Geopolitics

A History Of Violence: Gangs, Drugs And “Mano Dura” In Central America

Analysis: Homicides have soared in Central America as local street gangs are fed by Mexican drug cartels, which have taken over drug trafficking routes once handled by Colombians.

A member of the Latin King gang showing his tattoos (Javier Ramirez)
Montserrat Nicolás

WASHINGTON - Just a few kilometres away from the CIA headquarters in Washington D.C. live thousands of marginalized young people involved in Latino gangs called maras. They are pawns in a violent game being orchestrated by international drug cartels, which in recent years have increased their activity in both Central America and the United States.

"They use the maras for transport, logistics and the local distribution of drugs… and in some cases (but not all), the maras provide the cartels with muscle," says James Bosworth, a security analyst based in Nicaragua and with many years of experience in Central American affairs.

Together, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala make up the area with the highest homicide rate in the world. Murders have spiked drastically in recent years. The excessive violence is due to various factors: the weakened rule of law, a general lack of law enforcement, endemic poverty and, more recently, new corporate involvement in the management of criminal activities. Paradoxically, this increased violence is really the result of the war on drugs itself.

During the 1980s and at the start of the 1990s, thousands of Latino youths joined gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, in the eastern United States, or the 18th Street Gang in Los Angeles: for many it was the only possibility they had of feeling like they belonged. In the 1990s, U.S. authorities began deporting them en masse back to Central America. It was there – often within local prisons – that they started to formalize their activity, transforming their gangs into truly multi-headed, multi-talented organizations. They boosted their presence and networks in the United States via cells that recruited young disadvantaged Latinos. U.S. security agencies estimate that the maras now have more than 170,000 members in different countries.

Also during the 1990s, Colombian cartels established themselves as the principal drugs suppliers to traffickers in Central America. This was a direct consequence of efforts by the administration of Ronald Reagan to block off the flow of drugs through Miami, previously the main port of entry.

The business strategy was simple. Basically, the drug producers paid the Central American traffickers in order to ensure safe and reliable transportation for their products. The families or local networks involved (known as transportistas) received a small profit. The drug trafficking happened alongside the movement of other types of contraband, especially of people and essential goods, such as rice and gasoline. The same gang networks and ringleaders – the capos – were involved, as well as landowners, business men, benefactors and local community leaders. But it wasn't just about drugs: the capos built roads, clinics and football grounds; they guaranteed law and order, safety in the streets and job prospects. Would they have achieved all this without the protection of the military, intelligence services and civil servants? Unlikely. It was a stable, steady market that also managed to stay relatively free of violence… until everything changed.

Fighting fire with fire

At the end of the 1990s, ever more aggressive military and police activity from the Colombian government reduced the capacity of the local cartels to oversee the international drug routes. At the same time, the demobilization of armies that took place in Central America after the region's various civil wars ended had the unintended effect of putting more guns into circulation and of reshaping local trafficking networks.

Colombian influence waned; new members and suppliers emerged from Mexico. The once stable business system crumbled following multiple arrests of transportistas and new practices appeared, such as the theft of drugs while in transit and their resale, better known as tumbe.

The Mexican groups introduced new practices. The Gulf Cartel created a paramilitary branch called Los Zetas, an organized gang trained in large part by ex-soldiers of Mexican special operations teams who used to fight drug trafficking. The speciality of the Zetas was their speedy attack and willingness to kill even the highest-ranked capos and cartel members. But then, in 2010, the Zetas complicated matters by splitting with the Gulf Cartel, after closing deals with other gangs.

Faced with this violent situation, the response of the Central American governments was to ask the United States for help and to "militarize security."

"The U.S. Congress almost always agrees to strong military support with very little public debate, whereas every cent of aid donated to social and civil programmes is questioned," says Bosworth.

Countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have implemented "mano dura" (iron fist) policies, putting the military in charge of what had previously been police tasks. Panama and Costa Rica have also taken action to strengthen their police forces with help from the United States and European Community. But will it be enough?

Not according to Renata Ávila, a Guatemalan lawyer and director of the citizen media platform Global Voices Online. "Popular perceptions, which are frequently misinformed, have serious adverse effects because they cause further exclusion and fear, which leads to demands for mano dura policies," she says. Avila, also a public policy analyst, believes that this emphasis on mano dura "relegates social rehabilitation for former gang members and social protection networks for their families to an afterthought."

As Ávila notes, the maras strike fear in the population and this generalized fear "has affected urban development, increasing the number of gated communities and middle- and upper-class buildings with strict security in place."

Various specialists in Central America agree that the chain of violence has had significant negative consequences for the State, public spaces, small local economies and even people's mental health: in short, serious consequences for the fabric of society as a whole. In cities like Tegucigalpa, San Salvador or Guatemala, "it is no longer acceptable for teenagers or young adults to hang around in the street or to express themselves with language, clothes or signs that are linked to the maras," says Ávila.

Lacking resources and cohesion

Any comprehensive solution will end up facing two enormous obstacles: a lack of resources and a lack of regional cohesion when it comes to planning and public policy. U.S. police vis-à-vis Central America has changed during the Obama administration, with a greater emphasis on reforms of the police and the judicial system, as well as on social support. "Although the U.S. government has finished with the rhetoric of the war on drugs, these areas remain the principal focus," says Bosworth.

Ávila has suggested that the respective governments analyze and evaluate the measures adopted in Italy where "they passed a law permitting the confiscation of all goods from the mafia." Similarly, authorities in Mexico and Central America could seize the property of organized criminal gangs and use the proceeds to combat social problems faced by the young mara members.

The U.S. government has prioritized working with international organizations such as the Central American Integration System and the Organization of American States. It is a slow and bureaucratic process that is often all talk with little action when it comes to the topic of civil aid.

"The U.S., Mexican and Central American governments work together to draw up a regional strategy, and then to obtain the necessary resources and fulfil their part of the strategy," says Bosworth. "There is nothing that can be done by one country alone."

Read more from América Economía in Spanish.

Photo - Javier Ramirez

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Ideas

Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.


In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.

https://thewire.in/culture/re-reading-rumi-in-the-time-of-the-taliban
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