Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in esglobal, a Madrid-based think tank. José Manuel Cuevas is a researcher at the Navarra Center for International Development (NCID) inside the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Navarra. To read the original piece, click here.
Central America’s Northern Triangle received its name following the political and economic integration efforts of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador at the end of the 1990’s. Moreover, the term is also used to reference their shared realities like social violence, drug trafficking, and migration.
The subregion is one of the most violent in the world. Although violence has been on the decline, murder rates are still high: 26 in Guatemala, 42 in Honduras, and 62 in El Salvador for every 100,000 people, according to The World Bank. In their respective capitals, murder rates in 2019 were 42 in Guatemala City, 41 in Tegucigalpa, and 35 in San Salvador, according to regional sources.
These figures share visible actors. On one hand, the infamous transnational gangs (or maras) MS13 and Barrio 18 act without regard from neighborhoods and prisons. As part of the social fabric, and especially in cities, they manage to impose their rules through extortion, kidnapping, murder, drug dealing, connections to corrupt officials, and their significance in the collective imagination. On the other, drug trafficking—a catalyst for violence and an illegal but profitable business—made its way to Central America during the 1980’s when the region became a new drug route to reach the United States, and its dealers went from familial clans to subsidiaries of Mexican cartels.
The reach of these groups has been a burden for all three countries, reinforcing transversal issues like poverty, inequality, and institutional weakness, while being a threat to security, development, and governance.
Faced with the weight of organized crime and increased violence, presidents from different ideologies have, since the beginning of the century, endorsed the use of the so-called “iron fist”—which has led to the imprisonment of thousands of gang members, making it so that this phenomenon doesn’t always reduce, but adapt. In recent years, this rhetoric has once again coincided with the three presidents of the region. Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party—who has governed Honduras since 2014—included a call for a heavier hand in his first term discourse. In 2019, then alternative candidate Nayib Bukele broke with the bipartisanship and won El Salvador’s presidency after accusing his predecessors of making deals with the maras to maintain power, and promising, as a counterattack, to strengthen the nation’s offensive strategy. In 2020, conservative Alejandro Giammattei took office as president of Guatemala with the same promise, also adding he would declare the maras as terrorist groups and carry out a new security plan in conjunction with the Salvadoran government.
Although in office at different times, the iron fist rhetoric of the three presidents, depending on the case, is reflected in their work, their actions—which have caught the attention of the public both inside and outside their borders—or on the contrary, in their change of tone.
The symptoms begin at home
In Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández is well into his second term, which began with accusations of electoral fraud and less iron fist rhetoric against crime than in his first term. In power since 2014, the president has seen at least one of his offensive strategies against organized crime turn against him in recent years: the extradition policy to the United States, aimed at drug trafficking bosses.
Since the beginning, and wrapped in anti-crime discourse, a collaboration framework with the U.S., and following reform in 2012, Hernández promoted the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States. This led to dozens of captures and surrenders that included leaders of groups such as Los Valle or Los Cachiros. Judicial investigations revealed the reach and normalcy of narco-politics in Honduras at all levels. These efforts reached a peak when both narcos and former officials spoke of former congressman, and president’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández as a key figure in the country’s drug trafficking networks.
U.S. authorities had no need for formal extradition and arrested Tony Hernández in November 2018 at the Miami airport in Florida. But beyond the initial scandal, the trial and media reports directly affected President Hernández: prosecutors accused him of receiving one million dollars from Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán through Tony—which the president denied in a statement referencing the extradition policy. Finally, Tony Hernandez was convicted in October 2019 of drug and arms trafficking. Mentions of the president in ongoing trials continue.
In addition, within its comprehensive coverage of the issue, the specialized media site InSight Crime found that Honduras went from being a transit country to a drug producing one in the last decade. Moreover, it also published that, according to U.S. authorities, a drug laboratory has operated in Honduras with protection from the president.
Governing at any cost
On February 9, 2020, President Nayib Bukele sent the country’s military to the legislative assembly to persuade legislators to authorize the negotiation of a loan to finance the country’s Territorial Control Plan. Along with his call for insurrection should the body continue to refuse, the scene set off alarms—prompting self-coup allegations.
Since the beginning of his term in June 2019, the 38-year-old businessman and publicist has stood out for governing from Twitter, exploiting his popularity. As soon as he took office, Bukele began giving instructions for bureaucratic reform through social media to ministers and high-level officials who obeyed orders. He also unveiled his security plan: attack gang financing, cut off communication in prisons, and protect city centers.
After a first semester in which he achieved to reduce the murder rate, the Twitter-governing president went further when on March 3, he decreed a maximum emergency in all jails, effectively forcing prisoners to remain in their cells at all times until the end of the emergency. That tweet responded to another in which he stated, among other things, that “criminals control most of the state.”
As Bukele has shown, for him, El Salvador’s problems are represented by thousands of gang members and at least 60 of the 84 deputies in the legislative assembly. While the former hold parallel power from the underworld; the latter belong to ARENA and the FMLN, whose thirty-year-old bipartisanship Bukele managed to overcome in the elections and whose counterweight seems to bother him. Precisely, to win the presidency, Bukele criticized the convergence between both actors; the FMLN, in power since 2009, had agreed to an under the table truce with gangs in exchange for prison benefits. Before and after his election, Bukele benefited from statements by court witnesses who linked FMLN and ARENA officials to clandestine meetings with gang leaders.
In the face of the coronavirus crisis, the Salvadoran president acted with a pragmatism that allowed him to implement a preventive and phased plan, but also gamble institutional order and political and judicial control on certain decisions. The most striking have been in the face of a sudden increase in murders, for which he blames gangs: Bukele ordered a new state of emergency in prisons and allowed, as of April 26, the use of “lethal force” when necessary. Add to this his authorization to allow the military and police to arrest anyone who violated quarantine. Those measures and the images of inmates confined in their underwear have caused great concern at the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, among other international organizations.
The government has also limited the scope for journalism and access to public information, according to some media officials. The president himself has also confronted part of the private sector for the economic measures and consequences the crisis has brought about.
From fighting gangs to fighting terrorism
During his inauguration on January 14, 2020, Alejandro Giammattei announced the direction of his security policy once in office, “I will present a law that aims to define gangs as what they are: terrorist groups.” The echo of his campaign promise has resulted in death threats both before and after taking office. In the same speech, the president assured that the “plague” of gangs had to be attacked through its structural causes, linked to a lack of education and social exclusion.
Giammattei not only spoke from the promising spark of change that comes with a change in government, but with the knowledge of the cause, he directed the country’s penitentiary system between 2005 and 2007. His time as head was marked by Operation Pavo Real, in which 3,000 police and military officers took over a crowded prison that became a hotbed for crime. Giammattei was jailed for ten months for the seven extrajudicial killings that were committed during the operation, but was acquitted in 2011 when there were no indications of his participation.
As president, Giammattei promoted the “anti-gang law,” which, after going through three commissions before the coronavirus interrupted proceedings, would not include the word “terrorists” to avoid counterproductive or unconstitutional consequences. This law, however, would increase the penalties for the most common crimes committed by gang members, such as extortion; and also provides a front for the executive to increase the investigative capacities and direct confrontation against gangs, plus promotes prevention policies for at risk minors.
For now, this proposal to make force compatible with prevention has had more discourse and content related to the former. Having only been in office for a month, Giammattei declared the “state of prevention” four times for different municipalities—this provision allows, among others, to militarize public services or limit outdoor celebrations.
In the Northern Triangle, different types of structures of crime and organized crime are common, however, they haven’t always been fought the same way. In all three cases their actions were not that of internal enemies, separated from society and politics, but rather as the first and sometimes in relation to the second. For example, apart from the general media overexposure and the political use that has been given to the collective fear of these groups, with the coronavirus crisis, gangs in El Salvador have threatened anyone who skips the mandatory quarantine, while in Guatemala they have suspended extortion of small businesses affected by the pandemic.
Similarly, the effectiveness of security policies against gangs has been questioned given that, either by internal agreements or deals made with politicians, or by focusing on something more profitable such as extortion these past five years, the gangs themselves have decided to kill less. Even in jails, gang leaders have been able to seek dialogue with presidents, like in Guatemala, or even escape, like in Honduras.
These contradictions also occur at the political level. For example, the United States still considers Orlando Hernández—who has promoted security policies and institutional cleansing since he was president of congress—an ally in the immigration issue and in the fight against drug trafficking, knowing that judicial testimonies increasingly link him to those networks. Bukele, meanwhile, has sparked concern from the international community for his methods of trying to impose security and maintain control during the pandemic—meanwhile within the country he continues to maintain a largely favorable image.
While presidents have room to strategize, the difficulty of the “iron fist” is that sometimes it has the opposite result of increasing violence. But this is mainly because it is interacting with counterparts that, autonomously, are in power and are a part of society in all three countries.