In just the last year, there has been a 117 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied children under 12 apprehended while attempting to enter the United States illegally. This phenomenon has repeatedly been called an “urgent humanitarian situation,” and President Barack Obama has appeared on numerous media outlets to address the crisis. While critics of the Obama administration have blamed the surge of young migrants on lenient immigration policies, it is unlikely that lining the border with officers is the solution. To target the roots of the problem and ultimately resolve it, US policy should instead address the lawless gang violence affecting Central American countries today.
It is impossible to untangle the current immigration crisis at the US border from the catastrophic state of affairs in Central American countries. The stories of children and teenagers detained at the border are too often the same: Their escape attempts are a response to the pressure to engage in local drug-trafficking operations, the fear of going to schools where gangs overtly recruit new members, an absolute distrust of law enforcement and the murder of their neighbors. To these immigrants, who mainly hail from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the United States symbolizes the hope of a dissipated threat. Poverty and unemployment remain motivators for those who uproot their lives in Central America, but for most of these young detainees the pursuit of a future beyond the border takes a more literal sense: Central American countries have 4 of the 5 highest homicide rates in the world, and leaving the area is seen as one of the few ways to guarantee personal safety. In Honduras, the country that has seen the largest increase of child immigrants to the United States, an average of 20 people are murdered every day. The main perpetrators of this bloodshed across the region are two rival street gangs, or maras: the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and the 18th Street gang, or M18. The cruel irony of the affair is that both gangs originated in the United States and have taken advantage of disparate foreign and domestic policies to perpetrate crime with relative impunity across the borders to Central America.
Though MS-13 and M18 now terrorize Central America, these gangs have their roots in the streets of Los Angeles and the racial divides that have long characterized the city. In the ’70s and ’80s, a new demographic surfaced in LA with the arrival of young Central American refugees escaping the civil wars that had erupted in their homelands. These new immigrants found an established culture of ethnic and territorial gangs and were forced to join for protection. Those who did not fit into the existing sectarian divides had to find an alternative. As a result, M18 was created by mixed-race Mexicans and Hispanics who had been rejected by racially exclusive groups like the Mexican-dominated Clanton Street gang. Because M18 willingly accepted marginalized populations, it dominated areas of LA. Another alternative emerged after a group of El Salvadoran youth, who were more attached to their national origins, came together to form MS-13. Despite their initial exclusivity, MS-13 eventually adopted members from across Central America, increasing its influence and fueling intergang violence with M18.
Although these two gangs had operated in the United States for decades, maras like MS-13 did not materialize in Central America until 1992, when aggravated gang violence in US cities pushed legislators to find international solutions to their domestic problems. In the aftermath of the LA riots — which cost almost $1 billion in property damage, killed 55 people and were widely considered the most destructive US civil disturbance of the 20th century — police held local gangs like MS-13 responsible for much of the looting and violence. State legislators responded by enacting harsher anti-gang laws in California that relied on the illegal immigration status of many gang members to dismantle the gangs’ infrastructure. In 1996, Congress complemented these stricter gang policies with reforms to US immigration laws. Noncitizens serving sentences in California prisons were repatriated to their countries of origin once their sentences were complete — in some cases, foreign-born Americans were deported and had their citizenships revoked. Under these reforms, the list of crimes punishable by deportation expanded to include relatively minor offenses like petty theft and drunk driving. This policy change resulted in the deportation of tens of thousands of Central Americans whose families had settled in LA in the ’80s. Although they had never attained legal residency, many of them had grown up as native English speakers in the United States and had no connections with the countries to which they were being repatriated. Upon arrival, they were quickly pushed to the margins of their new Central American societies — just as they had been in the United States. Once back in their countries of origin, which generally suffered from weak state institutions and offered few chances of legal employment, their gang connections served as their only prospects for securing a new and sustainable life.
Today, Central Americans continue to live with the violent repercussions of irresponsible and incomplete US deportation policies from the ’90s. In a number of these countries, unstable political structures have now been supplanted by perverse gang stand-ins. San Pedro Sula, a Honduran city advertised both as “the main gateway into the country” and the “murder capital of the world,” is emblematic of state-gang dynamics in the region overall. The city has an annual rate of 169 homicides per 100,000 residents — compared to LA’s rate of 7.8. Each neighborhood has particular gang associations, and a set of makeshift regulations by the gangs can carry more weight than the actual rule of law. Freedom of movement between neighborhoods is far from guaranteed. In the area of Chamelecόn ruled by MS-13, the gang extorts a “war tax” from households and businesses just to stay in their neighborhoods. Matters usually handled by the police, like domestic violence or robberies, are instead reported to MS-13. Children as young as nine are recruited to serve as lookouts, make deliveries in backpacks and even assault civilians.Many of these children eventually become drug traffickers or hitmen themselves.
Gangs like MS-13 and M18, now operating multinationally, have also developed a more significant presence in the United States, threatening US domestic priorities beyond immigration concerns. While less influential in North America, MS-13 now operates in 42 states and Washington, DC. Across the country, and particularly on the West Coast and in the Northeast, the group perpetuates violence ranging from assault to homicide, using machetes and blunt objects as a way to intimidate rival gangs and law enforcement. MS-13 cells, sub-groups founded only after the organization had moved to Central America, can now be found along the East Coast from Washington, DC to New York City to the suburbs in between. And it’s not just that gangs have a wide influence in the United States — mara operations have become bureaucratized on an international level. In 2008, US law enforcement found evidence suggesting that MS-13 leaders imprisoned in El Salvador were ordering retaliatory assassinations in the Washington, DC area. The US Department of the Treasury finally designated MS-13 a “significant transnational criminal organization” in 2012 for its involvement in criminal activities including drug trafficking, sex trafficking, human smuggling, blackmail, extortion and immigration offenses. Although the gang does not have formal national leadership in the United States and its rule consists mostly of regional sects operating independently, hierarchies have been established domestically based on the sects’ connections to the major Central American branches of the gang. El Salvador and Honduras have therefore become the distant headquarters for organized crime across the United States.
Deportation policies originally responsible for the dangerous export of gangs to Central America persist today, aggravating the domestic immigration issue and perpetuating gang violence. Current US efforts to sweep the gang problem across the border have become little more than routine government-subsidized travel opportunities for MS-13 and M18 deportees. In fact, Central American gang members have mastered the deportation process and even developed it into an entrepreneurial pursuit. While they may be convicted and temporarily imprisoned in the United States, once gang members are deported, Central American officials don’t have access to their criminal records or their affiliations, unless they wear that history tattooed on their faces and bodies. Once “home,” they find others hoping to immigrate to the United States and offer to take them across the border for a fee. The journey also serves as a recruitment platform because the clients are often young and impressionable with little idea of what they will do after crossing the border. This process has also led to the creation of new MS-13 cliques in previously unmarked areas — new branches in the United States become home to gang members hoping to escape the scrutiny of harsh anti-gang policies in Central America. With members swiftly stepping back and forth over the border, the gangs continue to expand.
Before the current immigration crisis, the only direct US efforts to help Central American states combat their gang problems were diluted into broad foreign policy strategies. But under these policies, the United States failed to provide the necessary resources to combat the regional issue it is partially responsible for. In the face of a lack of resources and scant US cooperation, Central American nations have mostly embraced a monolithic hardline approach towards gangs. Some Central American countries originally adopted “mano dura,” or firm hand, policies of mass incarceration in order to quickly resolve their precarious security situations, despite being dangerously short of the funds necessary to run such operations. Under these laws, young men could be incarcerated for up to 12 years for merely displaying gang tattoos.
Although mano dura techniques initially gained popular support, they were plagued by a chronic lack of resources and eventually proved counterproductive. In El Salvador, the simplistic solution led to alarming overcrowding in prisons and detention centers, some of which are now filled beyond maximum capacity by up to 320 percent. It is estimated that about 40 percent of inmates in the country are serving sentences for gang-related offenses. LA, with its long history of gang violence, had implemented similarly strict incarceration policies and also faced overcrowded prisons. Jails in LA, like those in Central America, became “finishing schools” where first-time offenders could deepen their ties to the gang’s illicit activities. The “crazy life” of gangsters, an ideal often represented by three dots tattooed on their hands, includes prison as a central marker of their careers. The US State Department used the LA model to counsel Central American authorities on gang prevention, supporting programs in El Salvador to expand prisons and shorten sentences. But the policies didn’t work in either country, and the situation itself could have been avoided entirely with stronger communication between authorities in the United States and those in Central American governments. Unfortunately, like deportations in an earlier era, Central America’s mano dura policies and the mass incarceration policies in both Latin America and LA have only served to strengthen gang organizations.
Direct state negotiation with gangs, another attempted solution in Central America, has been equally unsuccessful and has further revealed the need for stronger political institutions to combat the gang issue. El Salvadoran Minister of Justice and Public Security David Munguía Payés initiated negotiations in 2012 for a truce between MS-13 and M18. While these efforts are reported to have initially reduced the homicide rate by 60 percent — from an average of 14 murders per day to 5.5 — killings are once again on the rise and have doubled since 2013. Moreover, these statistics were revealed in an official government report and have not since been verified. Recent polls indicate that almost 80 percent of Salvadorans feel the truce has done little to reduce crime. Citizens understandably viewed the negotiations as an example of government subordination and corruption. Instead of reducing gang influence, the original truce brought political leverage to gangs, as they could offer their compliance with the law in exchange for better treatment.
While the gangs’ demands for rehabilitation programs could ultimately improve social conditions overall, the process of negotiation is widely considered to undermine the rule of law and perpetuate a politically unstable environment with gangs as alternative authorities. US foreign policy has recognized the paralyzing role of Central America’s institutional frailty in combatting the gang issue. In the past few years, the US State Department has provided training and assistance to law enforcement and hosted workshops on efficient gang-prevention strategies. In 2008, the State Department sponsored an assessment of the gang problem across Central America, an effort which produced a detailed plan focusing on six key areas for institutional improvements: investigative capacity, legal capacity, intelligence capacity, community policing, prevention and prisons.
The United States has also sought to resolve the issue of international gang influence through more balanced bilateral means. In 2004, the FBI created the MS-13 Task Force to establish a network for sharing information between the United States and Central American countries. The creation of the Transnational Anti-Gang Initiative in 2007 established concrete means for cooperation by stationing two permanent FBI agents in San Salvador to work alongside the Policía Nacional Civil and to share intelligence on gang activities across Central America and the United States. The collaboration proved successful when the task force’s first operation resulted in the arrest of 10 MS-13 members and the safe recovery of a three-year-old boy who had been in gang custody for two years. Until recently, however, this persistent aid from the State Department and the collaborative policing efforts lacked the urgency felt by those directly facing the maras’ threats. Although a comprehensive US response is decades late and finds several Central American countries on their last legs, the pressure introduced by the media and the recent immigration issue has finally pushed efforts in the right direction. Following the reports of unaccompanied children at the border, Vice President Joe Biden met with regional leaders in Guatemala to develop a collaborative strategy and solidify US support in combatting gang violence.
Building upon gang resolution methods first applied in the United States, recent advances in curbing gang violence suggest that the solution to the cross-border problem may lie at the municipal level. The gang issue, which arose from international mobility and broad political conflict, may be best addressed by creating neighborhood-specific approaches across Central America. Nicaragua, the poorest of the countries in the region, recently rejected the Central American trend of suppression-based policies, instead adopting a less militaristic approach that uses community-building efforts to provide alternatives to gang lifestyles and to deglamorize its members. Such policies are rooted in strategies that have already proven successful in LA. Since 2003, LA government officials have used policies that combine law enforcement with the development and support of social programs. Their approach has included targeted programs, such as using ex-convicts to dissuade gang members and young potential recruits from joining these associations. In January, one of the pioneers of this program, Guillermo Céspedes, former director of the Office of Gang Reduction in LA, took a position at Creative Associates International, which works to reduce violence and improve education programs in Central America. For him, since “Los Angeles and Central America are tied together at the hip,” the new role is the logical evolution of his efforts. This transition, and the collaboration it represents, will hopefully help to establish new agencies for youth outreach to prevent gang recruitment in El Salvador, Guatemala and across Central America. Although functioning under a very different set of challenges, the transfer of these LA-specific policies across international borders may ultimately help resolve the gang issue in other Central American countries.
US government mediation and aid will be vital in coordinating new approaches towards gangs in the region. It has become evident that mano dura policies will not eliminate the influence of gangs in Central America, although US pressure will likely be necessary to push some countries towards less militaristic long-term approaches. While Central American countries have created institutional branches to develop crime prevention strategies, politicians have mostly neglected funding for prevention and rehabilitation programs for members seeking to leave their gang associations behind. Officials have justified this decision by citing budget shortfalls and the prioritization of other issues like drug trafficking, while arguing that church groups and NGOs are better suited to carry out these community-based approaches. But recently, the outpouring of young refugees and the widespread media coverage of the issue have sparked a positive transition in US-Central American collaboration. This year, the United States will be contributing $161.5 million to the Central American Regional Security Initiative, a program started in 2008 and run by the State Department that aims to stabilize Central American political institutions and create safer environments for citizens of the region. This additional funding will enable a comprehensive approach to immigration issues and combine border security with more constructive policies to cure Central America of its gang worries.
The current immigration crisis at the US border is an important impetus for improving the precarious policies of the past. Former immigration policies did not take into account factors beyond US borders. In addition to the almost $130 million provided by the United States as ongoing bilateral assistance to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the US government will be allocating an additional $9.6 million to “receive and reintegrate…repatriated citizens.” According to White House reports, this funding will be invested in existing repatriation centers, provide training to immigration officials and support government agencies and NGOs that provide services to returned migrants. Better, more secure integration of deportees might serve to acclimatize them to their new communities and dissuade them from seeking continued gang membership.
The recent surge of young migrants has also led the White House to consider improvements to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which protects children from trafficking and guarantees that they will not be sent back to dangerous situations just to fast-track the deportation process. Critics of the Obama administration have suggested that the act has encouraged illegal immigration and have strenuously advocated for its reform. However, a recently proposed amendment may ultimately result in an even more dismissive perpetuation of the gang problem abroad by removing it from domestic legal concerns.
Obama’s fast-paced response to the “urgent humanitarian situation” he describes is finally targeting a problem that has brewed in Central America for decades — one that originated from previously neglectful US policies. Much of the rhetoric today surrounding the need for immigration reform remains centered on domestic policy and the internal economic repercussions of changing US demographics. However, the rising levels of gang violence internationally reveal more complex dynamics and boundaries that challenge current conceptions of border issues. The evolution of gangs like MS-13 and M18 highlights the importance of US partnerships with countries that the United States has historically debilitated through shortsighted foreign policy, a reality that should inform the tone of future international collaboration. Although it should not have taken throngs of terrified children escaping Central American violence for the United States to account for its responsibilities, its current attitude towards the issue is a good prospect for comprehensively resolving the gang crisis in Central America.