Central America’s Increasing Gang Problem: A Comforting Handshake Needed as Much as a Tough Fist to Fight Crime Epidemic

Another Report in COHA’s Series on Violence and the Immigration Issue

After over a decade of violent internal civil conflicts, in which the U.S. has played an important, if often wrong-headed role, Central America has now become a breeding ground and field of battle for violent criminal activity. After experiencing a short-lived peace at the conclusion of their individual civil wars of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are now plagued by a new form of warfare: a gang epidemic that originally had its roots in Los Angeles. As a consequence of the belated and ineffective past responses to what must be seen as a massive failure in dealing with the criminal justice problem, both in Central America and in major metropolitan centers throughout the U.S., notorious gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street Gang (M-18) are virtually in armed rebellion against civil authority.

Characteristically, well organized and heavily armed as a result of practical gangland training picked up on street corners and in pitch-battles in the U.S., the gangs have become a serious match for authorities and a drain on their resources. Coping with these criminal organizations will continue to be a difficult task which requires dedicated social reformers as much as an exclusive heavy handed law-and-order approach that is being favored today throughout Central America. With no abatement in scale, the uncontained growth and influence of these gangs have reached the point of unverified ties with al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups trying to exploit the porous Mexican-American border to facilitate what could be their own extremist plots.

The Crisis
During the recent Gang Enforcement Conference (Tercera Conferencia Antipandillas) co-sponsored by El Salvador and the FBI, Jose Chavez of the Los Angeles Police Department declared that “In the world of Hispanic gangs, all roads lead to LA.” The two main gangs, MS-13 and M-18, mainly composed of ethnic Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans, quickly spread to more than 33 U.S. cities. In recent years, they eventually found their way back to Central America after king gang leaders faced deportation for having been found guilty of major crimes. The hardened criminals forced to return to their country of origin usually possessed the knowledge and ability to build effective and well structured gang systems. After serving their apprenticeships in the barrios of Los Angeles, as well as scores of other urban ghettos throughout the U.S., they became ad hoc “professors” who were able to lecture loosely connected gangs and petty criminal cadres who had grown up in impoverished neighborhoods of Central America.

Family and community connections between the U.S., Mexico, and Central America also enabled these fast-forming bonds to be translated into an increasingly powerful and violent cross-border crime network. With an estimated 100,000 active gang members throughout Central America and approximately 10,000 more such members in the U.S., the MS-13 has propagated a wave of terror. Of the 265 municipalities in El Salvador, 15 have fallen into MS-13 hands, with the government often unable to effectively contain them. Central American gangs have also become an effective force regarding the control of migration routes headed toward the Mexican-U.S. border. Control of these routes provide “circulation taxes,” which yield a significant amount of funding, as well providing the gangs secure passageways for smuggling their own members, drugs, and weapons across the borders.

Among other ways of funding their underground organizations, the gangs rely on extortion, theft and kidnapping. According to government officials in the affected countries, gang violence has become the number one threat in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. As recorded by the Institute of Legal Medicine, the average annual number of murders per 100,000 in El Salvador is 55.5, followed by 46.2 in Honduras and 37.5 in Guatemala. Although the number of victims might not be seen as staggering, it is important to note that the comparative annual murder rate in the U.S. is approximately 5.7 per 100,000.

Are Tough Policies Towards Gangs Inspiring More Violence?
In 2002, then Honduran President Ricardo Maduro passed legislation that established a 12-year maximum sentence for gang membership. Both El Salvador and Guatemala also passed comparable legislation that would stiffen the terms being handed out for gang membership in their respective countries. In July of 2004, El Salvador’s Congress unanimously approved President Saca’s Mano Dura (Firm Hand) and later Super Mano Dura (Super Firm Hand) anti-gang reform. The new policy increased the prison sentence for gang membership to five years and instituted a harsher sentence of nine years for gang leadership. Although very controversial, super mano dura also allowed convictions of children under 12 years of age, a reform emulated by President Oscar Berger of Guatemala. This new legislation, as found by the U.N., undermines international human rights, but it also fails to offer an effective solution to the gang (mara) problem. With the new reforms in effect, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have overcrowded their prisons with maras. As the FBI’s Assistant Director Chris Swecker, who is working with Salvadorans close to the crime scene on a range of investigations said, “It’s like a college for MS-13” where prisons serve as training camps for young members, making them more ruthless instead of being rehabilitated upon release to society. In El Salvador alone, the number of murders after the new policy was installed has been recorded at around 3,760 in 2005, with an increase to 3,906 in 2006 (almost double the levels of 2002, before the policy was put in effect). Guatemala also experienced a jump in violence, with a 60 percent increase from 2003 to 2006, followed by Honduras with a 44 percent increase from 2005 to 2006.

The impact of mano dura has also been unsuccessful in the courts. Alleged gang members are usually detained simply due to their physical appearance (i.e. tattoos). As a result, many judges have dismissed their cases due to the lack of solid proof. As Aída Luz Santos, a judge in the San Salvador court for youth offenders claims, “A principle of guilt where people aren’t judged by their physical appearance but by the delinquent acts they’ve committed has to be a part of any law.” In 2004 alone, approximately 40 of 4,000 suspected gang members detained by the police were successfully prosecuted, leaving one to wonder if the police should spend their time doing something more cost effective.

To further critique the baleful consequences of the current status quo, rehabilitation groups like the Movement of Young Discoverers (MOJE by its Spanish acronym) and Homies Unidos, claim that the mano dura policies in fact reversed progress which had previously been made in reducing gang violence. The fear of mano dura has generated a scare where many youth with tattoos or known affiliations with specific gangs stay hidden at home, emerging only at night. With more sophisticated underground systems in place, where leaders and members are only rarely seen, the hard-line policies have only further complicated the effective containment of the maras.

Social Cleansing: A Means to Even More Violence
With Salvadoran law enforcement officers focusing their now heavily taxed resources on solving numerous murders attributed to the maras, vigilantes are taking matters into their own hands. Groups like Sombra Negra (Black Shadow) take “social cleansing” very seriously by gunning-down those suspected of being affiliated with gangs. The vigilantes think of themselves as protectors of the community and as a result, violence goes on with near total impunity. The police and military, in fact, are alleged to be responsible for much of the crime. Since the commencement of the mano dura strategy, around 2,000 youth have fallen victim to “social cleansing” practices.

With the Saca government even criticized by its good friends at the Department of State for undermining human rights, tolerating corruption and extra-constitutional practices conducted by the security forces, as well as running an inefficient and crooked judicial system, it is not difficult to understand why such egregious acts of social cleansing are allowed. Although Central American governments officially deny all sponsorship of the activities of groups like Sombra Negra, many civil rights groups have reported that death-squads are mostly comprised of off-duty police and military personnel who, by definition, are close to the government. As a result of work done by Casa Alianza, the Honduran government was found guilty of participating in social cleansing incidents by the Inter-American Human Rights Court.

Vigilante groups are also allegedly capable of exacting their tolls against the maras even in prisons, where in two separate cases, detention centers holding mostly MS-13 members have caught fire. Nearly 70 inmates in 2003 and 103 in 2004 were killed in overcrowded prisons going up in flames. Once again, although the government denies any involvement in the disasters, survivors and human rights activists have blamed prison guards for the deaths, stating that most casualties could have been prevented if proper safety procedures were followed.

Guns and Deportation: Washington’s Wrong-headed Contribution
In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) was passed by Congress. This change in U.S. immigration law declares that non-citizens sentenced to more than one or two-year jail terms are eligible to be deported to their country of origin. In the last 11 years, U.S. immigration authorities have deported around 50,000 immigrants bearing criminal records to Central America. In many cases, U.S. officials were barred from disclosing a deportee’s criminal background, including if they were gang affiliated. This policy made it all but impossible for Central American governments to deal with the influx of hardened criminals being returned to their home country by U.S. immigration officials.

The number of deportations spiked after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which placed even more pressure on the U.S. to purge its territory of foreign criminal elements on national security grounds. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lt. John Sullivan said “MS-13 has a lot of characteristics that could facilitate terrorist activities,” noting that al-Qaeda has shown interest in smuggling nuclear devices into the U.S. The problem with emphasizing deportation as a means of solving illegal immigration is that most maras eventually find their way back to the U.S. Deportations have instead helped create an unending chain, as El Salvador’s vice minister of security Rodrigo Avila has described it— “a merry-go-round” where deportees leave a trace of violence in Central America, return to the U.S. with contraband, and at the same time make more crime-associated connections throughout their circular journey, emerging largely unscathed from the entire sequence.

Another reason for deportation is that according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security, 70 percent of foreign gang members are ineligible to be charged with a crime in the U.S. John P. Torres, the acting director overseeing detention and removals for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, recently noted “Ultimately, [our job here is to] enforce the immigration laws and then remove [criminal gang members] from the country.”

A Little Too Late
Some U.S. officials are aware that the mano dura strategy is the wrong approach in fighting a violent underground criminal organization. Although new measures are being debated by the House of Representatives, such as the newly approved 1.5 million dollar fund for the Gang Task force, one should be suspect of the inefficient and imprudent responses of legislative bodies to such a question. In December 2004, the FBI created a special task force focused on containing the MS-13, and in February 2005, a special liaison office was created in San Salvador. The purpose of this facility is to coordinate regional information-sharing and anti-gang efforts, a move that the U.S. should have been thinking about as far back as 1996 when it passed the IIRIRA. In February 2005, ICE (the renamed INS) started Operation Community Shield, an anti-gang initiative that uses the agency’s immigration and customs’ personnel in an attempt to dismantle and prosecute violent organizations.

To further help in Central America’s war against crime, the U.S. will often share its fingerprint databases, offer police training, and help create new anti-gang units directed by FBI agents. As Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has noted, “this initiative will enable the U.S. and our colleagues in Central America to share information and coordinate law enforcement efforts as we work in partnership to target and dismantle violent gangs.” With the U.S.’s helping hand, it should make it more inconvenient for Central American officials to point fingers at others for their own professional lapses and corruption. Nevertheless, Washington’s involvement in the framing of the gang problem remains a significant factor in the fate of the region.

Furthermore, Central American governments need to take a more sustainable approach, focusing less exclusively on judicial reforms since this strategy has proven to be grossly unsuccessful. Since El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras seem to follow similar anti-gang policies –all ineffective– they would do well to look elsewhere for a better strategy. By establishing programs targeted at family, school, and on overall community intervention, as pioneered by Panamanian President Martin Torrijos and his mano amiga (“Friendly Hand”) plan, (which itself resembles the plan of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega), more positive results can be anticipated. Still, influential government figures like Ambassador Rene Leon of El Salvador, believe that the work of non-profit organizations, churches, and others outside the government may be a waste of time and resources since “90 percent of mareros cannot be rehabilitated,” leaving the fate of these countries, if true, somewhat questionable.