Over the course of the past year, the Bush administration has begun to shift its focus in Latin America away from asymmetrical threats, such as terrorism, and toward the more traditional power politics of the region: containing the left-leaning governments bent on curtailing Washington’s influence in the region. Threats previously espoused by the administration — Hezbollah’s presence in the tri-border region and in Chile, Venezuela’s Margarita Island serving as a terrorist resort and Islamic groups working with the drug traffickers in the region — have all seemingly been knocked down in their threat level in public declarations. However, in Central America, Washington is getting serious about a problem it helped to create — and not simply because the region’s street gangs and vast criminal networks are making their presence known in the United States.
While media reports, often fueled by some in the Bush administration, have focused on the possibility of al-Qaeda tapping into the criminal networks controlled by the gangs, this threat seems overstated for the time being. However, the street gangs represent an opportunity Washington is likely to exploit in the region. Even as Washington adopts a traditional power politics stance in Latin America, it can be expected that it will use Central America’s gang problem to deepen its influence in the region through joint initiatives and training programs, in part designed to block Venezuela’s attempts to put a rift between the region and Washington.
A U.S. Export: L.A.’s Gangs in Central America
Central America’s gang problem largely can be traced back to policy decisions made in the United States in the mid-1990s. There was a shift in the mid-1990s at the local and federal level toward deporting immigrants who had committed crimes or had a criminal record in the United States. While this helped continue the trend toward decreased street violence in U.S. cities, it left Central America vulnerable to a new community with few ties to the region but bound together by their gang affiliations.
A 1996 change to U.S. immigration law declared that non-citizens, and in some cases foreign-born citizens, sentenced to one or more years in prison could be repatriated to their country of origin. The immigration rules also barred U.S. officials from disclosing the deportees’ criminal background in many cases. In 1996, around 38,000 people were deported on these grounds, and by 2003 the number reached nearly 80,000. However, the U.S. does not track the number of deportees suspected of having gang affiliations.
This new initiative was most pronounced in Los Angeles County, where the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) were active. After gang members were arrested, their time in the U.S. penitentiary system served as a “finishing school” for criminal activity. Then they were deported to their countries of origin with little or no warning about their backgrounds for the governments on the receiving end of the arrangement.
Once the gangs arrived in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and Mexico, they quickly put the lessons learned in prison to work. The numbers are difficult to pin down, but estimates put the number of active gang members in Central America and Mexico at over 100,000. In El Salvador (population 6.7 million) there are more than10,000 core gang members, and 15 municipalities have been, or are, controlled by gangs.
In Honduras (population 6.9 million) the number of gang members may be over 40,000 and the murder rate is 154 per 100,000 (compared to 70 per 100,000 in Colombia, which is still dealing with a civil war). MS-13 and Mara 18 (M-18, formed by members of Los Angeles’ 18th Street Gang) overwhelmed the local governments who were often unaware of the problem that they had been handed.
MS-13 and M-18 are often involved in turf battles that dislodge local populations and have overwhelmed the states’ ability to contain the problem. In November 2002, Guatemala’s Anti-Narcotics Operations Department was dismantled after it was discovered that 320 officers were on the gangs’ payrolls. The “get tough” approach and “zero tolerance” laws adopted by Honduras starting in 2001 led to overcapacities in prisons and frequent prison riots. This also encouraged the gangs to respond with random acts of violence as a means of protest. The recent prison riots in Guatemala that left some 31 dead demonstrate that the region’s governments have yet to hit upon a better method to contain the problem.
MS-13 and M-18 expanded their operations into Mexico and then the U.S, where they have set up lucrative operations smuggling people and drugs across the border. Police in northern Virginia have estimated that there are 2,500 gang members, largely MS-13, in the greater-Washington region, which has the second-largest Salvadoran population after Los Angeles. Washington’s initial response was largely incoherent because of a lack clarity of which departments within the newly created Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department would lead the operations designed to prevent the gang infiltration.