Could the Pandemic Response be a Starting Point for a More Engaged Security Strategy in the Northern Triangle?

The Covid-19 crisis is transforming long-standing challenges facing Latin American leadership. Confronting major outbreaks of the pandemic, governments in the region are learning how inequality and urban density, among other factors, can undermine public health guidance, exacerbate disease transmission, and reverse years of economic growth. Amid these transformations, governments are also confronting new threats—and perhaps opportunities—in the security sector, specifically tied to organized crime’s response to the pandemic.

Gangs in the Northern Triangle

For decades, organized crime has depressed Latin American political stability and economic prosperity. By perpetuating violent and financial crime, and pushing members into prison, gangs have unraveled communities and families. In disrupting the private sector, gangs have harmed economic stability and diversification. As they have damaged communities and businesses, criminal groups have compelled governments to invest in robust security planning, police forces, and carceral systems.

Concrete assessments of the negative implications of gang activity in Latin America are startling. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) estimates that criminality, largely driven by organized crime, costs more than 3 percent of regional GDP, or $236 billion; no region in the world faces larger macroeconomic losses due to crime.

Central America is particularly plagued. The IDB estimates that crime costs Central America over 4 percent of GDP. The Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—shoulder costs totaling up to 6.5 percent of GDP, and they feature some of Latin America’s highest proportions of violent crime attributable to gang activity. Caribbean countries and Brazil face the next-highest economic burdens associated with crime, but they trail El Salvador and Honduras by multiple percentage points.

The community-level economic consequences of criminality in the Northern Triangle are as troubling as the macroeconomic implications. Affected by destabilizing corruption and violence associated with gang activity, about 60 percent of Hondurans and Guatemalans—twice the average Latin American rate—live beneath their countries’ poverty lines. Drawing on anemic fiscal bases, Northern Triangle governments struggle to deliver basic social services to their citizens.

The weighty effects of criminality in the Northern Triangle are hardly surprising given the pervasiveness of gangs in the area. In El Salvador, as many as 400,000 people (out of 6.48 million) are involved in gang-related activities. They vastly outnumber the 38,000 total military and law enforcement officers in the country. Gangs’ most visible disruptive activities include extortion, drug trafficking, and violence.

Extortion undermines formal state presence and harms business and community structures. In El Salvador, extortion costs about 1.7 percent of GDP. Hondurans pay 1 percent of their country’s GDP in extortion fees. Even in Guatemala, where extortion saps relatively fewer resources, the activity still provides gangs about $60 million yearly. Criminal groups survive on this revenue stream, which in El Salvador constitutes up to 80 percent of gang income.

Drug trafficking is also lucrative for organized criminal groups. Many drugs originate south of Central America, and traffickers transport contraband destined for markets to the north, largely in the United States. While couriers profit from drug transportation, gang members sell illicit substances in their home markets. In addition, criminal groups pressure legitimate private enterprises into drug supply chains, constraining the diversity of local economic bases. As organized crime benefits financially from the drug trade, locals and businesses see their economic options fade.

Violence is driven by extortion, drug trafficking, and competition among gangs for territorial control. As such, the Northern Triangle is plagued by some of the highest murder rates in Latin America and across the world, outside of warzones. Gang affiliates are responsible for up to 50 percent of murders in El Salvador, which in 2019 had one of Latin America’s highest rates of intentional homicides (36 per 10,000 inhabitants). Endemic violence, coupled with low economic growth, have forced hundreds of thousands of Central Americans from their homes, most destined for the United States.

Gangs are clearly hostile actors, and Northern Triangle countries have historically sought to disassemble them. To that end, they have repeatedly adopted zero-sum security tactics such as militarized policing and the mass incarceration of criminals. Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan, which has escalated police and military oversight of communities and prisons in targeted municipalities, is the latest hardline security strategy.

The Pandemic Is Altering Gangs’ Day-to-day Operations

The global Covid-19 pandemic has changed the context within which gangs interact with governments. While the Northern Triangle has not seen world-leading Covid-19 caseloads, their leaders have approached the pandemic proactively by closing borders, ordering national curfews, suspending school, and shuttering businesses. These realities have forced gangs to adapt their operations in ways that may afford security actors new opportunities in their efforts to disrupt organized crime.

Extortion has been scaled back amid the pandemic. Business slowdowns among subjects of extortion have prevented gangs from collecting their payments. Rival Guatemalan gangs, for instance, have coordinated to implement temporary extortion freezes; in March 2020, 9 percent fewer extortions were reported to Guatemalan police than were in March 2019. Many gangs anticipate collecting backpay once the pandemic subsides.

Drug trafficking is also taking on new forms amid the pandemic. As extortion has become a less reliable revenue stream, some Northern Triangle gangs have begun to step up their drug smuggling. They are placing increasing emphases on cocaine and cannabis in their trafficking operations.

Lockdowns and border closures tied to the pandemic have inconsistently impeded drug trafficking. They have certainly complicated cross-border exchange and international supply chains. At the same time, though, pandemic responses have stretched law enforcement such that smuggling has become easier to operate undetected. Regardless, the pandemic has exposed supply chain vulnerabilities. Trafficking organizations across the world may adapt in the long term by stockpiling precursors and by using the internet and unmanned transport for distribution.

The pandemic has granted Northern Triangle countries some reprieve from gang violence. In El Salvador, gang-related homicides (which have been on a downward trend throughout the Bukele administration) have mostly remained low since the pandemic took hold. This may be due in part to long-term violence de-escalation among gangs, which have, over the past few years, better organized territorial divisions and shifted some managerial responsibility to local leaders favoring homicide reductions. Gangs may also have reached informal understandings with police to reduce violence. That said, Salvadoran gangs killed 80 people over a five-day span in April 2020. And in late March, conflict between Honduran gangs spiked. Any reprieve from violence is fragile.

Perhaps most unexpectedly, gangs have been independently implementing pandemic responses, particularly where government presence is weak. Within a couple weeks of El Salvador’s declaration of emergency, gangs announced mandatory curfews and worked out schedules outlining who would be allowed in public for essential activities. These same groups have violently punished locals disobeying public health precautionary measures. In El Salvador and elsewhere, criminal groups have also distributed basic necessities, such as food aid, to local homes. Though enforced via threats and violence, gangs’ pandemic responses have resulted in compliance with public health directives.

Leveraging Gangs to Advance Security Interests

The pandemic response represents a rare complementarity between gang, government, and community interests. In El Salvador, gang members themselves have acknowledged that their objectives align with the government’s.

  • Gang members cannot afford, personally or organizationally, for the pandemic to persist. Suspicious that medical systems prioritize other patients, gang members must stay healthy. Moreover, economies need to reopen for gangs to resume typical operations, including extortion and commerce on illicit markets.

  • Governments cannot afford for the pandemic to persist and keep economies shuttered. As domestic productivity and international exchange fade, Latin American countries may already be facing their greatest economic slowdowns.

  • Communities cannot afford for the pandemic to persist. Quarantining at home, workers have had to step back from their jobs. Having never earned sufficient wages to accumulate savings, millions of informal sector employees are struggling to pay for necessities and are facing malnutrition.

In the immediate term, the security sector might be able to affirmatively engage illicit actors in programming to restabilize Covid-19-stricken communities. In some areas under gang control, the state is simply unable to have its pandemic response guidance widely respected. Services are lacking, and the distribution of financial aid has forced people to leave their homes regardless of their health. Gangs’ uninterrupted implementation of pandemic relief efforts suggests that the public health security imperative is driving governments’ passive acceptance of illicit relief. Transitioning from passive acceptance of these efforts toward active work alongside these efforts could yield faster public health improvements.

More broadly, governments should prevent gangs from taking advantage of government absence in vulnerable communities to foster state-building of their own. The informal governance mechanisms gangs have refined during the pandemic—like food aid distribution programs—could ultimately position them to displace the state, removing locals from their national civic communities. In neighborhoods where state presence is weak, like Brazil’s favelas, gangs have already established preeminent authority over residents and businesspeople.

As they leverage community weaknesses to shore up their ruling capacities, gangs in El Salvador and across the rest of Latin America could become more emboldened illicit governors. Strengthened, gangs are likely to cultivate violence and further exclude legitimate state actors from communities. Brutal enforcement of quarantines already reflects lack of respect for rule of law in gang-controlled settings.

Governments might consider the pandemic response an opportunity to mitigate the advance of gang-driven community governance. Seizing this opportunity would require proactive dialogue with gang power structures that dominate in many local contexts. While innovative, the strategy of directly engaging gangs to resolve crises has precedent. In 2012, El Salvador addressed catastrophic homicide rates through state-mediated dialogue with gangs, achieving violent crime reductions until low political will doomed the truce. Following El Salvador’s example, Honduran gangs indicated interest in working alongside government to forge a truce. Colombia ended its decades-long civil conflict by affirmatively engaging the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) militia in peace negotiations. In Jamaica, criminals groups have been integrated into the national political system.

Working alongside illicit actors like gangs remains a risky proposition. In Colombia, paramilitary groups have continued to perpetrate violence, economic exploitation, and territorial conflict even after signing a peace agreement. In the Northern Triangle, efforts to promote security by engaging gangs, such as El Salvador’s short-lived truce, have given them political legitimacy without stemming violence in the long term. But the pandemic has strained formal and informal governance systems such that the political will to foster constructive dialogue may exist where it previously has been absent.

Importantly, staging local interventions alongside gangs with an eye toward protecting government legitimacy would require working with community members. In gang-controlled communities, many locals feel deep distrust of both government security institutions and gangs. Public actors would need to build authority at the grassroots level in order to serve as effective security mediators.

As the pandemic subsides, gangs are likely to emerge with stronger systems of illicit governance and market exchange. The security sector could continue to respond by directly attacking ever-more resilient criminal organizations. Or, starting with the pandemic response, the security sector could build on converging government and criminal priorities to foster forward-looking, long-term crime de-escalation strategies.

Linnea Sandin is the associate director and an associate fellow for the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Benjamin Topa is an intern with the CSIS Americas Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Linnea Sandin

Benjamin Topa