Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America

Edited by Thomas Bruneau, Lucía Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner; (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011); 319 pages; $24.95.

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

In Maras, researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds explore the problem of gangs in Central America.  The book aims to balance the overwhelmingly sensationalist reporting on gangs in English-language media with an objective assessment of the mara issue.  In Thomas Bruneau’s introduction, maras are distinguished from local street gangs or pandillas, in their hierarchal organizations and extensive use of violence, both physical and sexual.  The group’s transnational activities across North and Central America offer a further point of distinction.  The maras are increasingly involved in the illicit drug trade as well as cross-border human and arms trafficking.

The book is divided into two sections.  The first consists of case studies on the four major Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, plus Los Angeles, California, where the main contemporary gangs in Central America originated.  In Nicaragua, unlike the other three countries, the pandillas have yet to evolve into maras, a development attributed to several factors, including the nature of the state’s security forces and the way they have dealt with at-risk youth and criminal activity.

The second section contains comparisons of different gang dynamics and responses to the mano dura policies of Central American governments.  Of particular note is Florina Christiana Matei’s essay on the deportation policies of the United States and their seemingly negligible impact on the gang problem in Central America. Christiana Matei’s position challenges critics who contend U.S. deportations have perpetuated a revolving cycle of gang members moving back and forth between the United States and Central America, inexorably strengthening the maras.  Overall, the essays within this volume set a standard for research and analysis that will serve as a basis for further study of the maras, as well as for innovative and enlightened policy making.