In the last two decades, Honduras has seen a significant increase in gang membership, gang criminal activity, and gang-related violence. The uptick in violence has been particularly troubling. In 2014, Honduras was considered the most violent nation in the world that was not at war. Although high impunity rates and lack of reliable data make it difficult to assess how many of these murders are gang-related, it’s clear that the gangs’ use of violence -- against rivals, civilians, security forces and perceived transgressors within their own ranks -- has greatly contributed to these numbers. Among the areas hardest hit are the country’s urban centers. Honduras’ economic capital, San Pedro Sula, is, according to some, the world’s most violent city, with a homicide rate of 142 for every 100,000 people.1 The political capital Tegucigalpa has a homicide rate of 81 per 100,000.2 The third largest city, La Ceiba, has a murder rate of 95 per 100,000. 3 These are also the areas where the gangs, in particular the two most prominent, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, have the greatest presence and influence. The emergence of hyper-violent street gangs happened relatively quickly in Honduras. In the late 1990s, following legislation in the United States that led to increased deportation of ex-convicts, numerous MS13 and Barrio 18 members arrived in the country. By the early 2000s, these two gangs, along with several local groups, had begun a bloody battle for territory -- and the extortion revenue and drug markets that goes with it -- that continues to this day. The government responded by passing so-called “iron fist” legislation and arresting thousands of suspected gang members. Instead of slowing the growth of gangs, however, the policy allowed them to consolidate their leadership within the prison system, expand their economic portfolios and make contact with other criminal organizations. This report covers the current state of gangs in Honduras. Specifically, it examines the history, geographic presence, structure and modus operandi of Barrio 18 and MS13 in the country. It also analyzes how the gangs may be developing into more sophisticated criminal organizations. It looks closely at examples that illustrate how some parts of these two gangs are winning the support of the local communities in which they operate. Finally, it gives an overview of some of the other street gangs operating in Honduras.
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This report is also available in Spanish