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The Construction of the Maras

Antonia Does

5. Conclusion

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1The state approaches of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala towards gang-related violence and crime have clearly shown a repressive and punitive tendency during most of the first decade of the 21st century, despite attempts at preventive policies in all three countries. Politicians and the media have increasingly placed youth gangs at the center of attention since the early 2000s. Both in policy and society, youth gangs were constructed as the predominant threat to security during the heyday of the repressive discourse between 2003 and 2006. A particular emphasis was placed on the “need for an all-out war on gangs and delinquent youths” (Cruz 2011: 147). In this regard, mostly a specific group (the Mara Salvatrucha or the Mara Dieciocho as youth gangs) but sometimes even an entire generation (youths overall) were ‘demonized’ as responsible for the majority of criminal activity as well as for the climate of violence and insecurity afflicting Central America’s northern triangle. Since the anti-mara policies, such as Mano Dura and Súper Mano Dura in El Salvador, Libertad Azul in Honduras and Plan Escoba in Guatemala, focused on cracking down on gang members, they often disregarded civil liberties and the human rights of suspects.

2 This ePaper aimed at uncovering the ends to which the respective governments pursued their primarily heavy-handed strategies as well as the motivations behind them. Firstly, as the analytical part has revealed, politicians employed mano dura policies as an instrument of electoral support to win votes, next to addressing the gang problem. While this can be generally observed in all three countries, the electoral goals were most obvious in El Salvador. Mano dura policies served a useful purpose for presidential candidates allowing them to convey the message that they were tough on crime.

3In order to produce the intended effect, the heavy-handed government plans were accompanied by strong publicity and media campaigns portraying a mostly negative image of youth gangs. Fuelled by this largely one-sided coverage, the public perception of insecurity in Central America’s northern triangle seems to exceed the real menace emanating from the maras. At this point of the construction of a security issue, securitization theory has served a useful purpose throughout this paper in helping establish a new understanding of the maras in Central America. Since the maras were principally a non-politicized issue outside the public debate until the end of the 1990s, it was important to investigate whether they have become addressed in a political way or as a security question (i.e. whether they have been politicized or even securitized). Political motivations behind the portrayal of youth gangs as a substantial threat to public and citizen security blur the lines between the political and the security realm.

4Secondly, despite criticism and concerns expressed by human rights groups, the governments’ hard-line approaches greatly appealed to their respective civilian populations. Opinion polls revealed high percentages of public trust and support with regard to anti-mara strategies – in particular in El Salvador and Honduras, and to a lesser extent in Guatemala. In this way, the governments were also able to respond to public demands for security. Tackling the social and economic root causes of youths joining gangs is a long-lasting endeavor, which would not increase the feeling of security of the population in the short term, and explains the preference for mass incarcerations of mareros that was not designed to contain gang activity in the long run. Thirdly, the suppressive measures are strongly embedded in the authoritarian past of the region – a factor that plays a greater role in the Salvadoran and Guatemalan context than in Honduras. Mano dura policies were a way for the governments to restore their authority, legitimacy and control over their respective countries.

5 In spite of political and electoral goals that influenced the way in which heavy-handed plans were presented and implemented, government rhetoric in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala was quickly followed by state action to combat mara-related crime and violence. This leads to the suggestion that the political leaders in the northern triangle aimed to move the issue of the maras towards the securitized end of the spectrum, rather than just into the politicized area. In line with this, Mano Dura, Libertad Azul and Plan Escoba not only enjoyed the moral support of the general public, which thereby acknowledges the government interpretation of the maras being a major security threat, but the repressive plans were also formally supported by the parliaments of El Salvador (Asamblea Legislativa) and Honduras (Congreso Nacional), which became manifest through laws adopted by these bodies to incarcerate gang members. Although the Congress of Guatemala did not pass anti-gang legislation, the various proposals put forward to do so as well as the over-interpretation of the existing laws to persecute suspect mareros can be regarded as formal support.  

6 The acceptance of the security discourse by one or several audiences is the crucial threshold for successful securitization. The societies of Central America’s northern triangle are profoundly shaped by a ‘culture of fear’, and during the past decade especially by a ‘fear of crime’, a factor which plays a key role in how the general public receives a speech act and whether or not it accepts it. In combination with the region’s past rooted in authoritarianism, the construction of the maras becomes a combination of language and the societal context. Williams (2011: 220) argues in favor of linking security and fear – thereby equating ‘security’ with a “politics of fear” and ‘normal politics’ with a “politics free from fear” – and refers to Salter (2011) who reveals that fear can work as a desecuritizing element. In accordance with this argument, fear may also be a component of securitizing dynamics. In the early 2000s, Central American citizens’ fear of crime and their feelings of insecurity were decisive factors in the support given to crackdown policies that promised order and strategies to increase security. In recent years the consequences and probable security implications of organized crime and drug trafficking have increasingly been addressed in society as well as through political discourse. Indeed, “fear is not based on homicide statistics but on public discourse” (Peetz & Huhn 2008: 365). The influence of the element of ‘fear’ within (de)securitization processes indicates an area that deserves further research in the future. Moreover, this analysis of the construction of the maras and the policies addressing the gang phenomenon provide an empirical example of the difficulty of clearly differentiating between politicization and securitization. Despite indications that the early anti-gang approaches were successful securitizations of the maras, the absence of a clear line between the two areas and even a certain overlap calls for a deeper theoretical conceptualization.


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