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The Construction of the Maras

Antonia Does

1. Introduction

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  • 1  Trasher (1927: 57) gave the classic definition of a gang as follows: “A gang is an interstitial gr (...)
  • 2  Central American gangs are known under different names, varying between pandillas, maras, bandas, (...)

1When talking about the Central American isthmus, the first thoughts that often come to mind are the high levels of crime and violence that are afflicting the region. Indeed, the northern triangle of Central America (composed of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) currently experiences one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with violence levels comparable to or even exceeding those during armed conflicts such as in Iraq, Somalia or Sudan (Aguilar Umaña & Rossini 2012). The 6,500 murders recorded in Guatemala in 2009 even exceeded the annual average of killings seen during the country’s civil war (1960-1996) (International Crisis Group 2010). According to political discourse, the media or public opinion, most of the violence and criminal activities seem to be blamed on young men who band together as gangs – the so-called maras (Rodgers, Muggah & Stevenson 2009; Cruz 2011; Aguilar Umaña & Rossini 2012).1 Both within political and social debates, the maras2have been constructed as a major security threat during most of the past decade (Boraz & Bruneau 2006; Hume 2007; Peetz 2011). Thisconstantly raises the question of how the concerned governments have reacted to the phenomenon and whether repressive or preventive measures have been adopted. The governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala started translating the discourse into official measures to override gang-related crime and violence in the early 2000s and despite some preventive and rehabilitation approaches, the states’ policies have mostly remained repressive in nature (Reisman 2006; Hume 2007; Cruz 2011; Desmond Arias 2011; Peetz 2011). In turn, this tendency towards the repression of gangs raises the fundamental question of the respective governments’ motivations and the intended effects behind their strategies – a question that is even more pressing considering that the crackdown policies have largely failed to reduce violence, to increase public safety and have sometimes even exacerbated gang-related activity (Rodgers & Muggah 2009; Cruz 2011; Mateo 2011).

  • 3  The initial securitization theory of the Copenhagen School has been criticized, amended, widened a (...)

2Securitization theory provides an appropriate lens through which the emergence of the menacing image of the maras and the adoption of counter-policies can be analyzed. While the mara phenomenon as such has been widely studied, securitization theory allows us to take a new direction and gain a new understanding of this pressing real-world issue. The concept of securitization essentially aims to explain how a security issue comes into being;desecuritization therefore refers to the opposite process of how an issue ceases to be a security question and is consequently addressed in a political way. Framing an issue as particularly threatening for a target object or community – whether or not that threat is real – and the subsequent acceptance of this discourse by an audience (e.g., the political elite or the population at large) lie at the core of the theory. As the maras were not part of public discourse or political decision-making in Central America until the end of the 1990s, it is necessary to investigate whether they have been handled in a political manner or been addressed as a security question since the early 2000s. Analyzing if and how these gangs have been politicized or securitized helps to understand the complexities and the overlapping between political and security matters, which is especially important in case governmental motivations other than combatting a threat constitute the reason for adopting anti-mara policies. In this regard, applying securitization theory to the case of the Central American maras adds an empirical example3 to the concept itself and helps further understanding the nature of respective governments’ discourse and policies directed at gangs. As this paper is not based on new empirical material, it constitutes a desk review, substantiated by interviews with key stakeholders in Geneva, Switzerland (details to be found in the footnotes).

3The paper is divided into three parts. The opening chapter provides a descriptive review of the Central American gang phenomenon, by differentiating between pandillas and maras, by tracing their evolution, and by discussing their development in the region as well as the social and political construction of maras as a security threat. The following chapter provides the conceptual foundations of securitization theory, firstly addressing the original concept of the Copenhagen School and secondly covering points of criticism that have a particular relevance for the Central American case. Focusing separately on El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the last chapter provides a critical analysis of the political discourse and official policies towards gangs with regard to securitization theory. The analysis confirms that interests other than combatting gang-related violence and crime, as well as the respective countries’ particular historical and societal contexts, play a key role in the way in which the respective governments frame the maras and subsequently deal with them.

Map 1: The Central American isthmus

Map 1: The Central American isthmus

Source: U.S. Central American Agency (CIA) – The World Factbook


1  Trasher (1927: 57) gave the classic definition of a gang as follows: “A gang is an interstitial group, originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict. It is characterized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result of this collective behavior is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory”. According to Rodgers, Muggah & Stevenson (2009: 25), “[i]n the proper sense of the term, gangs are more clearly defined social organizations that display an institutional continuity independent of their membership at any given time. They have fixed conventions and rules— which can include initiation rituals, a ranking system, rites of passage, and rules of conduct— that make the gang a primary source of identity for members. Gang codes often demand particular behavior patterns from members, such as adopting characteristic dress, tattoos, graffiti, hand signs, and slang, as well as regular involvement in illicit and violent activities. Such gangs are also often associated with a particular territory, and their relationship with local communities can be either oppressive or protective (indeed, this relationship can change from one to the other over time). Central American gangs clearly correspond to the protective type of institution.” For a conceptualization of youth gangs relating to Latin America and the Caribbean, see Rodgers (1999). For additional general information on gangs, see Kontos, Brotherton & Barrios (2003); Mohammed & Mucchielli (2007); and Hagedorn (2008).

2  Central American gangs are known under different names, varying between pandillas, maras, bandas, galeras, quadrilhas, barras and chapulines (Rodgers 1999). Section 2.1 differentiates between pandillas and maras. Overall, this thesis focuses on the two main maras: Mara Salvatrucha and Mara Dieciocho.  

3  The initial securitization theory of the Copenhagen School has been criticized, amended, widened and deepened, as well as tested empirically by several scholars in the last decade – though the latter aspect has been paid the least attention. For studies that have used securitization theory in a particular empirical context, see Collins (2005); Möller (2007); Roe (2008); Salter (2008 & 2011); Vuori (2008); Emmers (2011); and Hansen (2011); parts of these studies will also be discussed throughout this thesis.


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