poverty.
The United States has allocated $650 million (Dh2.38 billion) to the region to try to stem the flow by improving prosperity and security.
But, while governments have greatly stepped up mixed patrols and raids by police and soldiers, Montenegro said “the repression by the states has not made inroads against the violence.”
On average across the three countries, there were 50.6 murders per day per 100,000 inhabitants last year.
That’s lower than the 57.1 murders per day recorded in 2015, but still many times higher than the world average of 6.7 calculated by the World Health Organisation.
Per capita, El Salvador was the most dangerous, with 81.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Then came Honduras at 58.2, and Guatemala with 34.1.
“The violence isn’t going to go away overnight,” an analyst and former El Salvador rebel, Juan Ramon Medrano, said. “It came about over several decades through social and economic conditions. To get rid of it will need many years.”
The gangs blamed for much of the violence were born on the mean streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s, when Central Americans fleeing Cold War-fomented civil conflicts sought refuge in the United States and fought Mexican gangs.
Deported back home, they brought the gang culture and violence back with them, and today whole neighbourhoods are prey to the groups and their turf wars, with local youths forced to join or to run.
“There is no solution to the gangs. Young people are looking for a family and entering a gang gives them an artificial family. There are no rehabilitation programs,” said Ricardo Puerta, a Honduran sociologist.
Honduras is home to up to 36,000 gang members, according to police and international organisations. Some 70,000 are in El Salvador, and 10,000 in Guatemala.
“The gang situation seems more under control in Honduras and Guatemala,” Salvadoran university professor and researcher Carlos Carcach said. “In El Salvador, territorial expansion by the gangs is rapid and broad.”
With the region acting as a transit corridor for illegal drugs heading from South America to the United States, and cartels in nearby Mexico active, there are fears the gangs could become transnational outfits.
That has prompted prosecutors to join forces for a cross-border strategy, while police and troops in the Northern Triangle have formed a trinational force.
But analysts believe the more effective way for the countries to handle the problem is to fix their shaky economies and institutions — to provide jobs and social participation.
“The fragility and weakness of the national democratic systems isn’t allowing them to be strong states able to mount a fight against the problems causing the violence,” Carcach said.
The institutional shortcomings in the countries left over from the civil wars meant impunity reigned for former soldiers and rebels, he said, and that coloured society afterward.
An additional problem, he noted, was the lack of control in the region over the illegal sales and trafficking of weapons from those conflicts.