Gang Membership in Central America: More Complex than Meets the Eye
Criminal violence is a major driver of migration, particularly from Central America to the United States. Understanding criminal gangs’ structures, activities, and membership is thus critical to managing both citizen security and migration. But in both Central America and the United States, governments’ understanding of gangs remains largely static and outdated.
The Biden administration has scaled back its predecessor’s reliance on deportation, and the U.S. government is once again accepting asylum claims based on fears of gang violence, following a June move by Attorney General Merrick Garland to overturn a legal interpretation established under the Trump administration. The change, which also reinstates domestic violence as a cause for asylum, has the potential to provide relief to many asylum seekers from Central America, a region especially beset by gang violence and femicides.
Yet authorities still use an expansive definition of gang membership, and continued deportations from the United States echo previous trends that contributed to gangs’ rise. The Department of Homeland Security in a February 18 memorandum included among its priorities for removal criminals “convicted of an offense for which an element was active participation in a criminal street gang” or people 16 years and older who “intentionally participated in an organized criminal gang or transnational criminal entity” in order to further its illegal activity. In Central America—particularly El Salvador, where gang violence is especially pronounced—authorities’ draconian approach to gangs has packed jails with low-level individuals who might have only a peripheral relationship with organized crime, inadvertently feeding the gangs with new potential recruits.
On the face of it, these policies are not inconsistent: the United States seeks to provide relief for victims of gang violence while deporting its perpetrators. Migrant-origin countries wish to monitor alleged perpetrators upon their return and also keep tabs on other individuals it suspects of criminal activity—even if only a tiny percentage of criminal deportees are gang members.
But underlying these approaches are presumptions of how gangs operate that are based on models of organized crime not applicable to Central America’s maras. They use traditional paradigms of gangs as hierarchical, with clear divisions between perpetrator and victim, rather than loosely connected and semi-independent cells that both prey on and force cooperation from civilians. This article examines policy approaches to transnational organized crime, the origin of groups in the United States and Central America, and how U.S. deportation policies continue to feed into the system that allows these groups to thrive.
The Mafia Framework for Transnational Crime
A common policy pitfall is to bluntly conflate all types of criminal activity involving migrants, which is often done for political gain. An illustrative example is the 2018 declaration of then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that among the top transnational criminal threats to the United States were the gang MS-13, the Sinaloa drug cartel, and Lebanese militia Hezbollah. These groups have wildly different origins, makeups, and activities, and the assumption that all organizations engaging in any form of criminal activity in more than one country are alike ignores real sources of violence and can lead to blanket policies that undermine governments’ stated goals. For example, the Trump administration’s proposal to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations stalled, potentially due in part to the possibility that such a designation might make it easier for people fleeing cartel violence to claim asylum, in conflict with the administration’s goals of restricting immigration.
On a basic level, transnational crime as scholars understand it can entail any form of illegal activity affecting more than one state. In both the United States and European Union, the standard has been the mafia: criminal networks founded in the homeland and brought elsewhere through migration. Their activities typically begin with preying on diaspora communities though protection rackets and expand into drug trafficking, money laundering, and human trafficking. In the United States, the Italian Mafia in the Cold War era is the classic model.
The exact migrant community that authorities target for fear of criminal activity can vary by country and time period, coinciding with general nativist fears. For instance, U.S. concerns over “white slavery” by Chinese triads coincided with late 19th century anti-Chinese sentiment and culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act; 1980s pop culture depictions of ultra-violent Yakuza coincided with growing Japanese corporate power and investment in the United States; and present-day fears of Mexican cartels have coincided with broader polemics about security along the U.S. southern border.
Regardless of the setting, however, notions of transnational crime conjure up images of a deeply established underworld operating in immigrant communities with secret networks and utilizing a highly organized, lucrative business model involving a hierarchical corporate structure. Policy portrayals of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) traditionally present them as the most evolved version of domestic criminal groups; the final stage in a process of institutionalization, rootedness in the community, diversification of activities, and capacity to evade law enforcement.
Central America’s Maras
Today, when one thinks of organized crime it is probably this cartel or mafia model that comes to mind. Central America’s maras contradict nearly all these stereotypes, however. A more accurate assessment would reveal them to be far smaller, less organized, and less active than much government and popular rhetoric suggests. Highly decentralized, they operate on a franchise model of neighborhood-specific clicas (“cliques”), acting more or less independently depending on geography.
Academic and journalistic studies of these gangs find their structure to be ill-defined. They are resource-poor; most members make very little money and have day jobs or are still in school (average age for joining is about 15). Far from operating sophisticated drug trafficking or money laundering networks, their criminal activities primarily revolve around low-level drug dealing and extortion of local residents and businesses. The spectacular violence to which they resort in order to build their reputations betrays their relative weakness in comparison to larger and more established TCOs.
Central America’s maras are better understood to be a loosely organized transnational criminal phenomenon with roots in both the United States and Central America. Both Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (also known as Mara 18 or 18th Street) trace their origins to the U.S. Salvadoran diaspora, itself a product of the region’s civil wars from the 1960s to 1990s, during which the United States provided support to governments fighting guerrilla insurgencies. Many Salvadoran migrants fleeing violence, economic instability, and later natural disasters settled in the United States, and their population as of 2019 numbered 1.4 million. The largest number settled in Los Angeles. There, the gang that became known as MS-13 formed among Central American teenagers seeking protection from already established, largely Chicano gangs that harassed and extorted the new arrivals. One of these, Barrio 18 (its name reflects its origins in Los Angeles’s Pico-Union neighborhood), was established earlier in the 1960s but came to accept Central Americans as members and grew to be MS-13’s principal rival both in the United States and in Central America.
Both gangs were originally more benign than their later transnational incarnations. MS-13 was originally known as the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners. Its members engaged in petty crimes and distinguished themselves by sporting long hair and listening to heavy metal, borrowing much of the quasi-Satanic symbolism reflected in their tattoos, graffiti, and hand signals from bands such as Judas Priest and Black Sabbath.
In 1984, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) initiated a citywide anti-gang sweep ahead of the Summer Olympics. Many MS-13 and Barrio 18 members were incarcerated, where they were inducted into California’s prison-gang culture. Their members learned from more violent and longer established gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, to whom MS paid tribute by adding 13 to its moniker (M being the 13th letter of the alphabet). As late as 1989, the LAPD estimated the gang’s membership to be fewer than 500.
From the Streets of Los Angeles to Transnational Criminals
The eventual evolution of MS-13 and Barrio 18 from petty juvenile gangs to prison gangs to TCOs came in the 1990s during the wave of deportations of immigrants with criminal records facilitated by a series of laws passed under President Bill Clinton, including the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and two 1996 measures: the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. These laws inaugurated an era of mass deportations of immigrants with criminal records by expanding the scope of deportable offenses to include crimes such as drunk driving and petty theft. As a consequence, annual deportations to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased twentyfold between 1995 and 2014, from just over than 5,000 to well more than 100,000. They reached a peak under the Obama administration, reflecting bipartisan support for such policies.
Central American countries receiving planeloads of deportees responded with a panicked policy which further strengthened the gangs. El Salvador implemented a policing model known as mano dura (“heavy hand” or “iron fist”), which became the model for all its future anti-crime policies, periodically modified with superlatives such as super mano dura. Under mano dura policies, the government amended delinquency laws to permit arrest of young people for being gang members on the basis of dress and gathering in groups. This resulted in the arrest of more than 30,000 suspected gang members from 2003 to 2005, a time period coinciding with a spike in gang-related murders.
Under different names, this policy has continued to the present day. President Nayib Bukele calls his the Territorial Control Plan and he has sent members of the military into the Legislative Assembly to try to force lawmakers to finance it. The Bukele government has greatly expanded militarized policing and, in prisons, paraded nearly naked inmates packed in rows before cameras, while simultaneously engaging in secret negotiations with imprisoned gang leaders.
The unintended consequence has been the transformation of the Salvadoran prison system into institutions of gang recruitment, training, and eventually hegemonic control, as prisons came to be segregated on the basis of gang membership to minimize violence. As a result, the incarcerated leadership of MS-13 and Barrio 18—which has since split into two factions, the Southerners and the Revolutionaries—directed their groups from behind prison walls.
Currently, MS-13 and Barrio 18 (also simply called “the letters” and “the numbers,” respectively) are organized under a decentralized franchise model with neighborhood-level clicas operating largely independently from one another and directed by local palabreros (“shot-callers”). Clicas can range in size from less than a dozen to several hundred members, and may be organized into groups called programs, which ultimately answer to a ruling council called the ranfla, made up of senior gang leaders incarcerated in El Salvador. Made members are called “homeboys” or “homies,” reflecting their Los Angeles origins, and the gangs retain many trappings of LA gang culture: American slang, baggy clothes, specific colors (blue and white for MS-13) reflected in certain shoes (Nike Cortez), and black-and-gray tattoos. Historically, members were expected to get tattoos on visible parts of the body such as their hands and face to demonstrate their loyalty and prevent them from leaving the gang, though this practice has faded amid increased police crackdowns.
The gangs’ franchise model allows cliques a fair range of autonomy in their criminal activities, while establishing a wide-ranging network for information sharing. In business dealings, clicas have little coordination among one another or with the gang as a whole, and are given a wide degree of leeway as long as they kick back a certain percentage of their earnings to the ranfla. The level of autonomy varies on geography: MS-13 cliques on the U.S. East Coast are more integrated into transnational programs and answer more directly to the ranfla than those on the U.S. West Coast. Cliques are territorially defined, though more broadly in the United States. In Central America, they seek to control not only illicit activity in their neighborhoods but entire neighborhoods outright, by buying off police and local authorities. As a result, gangs often conscript residents of neighborhoods in which they operate. This territorial model gives clicas the ability to monitor the movement of individuals within and between gang-controlled neighborhoods.
U.S. Deportations Contribute to Salvadoran Gang Membership and Violence
High levels of deportations from the United States continue to feed the gangs’ membership in Central America, as deportees are poorly socialized, often unemployable, and face heavy discrimination on suspicion of being gang members, partly as a result of U.S. rhetoric. Gangs in El Salvador are known to seek out returned migrants upon arrival, including arranging transportation from the San Salvador airport, targeting them for forced recruitment, extortion, or interrogation as potential rival gang members. Returnees have been known to be kidnapped and killed within hours of arrival, their bodies found on the Comalapa Highway linking the airport to the capital. Such targeting is facilitated by networks of U.S. gang members, including those in detention centers, who monitor and inform superiors about people they have identified as rivals who will be returning to their origin country. Leaders incentivize violence against rival members to prove loyalty and rise through the ranks. Deportees with either real or imagined gang ties are therefore ideal targets.
Gangs are not the only institutions targeting deported migrants. Police and allied paramilitary groups have subjected deportees to harm ranging from harassment to extrajudicial executions. El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC), which has 28,000 officers to police a population of 6.5 million, finds itself largely outnumbered by gangs and has resorted to extraordinary measures that human-rights advocates have criticized as illegal. In El Salvador, a program established by a 2017 law, Decree 717, mandates police monitor deportees who have criminal backgrounds or who visit and live in areas frequented by gang members. Such deportees are required to check in regularly with police. Those deportees suspected of gangs ties have reported being harassed or threatened by police; often having a tattoo or using English words is enough to signal to police that a deportee is a likely gang member. Intelligence partnerships between the United States and regional governments, including the Criminal History Information Sharing program, provide law enforcement agencies with deportees’ criminal investigation, arrest, and detention history, as well as biometric data, facilitating their tracking by both police and any criminal gangs that may have infiltrated or bought them off.
There is evidence that gangs have infiltrated security forces in El Salvador. Data from the Salvadoran Defense Ministry show that between 2005 and 2015, 435 members of the armed forces, 39 police cadets, and nine active officers were dismissed for being gang members, with numbers rising over time. Several investigations have turned up instances of police officers working as hitmen for gangs or in connection with robberies.
The Question of Membership
This decentralized model makes gang membership an especially slippery concept in Central America, and thus a problematic metric on which to base U.S. deportation priorities. The FBI has at one point estimated MS-13 membership in the United States at 10,000. In Central America, estimates of total membership vary widely, from 100,000 across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to as many as 500,000 individuals tied to gangs in El Salvador alone, according to one PNC estimate. These improbably round numbers point to the roughness of any such estimates. Furthermore, full-fledged gang members—or “homies,” in the gangs’ parlance—are surely a relative minority, including only those who have gone through initiation rituals and are understood to be in the gang for life. If indeed 500,000 people in El Salvador are tied to gangs, it is safe to say that most of them are not formal members of MS-13 or Barrio 18.
From the gangs’ perspectives, though, anyone living in the Central American neighborhoods in which they operate is under their domain and can be forced into some kind of service. This can include giving extortion payments (or “rent”) as well as providing information, shelter, transport, or being forced to play some more active role in criminal activities. Since gangs often act as these neighborhoods’ de facto governing authority, simply living in an area with a gang presence can make one a target. Having a business can oblige them to provide extortion payments, vehicles, or other support. Having a teenage son can make someone a target of forced service, while teenage daughters may be forced into becoming a “gang girlfriend.” Having a house can oblige one to hide contraband. Those who resist recruitment or successfully leave may still be treated as gang members by rival gangs and police.
In U.S. immigration courts, it is not rare for asylum seekers who fled violence, extortion, or conscription to be treated as gang members themselves because they were compelled to do or give something to the local clica. U.S. policies also tend not to recognize the difficulties of leaving gangs, which regard membership as life-long. Former members may be treated as active participants and denied asylum, despite being marked for death by the gangs if they left without permission. There are some exceptions, such as evangelical churches in Central America that run intensive programs to facilitate gang exit.
In other words, gang membership is complicated, contextual, and rarely a black-or-white binary. Many individuals victimized by gangs may be forced to engage in activities which identify them as gang members themselves.
Yet in the face of U.S. political pressures to deny deportation relief to criminals, these nuances tend to go out the window. These fundamental misunderstandings can conflate victims with perpetrators, and result in handing the former over to the latter, with predictably tragic consequences. Ironically, inflating gang membership only enhances the authority of the gangs themselves, which thrive on the street cred provided to them by politicians in the United States and Central America who hype them as larger than life.
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