Controlling Movement and Territory: Gangs and the State on Honduras’ Urban Margins

By Antonia McGrath

This essay is part of Emergent Conversation 13, ILLICITIES: City-Making and Organized Crime

Figure 1: A map of the school and surrounding barrios, drawn by Enrique and Oscar, picture by author (2019).

“We are a country where drugs cross to the United States,” Alejandro tells me in January 2019.[1] “So, the cartels, in one way or another, lend their resources to the maras and gangs because they use them to move and sell the drugs. […] The state has allowed these organized structures to progress, to develop, to the point that they have become a truly organized structure, involving even the government itself.” Alejandro has years of experience working on the urban margins of various Honduran cities, as the director of a youth organization. These experiences have given him insight into the complex governance arrangements that produce these notoriously violent spaces. His words highlight licit and illicit actors’ co-production of territories of violence and marginality in which cartels and street gangs work together with state actors.

For the past six years, I have been intermittently spending time and conducting research in the Honduran city of El Progreso. On the outskirts of El Progreso, there is a feeling in the air like a balloon being squeezed, and it rarely (if ever) subsides. Honduras has some of the highest rates of violence in the world, most of it concentrated in urban areas, and poor, urban, male youth are among those most directly affected—and involved—in this violence. While this has been widely discussed, much less considered are the ways in which these areas are produced, by whom, and to what effect. This post draws on three months of ethnographic field research conducted in and around a public high school on the urban periphery of El Progreso, during which I sought to understand youth experiences of urban violence. This led to an examination of violent structures and the actors involved in them—both licit and illicit. Here, I examine the school’s territory and its surroundings, and how these spaces are simultaneously contested and co-produced by licit and illicit actors, including the gangs and the police. These actors assert dominance over the individuals in these spaces in an attempt to control their bodies and movements.

As part of the Illicities series, this post explores the interconnected ways in which licit and illicit actors operate on the urban margins, how the boundaries between them blur, and how both criminal(ized) and state actors co-produce urban space, mobility, persons and power, questioning the very dichotomy between the licit and the illicit.

The School as a Margin

Honduras’ high rates of urban violence can be attributed to myriad issues, from rapid urbanization to rising youth populations, along with macro-level socio-economic and political structures and problems. As in much of the Global South, rapid urbanization has led to the rise of shantytowns on the outskirts of cities, where infrastructure has been unable to keep up. This is particularly true of Honduras’ largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, but El Progreso is no exception. In these marginal areas, state presence has become “fractured,” focused on policing and security but with a damning lack of infrastructure and access to public services (Auyero, Berti and Lara 2014). Illicit “criminal” actors such as violent (youth) street gangs, and other criminal groups such as trafficking organizations, have stepped in to fill this void.

One of El Progreso’s largest public high schools is located in one of these peripheral urban communities. The school boasts a student body of roughly 4,000 pupils across grades 7-12, most of whom come from designated “zonas calientes” or “hot zones” due to the high levels of gang and other criminal activity that take place in these areas. During my three months here, I conducted a total of 52 interviews: 31 with a total of 35 students and youth (including some group interviews), and 21 with teachers and adults. Several participants were interviewed more than once. I also conducted extensive observations in classrooms, in the staffroom, at staff meetings, in the guidance counsellor’s office, at student council meetings, and outside during recess, as well as within the wider community outside of the school.

Gang Control on the Margins

Figure 2: Gang graffiti inside the school, pictures by author (2019).

One day, sitting in a coffee shop with papers scattered across a table, I asked the two teenage boys I was with – one of whom attended the high school – to draw me a map of the school’s surroundings. I handed them a sheet of paper, and they pulled out a ruler and began filling the page with squares, labelling each with the name of the community and the gang in control of it (See Figure 1). Their decision to directly draw out gang territories when asked about the school’s surroundings demonstrates the intrinsic importance of these structures in shaping youth’s perceptions of governing actors on El Progreso’s periphery.

The consequences of gang control run deep and produce clear material effects, too. Graffiti adorns the paint-chipped walls of these communities. This graffiti, specific to each group, marks control over territory in a clear, physical sense, mostly through numbers (18s for the Mara 18 and 13s for MS13). Yet while graffiti may be the most common and identifiable material demonstration of gang control, it is the controlled movement of people that most strongly speaks to the ways in which gangs materially construct, order and control urban space and the bodies and movement within them. “For example, when a marero (gang member) from, let’s say, La 2 de Marzo, goes to La Juan Ramon,” a student explained, “in La Juan Ramon they’ll all be watching the guy from La 2 de Marzo, and someone from La Juan Ramon will come and say ‘what’s up with you, where the fuck are you from?’ and then that’s when they screw you up.” Because of this strict gang control, people cannot just move in and out of certain areas.

A similar material co-production and contestation over territory can be seen at the high school. Located on a fault line between MS13 and 18th Street gang territories, Patricio, one of the school’s counsellors, explains “We belong to the Mara 18, this territory here, this school, is controlled by la dieciocho. But from that wall over there it belongs to la trece.” And just like outside the schools’ walls, things can get heated. “Right now, there’s a fight over territory between these groups, and the students are in the midst of the conflict, but the teachers are in the midst of the conflict, too.”

Gang control is materially demonstrated at the school in much the same way as it is in the communities: through graffiti, as well as through control over students’ friendships, bodies, and movements. Across the school’s grounds, scrawled 18s, 13s, XVIIIs and XIIIs adorn the walls, benches, desks, and doorways (See Figures 2 & 3). Teachers noted that not all of this graffiti was done by students who are actually members of gangs, but often by “simpatizantes”—gang sympathizers.

Figure 3: Gang graffiti inside the school, pictures by author (2019).

Especially among youth, this territoriality is also embodied and performed. Clothing is a marker of identity, and this extends to gang identity, as described by fifteen-year-old Enrique: “Los trece identify themselves by always wearing a long-sleeved shirt like this, formal, buttoned up. Los dieciocho identify themselves by wearing the same formal shirt but only with the top buttoned and all the other buttons loose, open. […] It depends on the area too. For example, in Tegucigalpa, Nike Cortez [shoes] are from la trece, and here they are from la dieciocho.” Students also mention pen-ink tattoos that students draw on their skin to show gang affiliation or sympathy. By physically embodying these signs of territory and territoriality, the material dimension of gang control in these areas becomes evident yet also diffuse, through its appropriation by both members and sympathizers alike.

Whether youth are actually recruited by their barrio’s gangs or not, the areas that students live in shape the spaces and people they can surround themselves with. Just like outside school, it can be dangerous for students from a certain area to be friends with or to hang around with students from an area where an opposing group is in control. Take Javier, a fourteen-year-old who lives in a Mara 13 area and has many friends who are mareros (though he is not one himself, he says). One day, he was selling donuts at school for a project for his marketing class and he got into trouble for this very reason. In a conversation with school counsellors, he explained,

Javier: When I was selling donuts, I was offering some to some guirros from the other side, because there are guirros who are in the 13 and the 18.[2] So I was offering some donuts to some guirros from the 18 and super fast they told them that I was there with them and they called me over like “hey perro, come here” and so I went and said “what’s up?” and they asked me “is it true you’re hanging out with los mierdosos? [3] & [4]

Rafaella (counsellor): With who?

Javier: With los mierdosos, that’s what they call them.

Patricio (counsellor): Because they’re from the other group, right?

Javier: Yeah. “Yeah man, I was with them,” I said, “I was offering them donuts, I was selling,” I said.

Patricio: And what did they say?

Javier: “Ahh, alright then perro, but don’t do it again because they could take a photo of you.” They think I’m gonna sell them drugs.

Patricio: Yeah, it’s dangerous. (To me) It’s like being in the line of fire, right in the middle. It’s not a good position.

Evidently, the physical bodies of students become loci of control by the same forces that control the territories they come from. Not only gangs attempt to control them; state actors do too.

Teaching and Policing the Student Body

The overwhelming fear that gangs elicit deeply affects the power relationships within the schools’ walls, particularly between these groups and the teachers. Teachers and administrators are the main state actors who control the territory of the school (as well as, less directly, the secretary of education who appoints teachers and pays salaries), but teachers also feel separate from the government and often abandoned by it. Support of the educational sector has been negligible, leaving teachers vastly overworked and underpaid, and charged with combating insurmountable social problems with little to no support.

“One day I was giving an exam here,” a teacher told me, “and a boy said to me: ‘Professor, will you let me copy?’ and I said no, obviously, I can’t do that, and he said to me ‘Professor, not even because we are neighbors?’ [But] I swear I had not seen him, I didn’t know him. Because the new generation of children who have been recruited [by gangs] are 12 to 15 years old, I don’t know them.” He shook his head, his expression puzzled as if he re-lived the moment as he spoke. “So I said to him, ‘Really, do you know me?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘your brother’s name is Jefferson, your other little brother is in this school, your father’s job is this, you come home at this time.’ What do you think he was saying to me? He was implicitly threatening me.” While teachers are assumed to control the school territory (and largely do), interactions like these indicate that gangs still exert a significant amount of influence.

During my research period, a US-funded program called Project GREAT: Gang Resistance Education And Training, carried out by local police officers, started being implemented at the school (See Figure 4). After reported successes combating youth gang violence in the United States, the program has been exported to other countries across the Americas, although the teachers here expressed skepticism both at its effectiveness and its underlying goals and motivations. The program’s existence meant that the physical presence of blue-uniformed police officers at the school became commonplace, reflecting wider trends of increasing securitization of the margins, the criminalization of (ever-younger) poor urban youth, and the use of policing and militarization strategies to get out of attempting to address pressing social issues that have led to youth engaging in violence and criminal groups in the first place.

Figure 4: A policeman conducts a violence prevention class at the school.

The police’s physical presence on campus created further contention over the school’s territory as they attempted to reduce student involvement in gangs. As many peri-urban barrios have become centers of urban violence, policing and militarization of these areas have also increased. Between 2008 and 2015, there was a 51.5 percent increase in the size of Honduras’ military (Clavel 2016). New police forces have also been established, and zero-tolerance mano dura policies against (youth) gangs have been extended (e.g. Rawley 2017). Increased policing largely targets marginalized urban areas like the one this public school sits on, due to higher rates of violence and the perceived need to “pacify” and regain control over them. Policing has therefore become the dominant way in which state presence exists in many of these areas. So much so that, as we can see here, they have taken over a part of the curriculum at a public school.

Conclusion: Blurred Boundaries

However, this rise in police presence on the margins does not undermine the control of gangs. In fact, the boundary between these state and gang actors is often perceived to be deeply blurred, and these are far from the only actors present. There are numerous other illicit and/or criminal(ized) groups, including smaller neighborhood gangs, trafficking organizations, hit men, and private security bodies, all of them interconnected in often overlapping relationships to govern particular territories and markets. One of the school counsellors explained that the police not only work with these illicit groups, but that the police force itself is home to many illicit actors. “Within them (the police force) there are hitmen! Drug traffickers! […] [In the neighborhood] no one wants to call the police because the police are involved in organized crime, and they themselves can do harm to citizens,” he warned.

Throughout my research, I heard numerous stories along these lines – police officers who were also mareros; a forensic officer who was also a hitman who shot people and then examined them (an ideal combination for never getting caught); military members who would help criminal trafficking groups transport drugs and weapons to and from ports; and even government officials involved in organized trafficking missions. Far from being myths, these stories worked to reproduce residents’ awareness of the ways these actors co-produce both violence and governance. These stories attempt to identify the complex web of relations between these actors, and their shape-shifting into one and the other. In this sense, residents’ stories were often corroborated by news articles, going as far as the Honduran president’s brother being convicted of trafficking cocaine to the United States and, more recently, the former head of the Honduran police being found guilty of facilitating the transport of multiple tons of cocaine from Honduras to the United States (U.S. Attorney’s Office, 2020). Among the public, this reinforces the notion that licit and illicit actors are involved in deeply convoluted relationships that make them almost indistinguishable from one another. While they appear to fight over territories then, they also seem to rely on one another to co-produce and control the spaces of everyday life.

Antonia McGrath is a MSc International Development Studies graduate from the University of Amsterdam and the founder and director of a Honduras-based non-profit. Her work is focused  on urban marginality, violence and education.


[1] All names are pseudonyms.

[2]Guirro” is a slang term used to refer to a child/young adult.

[3]Perro” literally means dog but is used in a similar way to the street term “dawg” in the United States meaning “guy.”

[4]Los Mierdosos” translates roughly to “filth.”

Works Cited

Auyero, Javier, Augustín Burbano de Lara and María Fernanda Berti. 2014. “Violence and the State at the Urban Margins.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 43(1): 94–116.

Clavel, Tristan. 2016. “Militarization and Crime: Central America’s Dangerous Gamble.” InSight Crime, September 13, 2016.

Latinobarómetro Survey. 2017. “Honduras.”

Rawley, Alex. 2017. “Honduras’ Post-Coup Militarization.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, April 5, 2017.

U.S. Attorney’s Office. 2020. “Former Chief of Honduran National Police Charged with Drug Trafficking and Weapons Offenses.” United States Department of Justice, April 30, 2020.

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