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E.g., 04/25/2024
National Policies and the Rise of Transnational Gangs

National Policies and the Rise of Transnational Gangs


ICE agents escort an MS-13 suspect away in handcuffs (photo courtesy of ICE).

Transnationalism, the term used to describe migrants who are "at home" in more than one country thanks to cheaper forms of communication and travel, is usually discussed in positive terms. In particular, many migrant-sending countries benefit from migrants who regularly remit money and return "home" to visit family and friends, spending their currency earned abroad.

Yet transnationalism, coupled with immigration policies, can have negative outcomes. The gang Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, is a transnational criminal organization that started in the United States and is now active in the United States and many Central American countries. Most of its members are people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala who have lived most of their lives in the United States. Brutal violence, robbery, drug-trafficking, extortion, and human smuggling are among the gang's activities.

Gang members' participation is not limited to defending a neighborhood territory. They may join cliques in disparate cities or countries using their initial gang affiliation as an entry point. Estimates place MS-13 membership in the United States between 8,000 and 10,000 individuals across 33 states.

The growth of MS-13 has caught the attention of the media and law enforcement. The U.S. government, as well as the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, are enacting tough measures to target such gangs. But the migration factors that made the growth of the gangs possible — most importantly U.S. deportation policy — have been overlooked.

In combination with poor social and economic prospects back "home," deportation of gang members has allowed U.S.-based gangs to establish themselves in Central America and subsequently funnel both new and old members back to the United States through illegal channels.


Los Angeles was the destination of thousands of people from Central America fleeing conflict and civil war in the 1980s. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, approximately 70 percent of all Central Americans in the United States arrived after 1980. Some estimates place the Salvadoran population alone in Los Angeles at 300,000 by the decade's end, representing a tenfold increase during the 1980s. Significant numbers of Central American immigrants also settled in the Washington, DC, area during this period.

Although many applied for asylum, few had legal status. It is worth noting that certain communities, such as Nicaraguans, had high rates of asylum approvals and were offered opportunities to adjust their status while other communities, such as Hondurans, were routinely denied refugee status and remained largely undocumented (see Central Americans and U.S. Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era).

The Central American population in the United States, according to the 1990 census, was generally not highly educated. Approximately 46 percent of the population held a high school degree and only nine percent held a bachelor's degree or higher. Central Americans were also overrepresented in low-wage work (such as service and manufacturing jobs) and 21 percent of Central American families lived below the poverty line.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Asian, African-American, and Mexican gangs in Los Angeles all began to emerge as organized groups carrying out criminal activities and general acts of violence. Because Central American immigrants were living in some of the toughest areas of Los Angeles, they were frequent targets for existing gangs, and the community's youth became ripe for gang recruitment.

As youth gang expert Dr. Malcom Klein noted in a recent lecture on Central American youth gang violence, gangs tend to "originate in communities characterized by poverty, racism, disenfranchisement, deprivation, and low levels of social control." Another risk factor predisposing new Central American immigrants to gang affiliation was their exposure to and participation in violence during the brutal conflicts in their home countries.

MS-13 and its main rival, the 18th St. gang, first appeared in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. Although the precise origins of MS-13 are not well documented, some accounts state that Mexican gangs (often composed of second- or third-generation immigrants by the 1980s) rejected any participation by newly arrived Salvadoran immigrants and actually targeted them as victims.

For new immigrant children, banding together was initially a way to protect themselves in these rough neighborhoods, and such groups quickly turned into organized and violent youth gangs.

MS-13 members use a combination of methods to identify members including clothing, hand signals, and tattoos. They are especially known for having highly visible tattoos, often covering their face, neck, and torso, all of which clearly demonstrate their gang and clique affiliation. Like many other gangs, MS-13 also uses graffiti to mark its territory.

However, MS-13 is not a tightly structured organization. While some cliques have strong leadership, others may be groups of individuals who are united by participation in criminal activities or residence in a common neighborhood. Unlike the traditional structure of organized crime in the United States, these cliques are each unique and only loosely affiliated.

U.S. Deportation Policies

Municipal policies in Los Angeles in the 1990s allowed for cooperation between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in dealing with immigrants identified as career criminals. These policies allowed INS to work cooperatively with LAPD to intervene and place immigrants in deportation proceedings when they deemed necessary.

Before 1996, individuals could be deported on a myriad of offenses, including theft, alien smuggling, bribery, fraud, vehicle trafficking, obstruction of justice, perjury, and other offenses but only if their sentence was five years or longer; the length of the sentence qualified it as an "aggravated felony."

Several key policies played a consistent role in increasing deportations. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) included two provisions that affected Central American gang members, a non-citizen population that had frequent contact with the criminal justice system.

The first was the expansion of the definition of an "aggravated felony" and the application of that expanded definition retroactively. IIRAIRA reduced the length of the term of imprisonment for many crimes to be considered an "aggravated felony" from five years to one year. As a result, IIRAIRA changed the nature and seriousness of crimes that qualified as deportable offenses (see Table 1).

Table 1. Conditions Qualifying for an Aggravated Felony Before and
After the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA)
Qualifying Conditions
Term of Imprisonment*
Violent Offenses 5 years 1 year
Theft offenses 5 years 1 year
Alien Smuggling 5 years 0 years
Bribery, Counterfeiting, Forgery, and Vehicle Trafficking 5 years 1 year
Obstruction of Justice, Perjury, and Bribery of a Witness 5 years 1 year
Gambling and Racketeering Offenses 5 years 1 year
Passport, Visa, and Document Fraud Offenses 18 months 1 year
Monetary Damages to Government or Victim*
Fraud, Deceit and Tax Evasions $200,000 $10,000
* Term of Imprisonment is calculated upon the sentence that was issued regardless of any suspensions granted.
Note: IIRAIRA added rape and sexual abuse of a minor as an aggravated felony regardless of the sentence issued.
Source: "The Evolving Definition of an Aggravated Felony" by Socheat Chea, findlaw.com

Gang members with legal permanent residence (LPR) status convicted of any such "aggravated felony" faced jail time and were considered deportable. Gang members with no legal status were placed in removal proceedings either immediately or after serving a sentence for any convictions. Immigrants with criminal convictions that previously presented no threat to their legal status suddenly became subject to deportation under the new law.

This policy increased the number of potential deportees at the same time that local law enforcement had increased gang suppression efforts, both of which could have contributed to the sharp rises in deportations in 1997 and 1998 (see Figure 1). Since 1996, there has also been a more concerted effort to identify and deport unauthorized immigrants in prisons after they have completed their sentences.

Figure 1. Central American Deportations by Criminal Status, 1993 to 2004
Source: USCIS Immigration Statistics Yearbook 2004

The second IIRAIRA provision that played a key role in deportations was the elimination of "suspension of deportation," which allowed eligible individuals in removal proceedings to adjust to LPR status based on seven years of continuous presence in the country and demonstration of hardship if made to return to their home country.

Under IIRAIRA, suspension of deportation was replaced with "cancellation of removal," which required nonpermanent residents in removal proceedings to show good moral character, 10 years of continuous presence in the United States, and to demonstrate that a U.S. citizen or legally resident spouse or other family member would suffer exceptional and extremely unusual hardship if the applicant were made to return to their home country.

With the passage of the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) in 1997, Nicaraguans were offered an opportunity to adjust their status to LPR, and certain Guatemalans and Salvadorans became eligible to have their cases reviewed under pre-IIRAIRA standards, which only required seven years of presence in the country and demonstration of hardship to the individual.

However, even with the relief NACARA offered, total annual deportations of Central Americans still tripled in the late 1990s, rising from 8,057 in 1996 to 24,285 in 2004 (see Figure 1). Despite the fact that NACARA allowed many Central Americans to adjust to LPR status, the stricter qualifying conditions for an aggravated felony remained in place.

Charging and convicting apprehended gang members of crimes has proven to be difficult. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirms that approximately 70 percent of foreign gang members who are apprehended cannot be charged with a crime and are therefore deported on immigration violations rather than on criminal grounds. This trend is reflected in the sharp increases in noncriminal deportations compared to smaller increases in criminal deportations during this period.

In addition to receiving criminal deportees (including but not limited to gang members), a portion of non-criminal deportations to Central America are known gang members or associates. El Salvador alone received 1,900 deported gang members in 2005.

Today, when local law enforcement apprehends or detains gang members who are not U.S. citizens, ICE can become involved at any time. If an alien is charged and convicted of a crime, the individual could potentially serve time in a county jail or in state prison first, and, after serving time, be handed over to ICE.

ICE and local law enforcement work together to determine at what point in the process a suspect will be transferred to ICE custody for removal proceedings. Alien suspects who were apprehended but not charged with a crime can also be turned over to ICE. The LAPD, like many police departments nationwide, receives information on individuals who have been deported previously and have existing warrants for illegal reentry.

No Warm Welcome "Home"

Deported gang members, after living a significant portion of their lives in the United States, are often unprepared for and unfamiliar with their home country and its language and culture. According to research by sociologist Elana Zilberg, the experience of forced transnationalism is disorienting, evident in the comments of one gang member who stated that, upon arriving in El Salvador, he felt he had been sent to "Mars."

More importantly, a constant influx of deportees from the United States has created a climate of fear and a strong stigma around gang membership and culture in many Central American communities. For individuals wanting to leave the gang or start over after deportation, the tattoos that touted their gang affiliation serve as barriers to employment and societal acceptance and make them targets for violence.

Faced with few opportunities, deported gang members in the 1990s set up outposts of the Los Angeles-based gangs in communities across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

There are conflicting reports about the timing of the first appearance of gangs in Central America. Some contend that this phenomenon is something that has occurred only in the past 15 years while others link the current situation to homegrown gangs from the 1960s. Whatever the case, ongoing deportations have created new opportunities for gang members to network with one another and recruit new members in Central America. The presence of deported gang members has even spurred the rise of new, homegrown rival gangs.

Indeed, many Central American communities are fertile ground for gang recruitment. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have been most affected by the rapid and violent rise of gangs in their urban communities. Approximately one-third of the populations in these countries are between the ages of 12 and 25, and the average age of the total population does not exceed 21. In addition, large portions of their populations live below the poverty line: 36 percent in El Salvador, 53 percent in Honduras, and 75 percent in Guatemala.

Gangs Go Transnational

After being deported, harsh policies combined with unfamiliar and difficult conditions in their home countries encouraged gang members to return to the United States in the 1990s, establishing a continuous cycle of migration between these regions. The homegrown groups have also moved into the United States, often using the well-established channels of illegal entry, in an effort to establish their own territory.

Since MS-13, 18th Street, and the homegrown gangs have become transnational, their rivalries have also transcended borders. Members of rival gangs in Los Angeles, once deported back to El Salvador, for example, are bound to their U.S. gang affiliation rather than united by a common nationality. The rivalries in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, are therefore inextricably linked to the rivalries in Tegucigalpa and San Salvador, and, in many cases, the actors are the same.

Both as a means of transport and revenue, the gangs have become involved in human smuggling, substantiated by their presence along migrant routes through Central America and into the Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Aguascalientes. The facility and rapidity of return to the United States after deportation is also evidence of this extensive transnational network.

Central American Governments' Response

In response to the arrival of deportees with suspected, but unproven, criminal activities, the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have all enacted laws that target youth gang violence and, in some cases, allow the unconditional detention of individuals suspected of gang affiliation. A person's tattoos are usually enough to meet the burden of suspicion in the eyes of local law enforcement. The increase in detentions has put an added strain on the already ailing prison systems in these countries.

In El Salvador, the evolution of government policies over a three-year period perhaps best demonstrates the difficulty many governments have had in balancing enforcement with prevention and rehabilitation. In 2003, the government introduced a plan targeting gang violence known as Mano Dura (Firm Hand), which attempted to reform the penal code to facilitate the arrest of gang members. It criminalized gang affiliation and made it punishable with a prison sentence of six to 12 years.

Many critics have questioned the constitutionality of the plan, and courts have been cautious about convicting individuals purely for gang affiliation. In subsequent years, newly elected Salvadoran President Antonio Saca expanded the program, labeling it Super Mano Dura.

Despite this expansion, recent figures show mixed results in curbing violent crime. Although apprehensions of suspected gang members have increased, homicide rates in El Salvador have risen from seven to 10 homicides per day in the past three years. In 2005, the government created an additional set of programs, frequently referred to as Mano Amiga and Mano Extendida (Friendly Hand and Outstretched Hand), which seek to break the cycle of violence by addressing prevention and rehabilitation, respectively, through development and funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and public-sector initiatives.

In 2003, Guatemala and Honduras both launched their own initiatives to target gangs (Plan Escoba or Plan Broom and Operación Libertad or Operation Liberty, respectively). Operation Liberty specifically included measures to make gang membership and affiliation illegal and punishable with mandatory prison sentences.

Many critics have voiced concern over these heavy-handed government policies, alleging that they amount to "social cleansing." In one well-known incident in 2004, more than 100 inmates died from a fire in a Honduran prison cell block that housed 186 members of MS-13. Many of these inmates, though born in Honduras, had spent most of their lives in the United States.

Though there were conflicting accounts of the circumstances of the fire, the lack of a transparent investigation led several members of the U.S. Congress to write an open letter to Honduran President Ricardo Maduro in 2005, encouraging him to enact policies that address youth gang violence by focusing on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than enforcement alone.

Steps toward a coordinated regional effort in Central America have been made since 2003. Governments are beginning to realize that in order to address a transnational and constantly morphing threat they must be able to respond and cooperate beyond their own borders. Central American governments have signed bilateral cooperation agreements that target drug trafficking and other illegal activities on their shared borders.

U.S. Law Enforcement Response

In February 2005, ICE launched Operation Community Shield, an antigang initiative that uses the agency's immigration and customs authorities to dismantle and prosecute violent organizations. As of March 10, 2006, ICE had apprehended 2,388 foreign gang members through Community Shield, about 922 of whom were involved in MS-13. Of the total, 533 have been charged criminally and 1,855 have received administrative immigration charges.

Also in 2005, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) created the MS-13 National Gang Task Force and established a National Gang Intelligence Center, both of which are designed to provide support to law enforcement and facilitate information sharing between federal, state, and local agencies. ICE has been coordinating all of its gang targets with the FBI and its MS-13 National Gang Task Force prior to arrest.

Recognizing that the gang problem is transnational, the FBI's Intelligence Center and ICE's Operation Community Shield have begun collaborating with counterpart agencies in Central America. As part of these coordinated efforts, in 2005 U.S. authorities in Texas apprehended a suspect in a 2004 Honduran bus bombing that killed 28 people. The suspect had escaped from a Honduran prison weeks earlier and was fleeing to the United States.

ICE has also worked with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), also part of DHS, to identify MS-13 members who had applied for immigration benefits. Recently, ICE compared its list of thousands of gang targets against the USCIS database of immigration benefit applicants. This effort led to the arrest in February 2006 of four MS-13 members and the placement of immigration detainers on eight MS-13 members in custody.

In 2005, USCIS identified and referred more than 4,000 cases involving fraud to ICE. USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez characterizes their joint antifraud and national security effort as "a major priority for the Department of Homeland Security."

NGO Response

Because the Central American government-sponsored initiatives to prevent and rehabilitate gang members have been limited, nongovernmental organizations have stepped in. Several of these organizations have become transnational, much like the phenomenon they are tackling.

Homies Unidos, an organization founded in San Salvador in 1996 with a branch that opened in Los Angeles in 1997, offers programs for the prevention of youth violence and rehabilitation, including alternative education, leadership development, and tattoo removal.

Other organizations working on youth gangs and violence include Alliance for the Prevention of Crime (APREDE) in Guatemala and Jóvenes Hondureños Adelante (Onward Honduran Youth) in Tegucigalpa.


Although a byproduct of changing immigration policies during the 1990s, deportations have played a key role in the growth of transnational gangs. As a law enforcement strategy, incarceration and subsequent deportation have not succeeded in permanently removing a gang population that, although foreign born, has been essentially U.S. raised.

Further, these policies have exported a violent population to some of the most vulnerable communities in Central America. Rather than curbing the threat gangs pose, deportations have helped members establish, reinforce, and expand ties across Central America and the United States.

It seems clear that the spread of such transnational gangs can no longer be effectively addressed by simply expelling "problematic" populations with the hope that they will never return. Any long-term solutions will need to take into account the large population of youth involved and the underlying causes of such a phenomenon. Enforcement, though necessary, by itself will not stop the recruitment of new members nor will it help integrate former members back into society.


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Gamboa, Suzanne (2005) "Suspect in Honduras Bus Massacre Arrested in Texas." The Associated Press, February 24th.

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Walker, S. Lynne, (2005) "Gang Members deported from U.S. take deadly culture to their home countries." Copley News Services, January 17.

"Voices from the Field: Local Initiatives and New Research on Central American Youth Gang Violence." Inter-American Coalition for the Prevention of Youth Violence Event Report, February 23, 2005.

Wasem, Ruth (1997). "Central American Asylum Seekers: Impact of 1996 Immigration Law." Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, November 21.

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Zilberg, Elana (2004). "Fools banished from the Kingdom: Remapping Geographies between the Americas (Los Angeles and San Salvador)." American Quarterly, Volume 56, Number 3, pp. 759-779.

Related Links

CIA World Factbook

Washington Office on Latin America