Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Organization of the Honduran Drug Trade (Part 3 of 3)

In the first two installements of this series, we discussed examples of what a September 2012 UN report called a territorially-based crime group and a transportista crime group in Honduras.

The third kind of group involved in the international drug trade are what the UN calls tumbadores, disruptive groups that prey on crime families and transportistas opportunistically, to take their drug shipments and sell them to others.

Tumbadores often form from territorial groups, like crime families. In addition to hijacking shipments of drugs, they may also extort the transportistas who must cross their territory to move drugs along, and they may contribute to street crime.

In Honduras, Los Grillos, a group operating near La Ceiba, have been identified as tumbadores.  They've been competing for territory with Los Pelones, also headquartered in La Ceiba. That conflict generated over 373 firearm caused homicides in the first half of 2011 in La Ceiba.

Both groups are said to operate by trying to hijack drug shipments traveling from eastern Honduras through the La Ceiba area. They have reportedly heavily infiltrated the police in La Ceiba, and carried out contract killings on reporters in the La Ceiba region, including reporter David Meza Montesinos, who was broadcasting exposés on police corruption in La Ceiba when murdered.

More recently Los Grillos have expanded into the Bay Islands of Honduras, particularly Roatan where they're following the drug traffic in coastal waters.

Not included in these three main categories are street gangs, the Maras. The UN report concludes that they "have little connection to the transnational drug trade, and focus primarily on extortion and other local power struggles".  This goes against a powerful representation popular with the Honduran (and some international) media that links the street gangs and drug traffickers together.

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Mara Calle 18 are territorial organized crime units. but are not usually classified as organized crime units because their focus is not financial gain. They provide small amounts of security and distribute money to friends and family, but make no pretense of serving a broader public good as do the crime families.

Their territorial control is about identity, respect and their place in the world, according to the UN report.  This focus on identity causes them at times to work against their financial interests, feuding with others over symbolic incursions.

They are trans-national, but not organized trans-nationally.  They are present across the United States, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, but there is no central leadership that coordinates what each member organization is doing.  Both gangs operate as small territorial units, cliques, that control or dispute a small local territory.  Some analysts suggest there is a national structure made up of the leadership of the largest cliques. Both may have cliques that make opportunistic alliances across international boundaries but outside of this, there is no international coordination of activities.

While neither Mara is a major player in the international drug trade, both are involved in local distribution of drugs in Honduras. That doesn't mean they are benign; their primary activities are major sources of violence in Honduras: kidnap for ransom, extortion from transportation (bus, taxi), extortion of local businesses and individuals, murder for hire, and theft accompany their involvement in street trafficking of drugs within the country.

Their street level drug trafficking is mostly cannabis, with only a little cocaine these days.  Back when they arrived in Central America, they got their start by trafficking crack cocaine, previously not a problem in Central America. But today, the cocaine trade is international business of the cartels.

In Honduras, the way the Maras have articulated with the territorial crime families and transportistas is through murder for hire.  In the Bajo Aguan, there's evidence that a group calling itself Mara 61 has been hired by drug traffickers to provide security and logistical support for their operations.  Mara Calle 18 was hired by the Zetas to carry out contract killings in Honduras.

It is the activities of the Maras in extortion and murder for hire that produce the most violence in Central America.

In El Salvador, when politicians and the Catholic church negotiated a truce between MS-13 and Calle 18, it dramatically lowered homicide rates, while extortion and other gang related crimes continued unchecked. When the truce collapsed, homicide rates returned to their former, high, levels.

The UN report shows that violence in Honduras is a result of two primary forces, conflict between the various people involved in the drug trade, and the high level of violence promulgated by the Maras.

Collapsing these two sources of violence is a mistake that can lead to thinking strategies intended to fight the Maras are also countering drug trafficking, or that fighting drug trafficking will reduce the high levels of violence people endure in some Honduran cities. These are separate problems, even if each offers opportunities for the other.

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