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Honduras: The recruitment of Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and 18th Street (Calle 18 or Mara 18) gang members; whether individuals are forced to participate in gang activity (2007-December 2011)

Publisher Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Publication Date 24 January 2012
Citation / Document Symbol HND103938.E
Related Document Honduras : information sur le recrutement des membres de la Mara Salvatrucha (MS) et du gang 18th Street (Calle 18 ou Mara 18); information indiquant si des personnes sont contraintes de participer à des activités d'un gang (2007-décembre 2011)
Cite as Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Honduras: The recruitment of Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and 18th Street (Calle 18 or Mara 18) gang members; whether individuals are forced to participate in gang activity (2007-December 2011), 24 January 2012, HND103938.E, available at: [accessed 20 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

1. Background

According to Sonja Wolf, a post-doctoral researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), membership in Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street (M-18) (Calle 18 or Mara 18), the largest gangs in Central America and among Central American immigrants in the United States (US), is estimated at between 100,000 and 140,000 persons in Central America and the US (Wolf 2010, 256). The US Southern Command estimates that there are 70,000 members in Central America, of which 36,000 are in Honduras (US 3 Jan. 2011, 5).

James Bosworth, a consultant on organized crime in Latin America (Wilson Center n.d), indicates that there are approximately 100 different gangs in Honduras (Bosworth Dec. 2010, 9). Sources indicate that gangs in the country include MS-13, M-18, La Mao Mao, Los Batos Locos and Los Rockeros (Bruneau and Goetze 1 July 2008; Honduras 26 June 2007, 11). The MS-13 and M-18 reportedly have a transnational reach (Bosworth Dec. 2010, 9; María Palma 2011, 106), and their organization in Central America resembles that of the US (Fogelbach 2011, 420).

According to the US Congressional Research Service,

[w]hen referring to gangs in Central America, some studies use the term pandillas and maras interchangeably, while others distinguish between the two. Studies that make a distinction between the two types of Central America gangs generally define pandillas as localized groups that have long been present in the region, and maras as a more recent phenomenon that has transnational roots. (US 4 Dec. 2009, 4)

2. Recruitment

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Maras gangs (MS-13 and M-18) "rely heavily on forced recruitment to expand and maintain their membership" (Mar. 2010, para. 7). However, other sources contend that membership in the Maras is not primarily based on forced recruitment (Fogelbach 2011, 423; Goubaud May 2008, 38). In a field study on Maras and other gangs in Central America, Demoscopía S.A., a research agency based in Costa Rica (Demoscopía S.A. n.d.), identifies family disintegration, paternal irresponsibility, personality issues, social exclusion, poverty, and lack of resources in local communities as the main reasons why youth join Maras and other gangs in Honduras (ibid. Oct. 2007, 65-66). Juan Fogelbach, a researcher at the US Office of Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations, corroborates the statement above by writing that "gangs have taken root in Honduras due to conditions of poverty, lack of opportunities, and family separation" (Fogelbach 2011, 426). The Demoscopía S.A. study indicates that, in the majority of cases, new recruits become members of the Maras [translation] "voluntarily" (Oct. 2007, 32). In the case of MS-13, they view the gang as a source of "recognition, power and fraternity," while they see M-18 as offering "protection, power and fraternity" (Demoscopía S.A. Oct. 2007, 32).

Emilio Goubaud, regional director of the Regional Public Policy in Youth Violence Prevention Program at Interpeace, an international organization with UN consultancy status that promotes social research and political dialogue (Interpeace Aug. 2011), indicates that most new recruits join gangs for friendship and recreational purposes, given gangs' proximity to local communities (Goubaud May 2008). Similarly, in a study conducted in Honduras, Interpeace identifies the need for [translation] "affection, safety, survival and identity" as the main reasons why Honduran youths join gangs (Aug. 2011, 40). In other cases, youths become members of the MS-13 "as their only way through the rising violence around them" (InSight Crime 15 Nov. 2011). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, Sonja Wolf indicates that social exclusion, "vengeance, economic reasons and family bonds" may compel youth to join gangs (Wolf 11 Jan. 2012). According to Fogelbach, there are no reports of forced recruitment based on "race, religion, political opinion, sexual orientation" or targeting "members from indigenous communities" (Fogelbach 2011, 427).

According to a presentation by the Honduran Police Commissioner at the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, after the government amended Article 332 of the Penal Code, gang recruitment became [translation] "mild" and "intelligent," targeting the middle and upper-middle class students from high school and university by offering money (Honduras 17 Jan. 2008). Article 332 of the Penal Code was amended in 2005 to include penalties for illicit associations (ibid. 1983).

However, according to Fogelbach, forced recruitment is still a possibility within gangs, particularly in "gang controlled neighbourhoods, prison facilities, and [for] at-risk children immune from criminal prosecution" (2011, 428-429). Elyse Wilkinson, a Doctor of Jurisprudence at the University of Maine, indicates that, given the absence of adequate government protection, the Maras exercise control in many neighbourhoods and in rural parts of the country (Wilkinson 2010, 395). Sources indicate that such dominance is exercised to carry out activities such as extortion, kidnapping, control of the illegal drug market (InSight Crime 15 Nov. 2011), and forced recruitment (UN 19 Aug. 2010). According to Wolf, although membership is still largely voluntary, forced recruitment has been increasing over the last years because gangs want to maintain their influence and control over the neighbourhoods they operate (11 Jan. 2012).

In Honduran prisons, gangs are a "serious problem" since they continue to recruit members and to develop "networks to facilitate access to cell phones, weapons and drugs," as well as to coerce guards to coordinate criminal activities (Bosworth Dec. 2010, 11). For many prisoners, being part of one of the gangs is considered a [translation] "strategy for survival" (Demoscopía S.A. Oct. 2007, 23).

2.1 Use of Children

According to the Honduran Ambassador to the US, by 2007, 77 percent of new gang members were 15 years of age or younger, and 98 percent of gang members were between 12 and 25 years of age (Honduras 26 June 2007, 11). However, the Honduran Ministry of Security says that the recruiting age "could have broadened to oscillate between 8 and 30 years" (ibid., 12). Wolf, for example, indicates that gangs are using children as young as 8 years old to commit crimes (11 Jan. 2012). Alejandro José María Palma, a graduate research assistant at the University of Texas, indicates that the M-18, for example, recruits children from primary and high school, and thus has been given the name of [translation] "Army of Children" (María Palma 2011, 112). La Prensa, a San Pedro Sula-based newspaper, reports that the number of children sent by judges to [translation] "re-orientation centres" after committing a crime, has been increasing (22 Aug. 2010). Children are recruited by gangs in schools, and are armed, trained and "easily manipulated" to commit crimes such as illegal drug trafficking, car theft and homicide (La Prensa 22 Aug. 2010). Adolescents are offered money as enticement to join, between 100 lempiras [5.35 CAD (XE 30 Dec. 2011a)] and 500 lempiras [26.75 CAD (XE 30 Dec. 2011b)] (La Prensa 22 Aug. 2010). Children are used by gangs since existing legislation excludes them from legal prosecution (ibid.). According to La Prensa, 120 minors were detained in a re-orientation centre in 2010 for crimes such as theft, homicide, rape and drug trafficking (22 Aug. 2010).

Another aspect of membership in gangs is the social network in place for pregnant women whose newborns are placed in the care of gang members (Demoscopía S.A. Oct. 2007, 41-42). The practice can reproduce the gang mentality in the next generation, thus making [translation] "more complex" the family, community and social network of these gangs (ibid.). Similarly, Wolf stated that the Maras have their own networks to take care of children of members who have been imprisoned or cannot take care of them for periods of time (11 Jan. 2012).

3. Membership Practices

Several sources indicate that initiation into the Maras consists of a rite (Fogelbach 2011, 433; UN Mar. 2010, 3-4; Wolf 11 Jan. 2012) and a "mission" (ibid.; Fogelbach 2011, 433). According to Fogelbach, new members or "soldiers" face a rite known as the "jump-in" (ibid., 422). Wolf indicates that this practice consists of being beaten repetitively by other gang members for 13 and 18 seconds in the MS-13 and M-18 respectively (Wolf 11 Jan. 2012). The "mission," on the other hand, consists of carrying out a crime, usually a homicide (ibid.). According to the study by Demoscopía S.A., 28 percent of M-18 and 25 percent of MS-13 recruits in Honduras did not go through the initiation practices (Oct. 2007, 32).

Another aspect of membership in the Maras is body tattooing (ibid., 29-31; UN Mar. 2010, para. 5). Tattoos are considered as gang member [translation] "biographies," with each tattoo representing an act that the member has committed to benefit the gang (Demoscopía S.A. Oct. 2007, 30). However, the UNHCR indicates that current gang members are turning away from tattooing to avoid detection by authorities (UN Mar. 2010, para. 5).

4. Leaving the Maras

Sources indicate that once individuals become a member of the Maras, they cannot abandon the gang (Interpeace Aug. 2011, 40; UN Mar. 2010, para. 7; InSight Crime15 Nov. 2011). According to a social anthropologist cited by Fogelbach, a gang member "never ceases to belong to the gang, but may, in rare circumstances, become inactive" (2011, 435). In order to become "inactive" [calmado or calmada] (ibid.), gang members must have performed deeds for the gang, including assassinations (Demoscopía S.A. Oct. 2007, 96). The three reasons accepted for leaving the gang are conversion to Christianity, creation of a family, or getting a job (ibid.). Even though calmados or calmadas renounce criminal activities, they still identity themselves with the gang (Wolf 11 Jan. 2012). According to the Demoscopía S.A. study, 65 percent of gang members declare that nothing bars them from leaving the gang (Oct. 2007, 97).

Conversely, several sources indicate that desertion from the Maras carries serious punishment, including death (Wolf 11 Jan. 2012; InSight Crime 15 Nov. 2011; UN Mar. 2010, para. 7). According to the UNHCR, deserters and their families are subject to retaliatory attacks and death threats, and often do not receive adequate protection from law enforcement agencies (ibid., paras. 13 and 17).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Bosworth, James. December 2010. Honduras: Organized Crime Gaining Amid Political Crisis. Working Paper Series on Organized Crime in Central America. [Accessed 15 Dec. 2011]

Bruneau, Thomas, and Richard B. Goetze, Jr. 1 July 2008. "Las pandillas y las Maras en América Central." Air and Space Power Journal [in Spanish]. 2nd quarter. [Accessed 28 Dec. 2011]

Demoscopía S.A. October 2007. Maras y pandillas, comunidad y policía en Centroamérica: Hallazgos de un estudio integral. [Accessed 12 Dec. 2011]

_____. N.d. "Quiénes somos." [Accessed 29 Dec. 2011]

Fogelbach, Juan J. 2011. "Gangs, Violence, and Victims in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras." San Diego International Law Journal. Vol. 12, No. 2.

Goubaud, Emilio. May 2008. "Maras y pandillas en Centroamérica." Urvio, Revista Latinoamericana de Seguridad Ciudadana. No. 4. [Accessed 27 Dec. 2011]

Honduras. 17 January 2008. Secretaría de Seguridad, Dirección General de Policía Preventiva. Situación de Maras o Pandillas. [Accessed 12 Dec. 2011]

_____. 26 June 2007. Ambassador of Honduras to the United States. Briefing on Violence in Central America. Prepared Statement to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, 110th Congress, First Session. [Accessed 27 Dec. 2011]

_____. 1983 (amended 2008). Código Penal de Honduras, Decreto No. 144-83. [Accessed 6 Dec. 2011]

InSight - Organized Crime in the Americas (InSight Crime). 15 November 2011. "Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)." [Accessed 9 Dec. 2011]

Interpeace. August 2011. De la prevención local a la nacional: propuestas para prevenir la violencia que afecta a la juventud en Honduras. [Accessed 15 Dec. 2011]

María Palma, Alejandro José. 2011. "Pandillas transnacionales: seguridad a través de las fronteras." Si Somos Americanos Revista de Estudios Transfronterizos. Vol. 11, No. 1. [Accessed 27 Dec. 2011]

La Prensa [San Pedro Sula]. 22 August 2010. "Hay hasta niños de once años operando en bandas." [Accessed 9 Dec. 2011]

United Nations (UN). 19 August 2010. UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "ACNUR une esfuerzos con OIM y UNICEF para proteger a niños no acompañados." [Accessed 8 Dec. 2011]

_____. March 2010. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Division of International Protection. Guidance Note on Refugee Claims Relating to Victims of Organized Gangs. [Accessed 14 Dec. 2011]

United States (US). 3 January 2011. Congressional Research Service. "Gangs in Central America." By Clare Ribando Seelke. [Accessed 5 Dec. 2011]

_____. 4 December 2009. Congressional Research Service. "Gangs in Central America." By Clare Ribando Seelke. [Accessed 23 Jan. 2012]

Wilkinson, Elyse. 2010. "Examining the Board of Immigration Appeals' Social Visibility Requirement for Victims of Gang Violence Seeking Asylum." Maine Law Review. Vol. 62, No. 1.

Wilson Center. N.d. "James Bosworth." [Accessed 11 Jan. 2012]

Wolf, Sonja. 11 January 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

_____. 2010. "Maras transnacionales: Origins and Transformations of Central American Street Gangs." Latin American Research Review. Vol. 45, No. 1.

XE. 30 December 2011a. "Currency Converter Widget." [Accessed 30 Dec. 2011]

_____. 30 December 2011b. "Currency Converter Widget." [Accessed 30 Dec. 2011]

Additional Sources Consulted

Internet sites, including: Amnesty International; Center for Hemispheric Policy, University of Miami; Center on Contemporary Conflict, Naval Postgraduate School; Child Rights International Network; Children and Youth in Organized Armed Violence; Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos; Comité para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos; Current History; The Economist; European Country of Origin Information Network; Factiva; Freedom House; Honduras — Ministerio Público, Poder Judicial de Honduras; Human Rights Watch; International Institute for Counter-Terrorism; The Jamestown Foundation; Jane's Terrorism & Security Monitor; Réseau d'information et de solidarité avec l'Amérique latine; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; United States Overseas Security Advisory Council.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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