The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Forced Criminal Activities along Mexico's Eastern Migration Routes and Central America Department of Public Affairs and Security Studies


In 2014, Honduras was the world’s most violent country that was not at war. The daily dangers that Honduran citizens experience, along with high rates of poverty, lack of education and opportunities, compel them to migrate. Unreliable data and high rates of impunity hinder the extent to which violence is related to organize crime groups and gang activity. As a result of the influence of organized crime on government, corruption is rampant in Honduras’ political and security institutions.

Researchers in Honduras explained that the 2009 coup d’état further destabilized the country, allowing local gangs to diversify their activities and increase their strength. Organized crime in Honduras includes transnational criminal organizations, many of which are associated with Mexican drug trafficking organizations, domestic organized crime groups, and transnational gangs.

Honduras has one of the world’s largest incidence of gang members per capita. The main Honduran gangs, namely the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 and the Mara 18 or Barrio 18, are mostly concentrated in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. These gangs are involved in collecting extortion fees from businesses, transportation services, and public and private enterprises. Gangs also work with drug trafficking organizations to secure and distribute narcotics. Violence between gangs is a result of conflicts over drug markets and territories. Another characteristic of the present gang system is that not everybody working for gangs is considered a member. These “collaborators” working for the local gangs can be lookouts, drivers, family members, and other young people who contribute to gangs’ criminal activities.

Human trafficking for compelled labor for criminal activities occurs in Honduras. Gang membership and forced recruitment have been on the rise for the past twenty years in Honduras. Experts in organized crime said that the gangs forcefully recruit members in order to control territories and drug markets. Gangs are not involved with organized trafficking rings or coyotes. Tactics for recruitment include sending death threats to the families of prospective members. There is still no clear distinction on whether young men join gangs because they feel safer as gang members or because they are coerced to join.

Gangs often recruit minors since they face less severe penalties if they are caught. Interviewees in Honduras said that children of gang members are raised to become criminals. Gangs target schools to recruit minors. Gangs’ operations in schools have approximated gangsters with children. The role that minors play in gangs ranges from collecting fees, petty drug trafficking, to acting as lookouts, and even hitmen. Gangs coerce girls as young as 10 years old into sexual servitude and threaten their families to not alert authorities. Some girls involved in prostitution make up to 500 USD per month, and are vulnerable to sexual violence and trafficking.

Deported migrants are highly vulnerable to being recruited, exploited, and trafficked by gangs. Locals’ prejudice against returning migrants and a lack of assisting institutions are some of the contributing factors giving gangs access to returning migrants.