A triangle of death

Mara Salvatrucha gang member, El Salvador

A Mara Salvatrucha gang member in prison in El Salvador. Photo: Moisen Saman, courtesy of Sony World Photography Award 2008/Creative Commons

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

The Economist has dubbed it ‘the tormented isthmus‘. It is the most murderous region on earth: the ‘northern triangle’ of Central America formed by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The bloody drugs war that has raged in neighbouring Mexico since 2006 has spilled over into a region already destabilised by years of civil war in the 1980s, plagued by local gangs and corrupt institutions, and with too few police.

While adding the region to the institute’s Armed Conflict Database recently, we unearthed a raft of alarming statistics. These include:

  • Around 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched his war on drugs in 2006.
  • During the same period, 90,000 people have been murdered in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (according to national law-enforcement sources) – even though the three countries’ combined population of 28 million is around one quarter of Mexico’s.
  • In Honduras, the average murder rate reached 82.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, compared to 18.1 in Mexico, and a global average of 6.9 (UNODC figures, based on national sources).
  • This represents more than a doubling of the Honduran murder rate since 2005, when it was 35.1 per 100,000 inhabitants.
  • The death rate in Honduras is above that in Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.
  • The average 2010 murder rates in El Salvador and Guatemala were 66 and 41.4 respectively. Violence has also been on the rise in other Central American states, particularly Belize.

As coast guards and customs officers have closed down other trafficking routes between consumers in the United States and producers in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, Central America has become an increasingly important drugs corridor. Undoubtedly, the arrival of Mexican members of Los Zetas, Sinaloa and Gulf cartels has fuelled the increased violence; unlike Colombian drugs lords, they pay their local partners in drugs instead of cash.

However, these organised criminals have fed on other social weaknesses. Politics in El Salvador and Guatemala remains polarised between right and left, years after civil wars between US-backed dictators and rebels supported by the Soviet Union came to an end. A coup that ousted left-wing president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 both underlined the deep splits in that country and exacerbated them. In these deeply troubled societies, corruption has long taken hold.

Much of the violence in the region also stems from the activities of street gangs, or maras. Formed in the United States by Central American refugees escaping the civil wars of the 1980s, these gangs became a scourge across the northern triangle after gang members were deported back to their native countries. Distinguished by their members’ striking tattoos (see photo, above), gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, have routinely been involved in murder, rape and extortion. Now they have become involved in the drugs trade.

Indeed, the violence created by the maras’ turf wars is so systematic that if, as happened recently, the two main gangs form a truce, it can significantly lower the homicide rate –  as we will discuss in an  another blog post soon. After that truce was struck, El Salvador was even able to celebrate its first murder-free day in nearly three years.

One Comment on “A triangle of death”

  1. […] triangle’ has been the most murderous region on earth recently, as discussed in a recent Voices blog post. But there is a growing ray of hope in El Salvador, where street gangs, or maras, have accounted […]


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