Five Myths about the Migration Surge

Oxford University Press recently published this blogpost which I was asked to write about the surge in migrating Central American youth. It was a very difficult piece to write — at times it felt like walking through a mine field. There is a lot more I could say about the issue but the short story is that I believe 1) we need to be careful about making the dubious argument that all of the youth coming northward are escaping imminent violence, from the gang or otherwise, and 2) we need to use the opportunity to take a hard look at why economic inequality has persisted and what simple steps (like promoting progressive taxation) might be done to diminish it.

Incidentally, this post picked up a little steam when the HNN and the London School of Economics political blog about the US decided to run it. A day later later, Andrew Sullivan ran the last two paragraphs of my post in The Dish.

Strategies for Reducing Gang Violence

On Wednesday 5/21, I will be presenting as a panelist at the annual conference on peace building co-sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace / Alliance for Peacebuilding. The topic of our panel will be “Urban Violence and Cross-border Criminal Activity: New Challenges for Peacebuilding.” Below is the (simple) handout I will use for the conference:

USIP handout

A Statistical Argument for Judicial Reform

In an earlier post I lamented the decision of Guatemala’s Attorney General selection committee not to renew the term of the highly successful Paz y Paz and her team. Take a look at the two graphics below, borrowed from the recent blogpost by my good friend, the meticulous political scientist Carlos Mendoza:

homicidios Guate 2001-2013

The homicide rate for Guatemala as a nation (green), for the department of Guatemala (red), and the municipality of Guatemala (blue).

Above: The conviction rate for homicides in Guatemala from 2009-2012.

Above: The conviction rate for homicides in Guatemala from 2009-2012.

Notice that the homicide rate in Guatemala was halved at the same time as the conviction rate for homicide in the country as a whole (but with a strong focus on Guatemala City homicides) was more than doubled. Obviously, there is more to reducing violence than successfully convicting those who participate in it, but it would be difficult to find a stronger argument for investing in judicial reform and professionalization of prosecution (including the protection of witnesses) than that represented in these two graphics. Guatemala still has a long way to go with regard to stemming the tide of criminal violence, but that it has made progress — and that some of the credit lies with observable improvements in the justice system — should not be doubted.

The (former) Attorney General Named “Peace”


Above: Former Attorney General of Guatemala (and 2013 Nobel Peace Prize nominee) Claudia Paz y Paz meets then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz was officially eliminated from the shortlist of candidates for appointment to the position of Attorney General of Guatemala. That means that she will no longer lead Guatemala’s Ministerio Publico, which is essentially the backbone of Guatemala’s legal justice system. The Public Ministry, akin to a federal prosecutor’s office but local and national in scope, is in charge of seeking justice by turning criminal cases into convictions through careful investigation, evidence-gathering, and legal argument. Why does the elimination of Paz y Paz as a candidate matter? Because no one has been more effective at solving high-level crimes and getting convictions on everything from femicides to drug trafficking than Paz y Paz and her team (see new post above for statistical evidence).


But first a story. In 2013 while I was conducting follow-up interviews with ex-gang members I first met in 2007, I asked *Diego, a local gatekeeper and small business owner from Ciudad Quetzal about the gang situation in that community. Ciudad Quetzal is a satellite town on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Residents of Guatemala City regard Ciudad Quetzal as a dangerous hotspot of gang activity. Extortion of homeowners, small businesses, and buses has been rampant in Ciudad Quetzal for years. Does the extortion continue? I wondered aloud. Diego, a well-educated pharmacist who lives and works in the community told me, “Yes, it continues. But it isn’t really the gangs who are behind it any more.” He explained that although the local youth gangs had developed the practice of extorting their neighbors for the so-called “war tax,” in recent years the extortion has been taken over by outsiders. Specifically, an organized criminal gang with ties to the military now oversees the extortion racket in Ciudad Quetzal, collecting the proceeds from the safety of Chimaltenango, about forty-five minutes away. To be sure, a former gang member is involved in the operation. In fact, this former leader of the local gang cell continues to collect the extortion fees. But, Diego informed me, it is an open secret that the former gang leader works for the shady Chimaltenango outfit. The local youth gangs have been effectively maneuvered out of an “enterprise” they themselves invented and established.

Of course I cannot confirm or otherwise “prove” the validity of my informant’s account, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of such a situation. In Guatemala and Honduras especially, there are numerous accounts of organized criminals carrying out major crimes in the guise of the gangs. In the case of extortion in particular I have heard multiple accounts of Guatemalans believing themselves to be extorted by gangs, only to find out later that those behind the extortion were not gang members at all, but members of local or regional units that extort under the guise of the gang. In one case in particular, a close friend told me how her entire family had had to leave their home abruptly and permanently after receiving multiple telephone calls from “la Mara Salvatrucha” asking for thousands of dollars in cash and providing intimate details about all family members and their daily routines. Not until more than a year later – after the family had pooled all of its resources to take out a mortgage on a small home in another part of the city – did the family learn from a very reliable source that the individuals who had tried to extort them were actually neighbors living just a few doors down the same street. Specifically, a mother and her adult son who possessed ties to organized crime had married into a local family that owned a neighborhood tienda (store). The newcomers had used their position at the store as well as their participation in a local prayer group in order to gain intimate details about the residents of that neighborhood. Their extortion calls always led with “Somos la maratrucha” when in fact, they had no connection at all to the gangs. Eventually, my friend told me, the newcomers had encountered problems with enemies from outside the community and had left the community for good – that is when my friend learned about the source of the extortion.

The point here is not that gangs are unfairly maligned, nor am I suggesting that gangs do not continue to engage in extortion. They do. But even when they are involved directly, they rarely if ever act without the help of outsiders whose social position can provide protection from arrest and prosecution. Thus, addressing gang violence effectively requires a lot more than hiring more police or making more arrests of gang members. These strategies will make little if any impact on gang violence. Instead, the legal system will need to invest considerable energy and resources into ferreting out connections between gang members and their local sponsor-protectors, and building cases that put an end to the cooperation that feeds and protects local extortion rackets, gang-led or otherwise. A well-funded and capable Ministerio Publico is absolutely essential to this task.

Guatemala’s Ministerio Public is far from perfect. But it would be difficult to imagine a more impressive track record than that amassed under the leadership of Attorney General Paz y Paz. In a country that has long struggled to carry criminal cases – including the most serious – to conviction, Paz y Paz and her team have managed to increase the conviction numbers from 2,884 in 2008 to 6,188 in 2013 (Paz y Paz took the helm in 2010). Some of her team’s most impressive accomplishments include arresting hitherto “untouchable” drug traffickers such as Horst Walther Overdick (los Zetas) and Juan Alberto López Ortíz (Cartel Sinaloa). Paz y Paz has also gained international acclaim for taking femicide – a serious problem in Guatemala – seriously by creating a join task force for crimes against women and by introducing a single office where abused women can get access to a prosecutor, a forensic specialist, a social worker and a psychologist all in one place. Perhaps the most widely discussed case though, was the trial of former president and military general Efraín Ríos Montt and one of his former associates, for “acts of genocide.” The case, which ended with a conviction of Ríos Montt but not his chief of intelligence, won widespread acclaim from human rights organizations and furious protest from Guatemala’s elite business sector (many of whom had supported the dirty war of Ríos Montt). Several days later, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the case on the basis of a procedural technicality.

Personally, I do not believe that the Ríos Montt case is the crown jewel of the Paz y Paz MP administration. It was impressive indeed, and even historic, that a former head of state would be compelled to stand trial within his own country for atrocious crimes, including massacres of whole villages, that took place under his watch and likely with his assent. But there were some weaknesses in the trial and in the design of the case brought by the Public Ministry in its prosecution that, I think, could have been avoided.

And yet, if a robust, evidence-based approach to solving major crimes is essential to developing public trust in the justice system, one can only lament the early dismissal of Paz y Paz and the refusal by the Postulation Commission to reappoint her on the basis of her acclaimed record as a litigator and an administrator. Indeed, according to Stephen Dudley, in his recently-released report Guatemala: The War of Paz y Paz the Attorney General has succeeded largely by creating systems within the Public Ministry that collaborate on the collection and organization of forensic evidence and by strengthening and resourcing these groups so that they can do their jobs effectively. “The emphasis on analysis says a lot about the way Paz y Paz approaches battling criminal groups,” Dudley writes. “To her, individual cases matter, of course, but fighting crime is about seeing patterns and being able to draw the larger picture.”

It is at least possible that a new Attorney General could carry forward some of the momentum achieved by Paz y Paz and her team – including a homicide rate that has been declining since 2009. But it is just as likely that the jockeying and leveraging that has gone into influencing the outcome of the selection committee will ultimately taint the outcome. Here’s hoping for the former outcome.

Efraín Ríos Montt: A Guatemalan Rorschach Test


Interfaith Radio: Struggling with the Legacy of Ríos Montt

Drugs, gangs, and organized crime are probably the most common contributors to violence in Guatemala today (violence which has actually been in modest decline for several years now). But once upon a time in the not too distant past, almost all of the violence in that country was political in nature, the result of a massive internal war between leftist guerrillas and a ruthless national army. No name is more famous — or notorious — in discussions of that violence than that of Efraín Ríos Montt, a military general who was promoted by the military to a triumvirate of authority in 1982 and soon afterward, became the de facto president of the nation. In fact, if we took away the “urban” in the sub-title of this blog, such that it read “A Sociologist’s Blog about Religion and Violence in Central America,” many readers would expect to find frequent posts about Ríos Montt, his legacy, his trial, and the on-going debate over that deeply freighted term, “genocide.” Recently I was invited to be a guest in the recording of a radio program about this topic for the syndicated NPR show called “Interfaith Voices.” The entire episode is devoted to discussing the topic of Ríos Montt and his impact upon religion and politics in Guatemala. Although I am really a scholar of current politics, violence, and religion, and not exactly a scholar of that period of Guatemala´s history, I was privileged to share the mic with Virginia Garrard-Burnett, who is probably the senior scholar who has done more research on Ríos Montt than anyone else, certainly in this country. I thought the program turned out nicely, and provides a very interesting 30 minutes of reflection, even though this is a topic that has already received a good deal of attention, especially in the wake of Ríos Montt´s conviction for genocide last year, and the subsequent overturning of that conviction a week later. These are very “live” issues for the Guatemalan public even today. I will leave for another time my thoughts about the trial itself and, specifically, the decision by the prosecution to seek the genocide conviction. For now, I am simply posting the radio show. If you are already very familiar with the story, and interested in the particular discussion of the impact of Ríos Montt on Guatemalan religion, you may want to skip ahead to the 11-minute marker. (But don´t go too far or you’ll miss a very RARE interview with former mega-church pastor Harold Caballeros.)

One of the points I try to make in the interview is that Guatemala continues to be deeply divided over how to interpret the legacy of Ríos Montt and, in the process, how to treat this man, now in his mid-eighties, lionized and vilified by millions. By calling Ríos Montt and his legacy a “Rorschach test” I am not implying that there is no definitive answer to the question of whether Ríos caused harm (great harm) or not. He did. Rather, I’m emphasizing that Guatemalans “remember” very different things when they talk about him, and indeed when they talk about the violence of the 1980s in general. More reason to support (and read) the excellent work of historians like Garrard-Burnett.

Religious NGO’s and Justice: A Unique Approach in Honduras

About a month ago the New York Times printed a story by Nicholas Phillips, a free-lance journalist who has been doing research on Central American gangs recently. He sent me the link to this story but I was so busy I forgot to post it at the time. The article profiles a very interesting program spearheaded by theAsociación para una Sociedad más Justa, which is an organization supported by Christian Reformed churches and individuals, especially in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. Kurt Alan Ver Beek is a sociologist on faculty at Calvin College who, in addition to teaching and conducting research on development in Honduras, helps provide leadership to ASJ in Honduras. In the article, he points out:

“We often blame the police, but what’s underreported in all this is that these cases also require witnesses to be brave. Fear on the part of witnesses is just as big of a problem as corruption in the system. And both create a vicious circle.”

Most folks tend to think of religious gang intervention programs aseither preventive or restorative in nature, but the ASJ program focuses on justice for victims and, interestingly, does so in cooperation with (hand-picked, trustworthy) members of the police and the courts.

“The investigators are part of an experiment in Nueva Suyapa that shows how the cycle of violence and impunity can be broken when middlemen do the work that the police and prosecutors either cannot or will not, tracking down witnesses, gaining their trust and persuading them to cooperate with the authorities.”

I have grown increasingly convinced that in order to address the problem of gang violence in Central America, judicial reform is absolutely critical. Prosecutors (in Honduras it’s the “investigative police” while in Guatemala it’s the Ministerio Publico) must have both the resources and the political will behind them in order to do their job effectively. After all, when fewer than 10% of murders reach a conviction, as is the case in Guatemala, not only do those who commit murder have the option of continuing in the trade, but victims’ families find it very difficult to opt for taking information to the police rather than simply arranging for “punishment” often through a third party (including the opposing gang). But I typically talk about judicial reform as something that needs to happen at the highest levels through pressure from the UN or international human rights advocates. But ASJ is using a kind of bottom-up approach (although they also advocate for structural reforms in the justice system as well).

It requires a change of perspective in order to imagine a church-sponsored private investigator, but ASJ is doing some groundbreaking work here, I believe. Last summer I met a Pentecostal pastor whose church in a barrio of Tegucigalpa provides an office for an ASJ-sponsored lawyer who takes complaints from community members, including extortion, and follows up on them, often working hard in order to reassure the victim or family that they will be kept safe and that the information will not end up in the wrong hands. It will be interesting to see if the idea catches on. Surely, a lot depends on the success of cases like those of Nueva Suyapa.

Salvadoran Gang Leaders Assess the Truce

Yesterday’s front page story on is a piece by Sala Negra writers Carlos Martinez and Jose Luis Sanz. And let me say to begin, these guys are really good at what they do. They work hard to get interviews with everyone involved in the Salvadoran gang and crime debate that has so enveloped that nation, especially since the time of the truce (a story they themselves broke). They have discussed the truce with everyone from incarcerated gang leaders to media-savvy (and not so savvy) politicians as well as the priests and pastors who have at times been involved. More importantly, they don’t hesitate to ask their guests the really tough questions. So I was delighted to see that, after a long period of not having access to gang members, the authors once again sat down to discuss the current status of the gang truce first introduced in 2012.

It isn’t necessary (or feasible) to provide a history of the truce here. Elfaro has done a better job than anyone else at chronicling that entirely unexpected, sometimes mystifying series of events during the past two years. Suffice it to say that with the secret blessing of the FMLN administration and the participation of a number of actors, including a Roman Catholic bishop (whose role it would later be argued was largely, though not “merely,” symbolic), a process of negotiation was begun in February 2012 in which some incarcerated gang members were transferred from an overcrowded maximum-security prison to a medium-security prison where face-to-face dialogs were facilitated leading to a “no more killing” pact between the three principal gang organizations. Immediately following the reaching of an “accord,” the homicide rate dropped by about fifty percent. Although there is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the truce, the fact the murder rate was cut in half — to about 35 murders per 100,000 residents per year — is not really a matter of debate. Although homicides went up modestly in 2013, they are still far less frequent today than they were in 2011, the last full year before the truce, when they stood at 67/100,000.

Today, with just weeks before the next presidential elections, there are signs that the truce may be nearing an end. The FMLN has essentially backed away from the truce but the gang leaders are arguing that a total abandonment, whether by the FMLN or by the ARENA should that party win, will result in a situation that is at least as deadly, if not more so, than the murder rate of 2011. Many Salvadorans hear in such predictions a veiled threat, and they understandably bristle at the thought of gang leaders holding the population hostage by promising a rise in violence if their demands aren’t met. And yet, as the gang leaders interviewed in today’s piece point out, the gangs have rarely asked for more than that their constitutional rights be respected. Prior to the truce, there were many documented abuses of such rights — such as visitation rights for incarcerated gang members, and the removal of military personnel from prison posts, where, it was argued, they were able to compile information about gang members’ families in order to extort them for money or information.

In yesterday’s Elfaro piece, Martinez and Sanz sit down with leaders of the three groups making up the M-18. Two belong to the “Revolutionary” wing of the M-18 and the other belongs to the Sur, or “main” group. Although these are not the top leaders of the gangs, they are the highest ranking members outside the prison. Also, about half-way through the interview, the loquacious Sergio Mijangos, political architect and chief spokesperson for the truce, can’t help himself and joins the conversation from the sidelines. (We can only assume that his presence was required in order to make the interview happen.)

The interview is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, as the journalists themselves admit, the eloquence of the gang (sub-)leaders is arresting. These guys possess amazingly refined political instincts. They know what to say, and what not to say. One gets the impression that they are not dissembling so much as trying to avoid language that could come back to haunt them, even while they try hard to help outsiders understand their organization. At times though, they are painfully honest, admitting the problems and mistakes of members of their own group with surprising frankness.

Most importantly, the gang leaders are candid about the difficulties they face in trying to reign in the violence of their own members — especially of the youngest members. They openly admit that maintaining “discipline” with regard to the no-killing rule takes enormous time and effort. And, although without saying so in so many words, they allow it to be known that it is with violence that they punish rule-breakers. Essentially, the result of this policy is that when a gang member breaks the no-murder rule, the result will be two homicides rather than one. The journalists press them on this. Are they really claiming to use murder to punish murder and if so, isn’t this a contradiction of their own policy? [A good question to ask the 26 U.S. states that continue to practice capital punishment, I thought.] The leaders reply deftly that they have a variety of means available to them for punishing betrayers of the truce. Thus, they never come out and state their policy of execution for betraying the truce, but neither do they deny it.

What we have here is a fascinating instance of what sociologists call a system of “social control” — but it is neither entirely “legal control” nor merely “informal control.” That is, the gangs have developed mechanisms for exercising social control that follow prescribed (though not necessarily written) rules and punishments. They even allude to the practice of gathering information about a truce violation before making a decision about punishment, much like a court of law. Furthermore, it becomes apparent during the interview that the truce brought new responsibility for the gangs. The sub-leaders argue that many of the street murders that are attributed to the gangs, are not actually conducted by jumped-in gang members. Some are murders committed by high school kids who get drunk and have access to the firearms that are so plentiful in the marginal barrios. (Experience and data tell us that this argument is not fantasy. In Guatemala, the most violent regions of the country are not gang-controlled neighborhoods, and there is good evidence that many of the killings in these places, much like in the streets of Caracas, have to do with personal feuds and vendettas, not merely the drug trade.) However, because even non-gang murders reflect on the gang, the gang leadership must address them, “punishing” in effect even those who are not full-fledged gang members, for violating a truce between the gangs. What we have then is a system in which the gangs are executing justice and promoting crime control in areas where the state’s criminal justice system has practically, if not formally, forfeited that role. This situation might be similar to some immigrant communities in New York City at the turn of the century or in prohibition-era Chicago.

Almost as interesting as this discussion of the gangs’ participation in the execution of justice is the discussion of charging “rent” (extortion) to non-gang members and business owners in gang-controlled neighborhoods. Many Salvadorans are angry that the “truce” has not diminished the practice of extortion, a gang practice that in many ways affects more Salvadorans, and in more direct ways, than the killings between gang members and other barrio youth. The authors ask the gang sub-leaders essentially: “If you can tell gang members not to kill, why don’t you tell them not to extort?” A fair question, to which the Sur sub-leader replies:

For me that would be the correct thing to do. But what kind of answer would I get? At a  minimum [the young homie] is going to ask me if I’ve got a job for him. I’m going to have to tell him, “Hang on a couple of years and the government will have something for you.” He’s going to say to me, “F— you! And what am I supposed to do tomorrow?” These are huge problems. How can it be possible that in two years [since the beginning of the truce] no one has been able to provide the wherewithal to — hell, I don’t know — to say “this is what we’re going to do” in order that the grassroots of our gangs start to feel like if they straighten out, there’s going to be something for them other than just a jail cell. I can hold them back but I’ve also got to offer him something as a person, so that he can start changing from the inside.

This comment struck me as sincere and prescient. The problem of rent-charging (on which the gangs rely for economic survival) is fairly simple and straightforward, though certainly NOT easy to solve. It is always difficult to “create” jobs and match them to the skills, education, and abilities of persons whose socialization has left them outside the formal labor market for most of their lives. There are certainly individuals and organizations working at this task. What’s needed is more political will, and more dedication at every level — the local, the communal, and the national level. Although I am not an expert in the Salvadoran experience nor in the truce per se, the interview left me, again, with the distinct impression that the truce has opened up some space, and bought some time, but that by itself, the truce is far from a “solution.” A lot depends on what happens from here — both in the sense of whether or not the elections bring in a government with the political will to spend sufficiently and wisely on a social problem (urban youth violence with a great deal of gang involvement) that took two decades to evolve and, as a result, will take about as long to effectively address. Meanwhile, individual communities and the religious and civic organizations active in them, can make choices about how they wish to address the violence in their own communities. Because, as we have seen already in the U.S., massive incarceration creates at least as many problems as it “solves.”