After the cold war ended, the United States more or less fled the region, too. But the American appetite for cocaine remained. Honduras, with its unguarded coastlines, empty jungles, and convenient location, became a global capital of the drug business, with some 40 percent of U.S.-destined cocaine touching its soil on its journey northward. Gangs sprouted alongside this booming trade. Their growth was a tragicomic tale of the perils of unintended consequences. During the past two decades, the United States deported thousands of Los Angeles gang members back to their birth countries in the Northern Triangle, introducing hardened criminals and their tribal customs. These gangsters were often dumped with little warning and essentially no program for curbing their impending threat. Then there was the joint U.S.-Mexican war on drugs, which propelled gruesome Mexican criminal organizations into Central America in search of greater freedom to operate and new business opportunities.
The governments of Central America weren’t prepared for this influx, to say the least. Gangs arrived just as these countries were making a ham-fisted transition to democracy—a transition that viewed the principle of law and order with skepticism. Correcting for the authoritarian abuses of the past, the judiciaries tended to think of offenders as victims of social injustice; prosecutors were viewed as implements of power-mad dictators. (According to official numbers, 98 percent of crimes in Guatemala aren’t prosecuted.) And after all the civil wars and insurgencies faded into history, the security forces were scaled back, a particularly unfortunate stroke of bad timing. They are now simply outnumbered. Two years ago, the State Department estimated that there are some 85,000 gang members in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In the face of this growth, the Honduran police force has shrunk to just 14,000—and a poorly paid force at that. Officers make $400 per month, supplemented by “war taxes” they have empowered themselves to assess.
It was inevitable that childhood would fall victim to such social decay.