Street Gangs, a Transnational Security Threat
(International Relations and Security Network, 07/02/2006)
With Ben Bain in Washington, DC
On 1 February, Michael Lopez-Garcia pleaded guilty to brutally murdering an 82-year-old man with a machete in Corpus Christi, Texas last year. He was high on cocaine when he stabbed his elderly friend, according to prosecutors. But what really earned the case more attention from the US authorities was the MS-13 tattoo on Lopez-Garcia's back - a tattoo signaling membership in and loyalty to one of the US' most ruthless street gangs, Mara Salvatruchas.
Lopez-Garcia is one of many thousands who since the early 1990s have participated in a cycle of immigration, gang membership, and deportation, the downward spiral of which has led to a real public security problem in Central America and an alarming street gang presence in many US cities.
Lopez-Garcia, a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant, pleaded guilty this month and was sentenced to 50 years in prison, but his legal status leaves no doubt that he will be deported to his home country once his jail term has been served, though he will be over 70 years old by that time.
The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang and its rival, the 18th Street gang (M-18), consist of loosely connected groups of disaffected youths banded together for protection and support. The dowry for entering this transnational family often involves murder, extortion, and drug smuggling, and its bloody tracks can be seen from Texas to Tegucigalpa.
US deportation policies aggressively send undocumented gang members back to their Central American home countries, where they eventually join up with the increasing number of MS-13 gang members there. The growth of these gangs in Central America is in part a result of convicts like Lopez-Garcia who are sent back to their home countries of Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala to which they have little or no connection and where they find solace and company in jails or on the street with other unemployable, tattooed outcasts.
Street gangs have become a top cause of insecurity in Central America, exacerbating pre-existing problems with clandestine death squads, organized crime, high rates of unemployment, and rampant corruption. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is actively seeking solutions to break this 20-year cycle, but the US authorities and their Central American colleagues face a difficult game of catch-up.
The civil wars that ravaged Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in the 1980s displaced tens of thousands of Central Americans from their homes into Mexico and the US. Many of those families settled in US cities close to the Mexican border. Cities such as Los Angeles absorbed large communities of Central Americans who sought to carve out a space in poor neighborhoods that had been controlled by Mexican street gangs since as early as the 1950s.
According to Paul Vernon, a former Los Angeles Police Department street cop who worked with gangs, Central American immigrants formed the MS-13 in the 1980s in response to the M-18 gang that was made up of Mexican immigrants who had already established themselves in Los Angeles.
Because the M-18 only allowed full-blooded Mexican immigrants into their group, the Central American immigrants formed their own gang and were soon engaged in theft, extortion, drug dealing, and other criminal activities that centered on a profit motive.
Vernon told ISN Security Watch that the MS chose the number 13 because it is the number of the letter "m" in the alphabet. It is a nod to their allegiance to the Mexican Mafia, which maintains a dominant presence in southern California prisons, where gang rival lines are split between northern California gangs, known as Nordenos, and southern California gangs, known as Surdenos. The Mexican Mafia represents the Surdenos, the umbrella group that contains the Mara Salvatruchas.
Within the prison system, members from both the M-18 and the MS-13 join forces to protect themselves against members from gangs based in northern California. Such close ties to the Mexican mafia, particularly the Tijuana Cartel, helps explain how the MS-13 grew beyond the streets of Los Angeles into a loosely tied organization of members across the US.
Over the years, the MS-13 has grown and its members moved beyond Los Angeles into other US cities. An MS-13 presence has been spotted in over 33 US states as well as the District of Columbia. There are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 MS-13 members in the US, according to the US Department of Justice.
As the MS-13 grew throughout the US, their clashes with rivals from the M-18 gang and other street gangs earned their members a reputation for brutal violence. It is widely known that the MS-13 weapon of choice is a machete.
The gang's widespread presence and tendency for violence has attracted the attention of a number of US government agencies, particularly the FBI, which now coordinates 128 safe-streets task forces in cooperation with state and local officials around the US.
In December 2004, the FBI director established a multi-agency task force to deal with the growing presence of the MS-13. This task force includes elements from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, The Bureau of Prisons, the Customs and Border Patrol, the US Marshall Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, among others.
The deportation problem
US immigration authorities began aggressively targeting illegal immigrants within the US prison system in 1996, which led to many cases where prisoners were deported back to their home countries upon completion of their prison terms.
Many of these young men came to the US in the 1980s with their parents to flee the civil wars in Central America. They do not have familial connections in Central America, and in some cases do not even speak proper Spanish. So when they arrive in their birth countries after a US prison sentence, the have only the local factions of the MS-13 or the M-18 to turn to.
In fiscal year 1997, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deported some 111,794 illegal aliens. Over half had been convicted of a crime in the US. It was the first time the INS had deported over 100,000 illegal aliens in one year.
"In that process [the US] has managed to export US gang-style culture, customs, and contacts," said Geoff Thale, a Senior Associate for Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Gang members that are sent back to their home countries bring with them more sophisticated methods, organizational strategies, and contacts in the US - all facilitating a more aggressive and organized criminal enterprise, such as smuggling drugs, guns, and humans. These factors combine to create a loosely tied network of street gangs that have complete control over towns and suburban areas in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Many of MS-13 members' illegal status in the US has thrust the US Department of Homeland Security's section of Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) to the forefront of the US authorities' strategies.
Claude Arnold, ICE Unit Chief for Human Rights Violations and Public Safety, says the ICE could have an immediate impact because the agency can use immigration violations to apprehend suspected gang members, deport them, detain them, try them, or turn them in to informants.
Central American security
Meanwhile, Central American governments have taken a zero tolerance approach to dealing with their gang problem. And while many observers agree that the gang problem is a symptom of deeply rooted social problems steeped in poverty, unemployment, and limited opportunity, government officials have harnessed popular support among voters through promoting policies commonly referred to as "hard hand" or mano dura.
Mano dura policies specifically target street gangs, including the MS-13 and M-18. They allow national police officers to target young men and women for arrest based on tattoos, loitering on certain street corners, or simply association with known gang members. Cops who arrest gang members see many of them released within 24 hours due to lack of evidence pertaining to real crimes.
These policies have spurred an unofficial war between gang members and the police. Politicians and other members of Central America's elite social classes have also been accused of paying individuals, including off-duty cops, to hunt down and assassinate gang members. The retaliation to this corruption from MS-13 members has been brutal, violent, and widespread.
Carmen Aida Ibarra, a researcher with the Guatemala-based Myrna Mack Foundation, told ISN Security Watch that "corruption plays an important role because it is the principal factor that impedes the deconstruction of clandestine groups".
Five years after El Salvador's civil war ended in 1991, the country had the world's highest death rate per capita, with over 150 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants. Polls showed that during this time, some 46 per cent of the population believed that citizens retained the right to deliver justice with their own hands.
While authorities have been targeting gang and criminal violence, the success of polices like mano dura remains debatable.
"El Salvador still holds the region's number one spot for per capita homicides," Ricardo Montoya, analyst with the Research Foundation for the Application of Law, an El Salvadorian research organization, told ISN Security Watch. Montoya said crime, particularly homicide, had increased in El Salvador since the first application of mano dura politics in 2003.
Guatemala currently registers over 100 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, many of those killed are young men believed to be associated with street gangs and in 2004, some 5,553 youths were killed in Guatemala, according to Emilio Goubaud, director of the Association for the Prevention of Crime a Guatemalan organization.
Perhaps the most public event of street gang activity happened in Honduras in December 2004, when a group of MS-13 members attacked a bus with automatic rifles. They killed 28 civilians and wounded 12 others. The attack is considered to be retaliation for mano dura policies promoted by the Honduran government. Specific death threats, left in a note found at the scene of the crime, were made to Honduran president Ticardo Maduro and Congressional leader, Lobo Sosa.
"When [gang members] came out of the prison systems of the US and went back [to their home countries], that's when they became more formalized and then what happened is that the environment down there was right for these kinds of criminal activities and it just spread," Stanley Stoy, acting director for the FBI's MS-13 National Gang Task Force told ISN Security Watch.
Stoy said the FBI began looking at the MS-13 more closely in late 2004 due to its level of violence and transnational presence. The FBI has been active in Central American countries, especially El Salvador, assisting with intelligence gathering and promoting professionalism in the national police. On 7 September 2005, the FBI participated in a day-long, large transnational operation that included more than 6,400 federal agents and other officers in 15 US states, Mexico, and Central America. The operation netted 659 arrests of MS-13 and other transnational gang members: 77 in the US, 232 in El Salvador, 162 in Honduras, 98 in Guatemala, and 90 in Mexico's Chiapas state, which shares a border with Guatemala.
The operation's success demonstrated the benefits of transnational cooperation, but some analysts warn that there are still over 100,000 street gang members in Honduras. Other estimates state that there are as many as 600,000 street gang members in El Salvador.
While these numbers may be inflated, they illustrate the extent of the problem. On 1 September of last year, El Salvador even went as far as to deploy 1,000 soldiers to reinforce police efforts to contain street gangs there.
Military involvement is likely to exacerbate the problem as other heavy-handed actions have done, rather than bring a rapid solution. Increased professionalism among Central American police officers is perhaps the quickest route to improving security there. US deportation practices should be more sensitive to Central America's street gang problems. But root causes based in poverty and limited opportunity in Central American countries must be addressed before this endemic security problem can be adequately tackled.
The FBI says there is no link between MS-13 and al-Qaida or other terrorist groups, but experts believe that the MS-13 and other street gang groups have become more and more involved with the elite organized crime groups that traffic guns and drugs in the region.
If this is the case, then what used to be a regional problem could very well stretch into a hemispheric phenomenon, where Colombian and Mexican organized crime elements outsource the dirty work to Central America's street gangs. The recent efforts by the US authorities and their Central American counterparts represent a good start in tackling this complex, multi-faceted transnational problem, but it is unclear if this new approach can undo two decades of problematic, uncoordinated efforts.
"It may develop into something much greater if we don't address the problem," said Stoy from the FBI. "We realize that if we didn't do anything towards this problem or to prevent its entrenchment here in the United States it would overtake us."