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Central American Gangs: The US Connection

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The El Salvador legal system is a disaster — with the explosion of gang violence in the last 15 years, the lack of new prisons along with the huge rise in US deportation rates — the justice system can’t handle it.. (Photo: Giles Clarke)

The violence and homicide rates due to gangs and organized crime are now a systemic problem in the Americas. The Northern Triangle is “ground zero” for major gang activity and drug trafficking. According to the annual Congressional Research Service report on gangs, “Gangs in Central America”, dated February 20, 2014, the major gangs operating in Central America with ties to the United States are the “18th Street” gang (also known as M-18), and their main rival, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13 or the Maras). The 18th Street gang was formed by Mexican youth in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and the MS-13 was created during the 1980s by Salvadorans in Los Angeles who had fled the country’s civil conflict.

In the face of abysmal poverty, political chaos, economic instability and the absence of strong family structures and support systems, young people are turning to gangs for survival and acceptance.

This is not a new phenomenon, but it is certainly a stronger and more prevalent reality than ever before. The expansion of these gangs into Central America was accelerated after the United States began deporting illegal immigrants, many with criminal convictions, back to the region after the passage of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. (Many contend that gang-deportees “exported” a Los Angeles gang culture to Central America and recruited new members from among the local populations.)

Photo: Giles Clarke

Estimates of the overall number of gang members in Central America vary widely, with top State Department officials recently estimating that there may be as many as 85,000 MS-13 and 18th Street gang members in the northern triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). In 2012, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated total MS-13 and M-18 membership in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras at a more modest 54,000. According to UNODC, in 2012 there are roughly 20,000 gang members in El Salvador, 12,000 in Honduras, and 22,000 in Guatemala. El Salvador has the highest concentration of gang members, with some 323 mareros (gang members) for every 100,000 citizens, double the level of Guatemala and Honduras. In comparison, in 2007, UNODC cited country membership totals of 10,500 in El Salvador, 36,000 in Honduras, and 14,000 in Guatemala.

While MS-13 and M-18 began as loosely structured street gangs, there is some evidence that both gangs, but particularly the MS-13, have expanded geographically and become more organized and sophisticated.

The extreme conditions within the Northern Triangle states may warrant special consideration of asylum claims of immigrants fleeing criminal violence. At the peak of the Central American migration to the US, according to the UNODC Global Study on Homicide 2013, Honduras was considered the murder capital of the world with 90 homicides per 100,000 population. The homicide rate in Honduras was four times greater than the average global homicide rate of 6.2 homicides per 100,000 population. Adding further perspective, this was the highest rate of violent crime resulting in murder of any nation in the world, and exceeded the homicide rates of Afghanistan (with approximately 6 murders per 100,000 population), Iraq (with 8 murders per 100,000 population), and South Sudan with approximately 14 murders per 100,000 population). (These figures exclude killings due to war, conflicts, suicide, or justifiable killings due to legal intervention.) These rates provide an indicator of the level of unreported crime and violence gripping the country, and feeds the local population’s sense that criminal actors can act with impunity, without fear of prosecution or retribution for crimes committed against them.

Photo Source: Prison Photography

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