Documento creado: 1de julio de 2008
Air & Space Power Journal - Español  Segundo  Trimestre 2008

Criminal Gangs in Central America: What Threats do they Pose and what is the Appropriate Response?

Lainie Reisman

A typical Central American gang member

    Photo of typical Central American gang member.
    This one is from El Salvador.

As the daughter of a civilian engineer working for the United States Army, I was raised in an environment which promoted the idea of the best defense being a strong offense. While the above statement might be the case in certain contexts, in the face of a rising tide of gang violence throughout Latin America, this tactic, known commonly as a policy of “mano dura” (heavy or hard-handed) has proven to be ineffective at reducing levels of crime and violence. In fact, the mano dura policies seem to have had the perverse effect of heightening the sophistication and organization of gang structures. Furthermore, the tendency of several Central American governments to implement these heavy-handed policies by augmenting their relatively nascent police forces (many established within the last decade during peace negotiations) with support from the military has undermined civilian capacity to deal with this very real public security concern.

Background on Central American Gangs: Central America is a region characterized by high rates of poverty and unemployment as well as a history of violence, most notably the internal armed conflicts which raged throughout 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. By way of example, the armed conflict in Guatemala, supported during the Cold War by the U.S. government and which lasted 35 years until 1996 when the Peace Accords were signed, resulted in over 200,000 deaths and close to a million displaced persons, the overwhelming majority of which were poor indigenous peoples.

The problem of gang violence is by no means unique to Central America, and in fact almost all countries of the globe face similar issues, including notably in the Western Hemisphere the United States, Haiti, Brazil, and Jamaica. Nonetheless, the Central American gangs have received significant international attention due to the influence and presence of these major gangs in the United States over the past decade and their increasingly violent tactics.

Vivian: insert novakoff-smoking.jpg here

Caption: A Mara gang member who identifies himself as 'Smoking,' 25, poses for his portrait in prison in Chimaltenango, Guatemala, in this Oct. 19, 2007 file photo. After anti-gang laws were approved in Honduras and El Salvador, and a string of killings in Guatemala that were committed by angry neighbors and security forces, gang members have stopped tattooing themselves and have resorted to more subtle, low profile ways of identifying themselves as members of those criminal organizations. Today, gang members with tattooed faces, are either dead, in prison or hiding. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, file)

The two dominant Central American gangs, namely the Mara Salvatrucha or MS13 and the Barrio Dieciocho or the 18th Street Gangs, were formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, as young Central Americans, often second-generation immigrants, sought a means to counter the influence of the Mexican and African-American gangs. Gang activity in general in the United States can be traced back to the 1780s and since World War II, youth gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips, the Latin Kings, and the Skinheads have had a presence in most major U.S. cities. However, the proliferation and mutation of Central American gangs is a distinct phenomena influenced by a unique set of circumstances including but not limited to migration flows, deportation policies, and country-specific conditions.

The Mano Dura Response: Major challenges to countering gangs include ambiguity regarding how to define a gang member, classify gangs and gang-related activities and/or crimes, and estimate total gang membership. For simplicity, the following pyramid is an attempt to distinguish between the very different types of players often referred to as gang members – who range from some of the most powerful and influential drug lords to impoverished street children.1

Undoubtedly, there are many more gang members in the lower echelons of the pyramid, while the upper echelon gang members with the true power and resources are an elite and often untouchable group. Unfortunately, the responses favored by the majority of the governments in the region tend to target the bottom rungs of the pyramid and have yielded no measurable results. While the names of the policies vary from country to country, (Plan Escoba or Sweep Plan in Guatemala, Cero Tolerancia y Libertad Azul or Zero Tolerance and Blue Liberty in Honduras, Mano Dura y Super Mano Dura or Heavy- Handed and Super Heavy- Handed in El Salvador) the tactics remain virtually the same. The strategies typically include controversial illicit association laws based on physical appearance and mass arrests of suspected youth who are interrogated and incarcerated, sometimes for months at a time, but rarely fully prosecuted and hardly ever convicted of the crime. Unfortunately, these policies that have targeted the most vulnerable sectors of society have for the most part left the true power structures untouched.

The heavy-handed policies initially were lauded by the populace, which rightly did perceive a deteriorating state of personal security. This perception was fueled by political campaigns that identified youth gangs as the main perpetrators of all crime as well as a sensationalized media response that contributed to a climate of fear and insecurity. Fear has fueled popular support for not only questionable public policies, but also abhorrent private action. There have been thousands of documented cases of extra-judicial killings of presumed gang members throughout the region and in the extreme case of Guatemala there has been a notable rise in the number of lynchings of alleged gang members since 2004.

Gang Activity - National Security vs. Public Security Threat: It is critical to note that the rise in Central American gang violence has coincided with the Global War against Terror. In 2005, Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez and El Salvador’s President Antonio Saca raised international alarm bells by claiming connections between MS13 and Al Qaeda. Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation found “no basis in fact to support this allegation of al-Qaeda or even radical Islamic ties to MS-13,” the perceived threat of the gangs was nonetheless already heightened.2 By framing the threat of gang activity as a threat to national security, rather than public security, the governments of the region now had a sufficient reason to justify an increasing military role in combating gang violence.

United States - Separation of Military and Policing Activities: In the United States, we take for granted the clear delineation of public security from national security and have come to regard the need for such a line dividing military and police roles as a crucial protection against the kinds of abuses that can occur when a military is used against its own people. However, this distinction of roles is not always a part of the U.S. military relationship with other countries and in fact, at times, the U.S. military has encouraged foreign militaries in the region to take on new roles, such as counter-narcotics activities.

Where youth gang violence is concerned, the division between military and policing roles is an issue both in Central America and in the U.S. relationship with the region. In the past few years, many of the “emerging, transnational threats” to Latin America and the U.S. have been described by U.S. combatant commanders (including Southcom commanders Gen. James Hill, Lieutentant General Brantz Craddock, and current commander Admiral James Stravidis) as security threats. Though they are not military in nature, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, and gang activity have all been described in Southern Command posture statements as threats to the security of the region. While Southern Command initially played an active role in coordinating the U.S. Government response to Central American gang activity, it has shied away from leading the effort noting more recently that "We agree with the assessment that gangs are a significant transnational challenge in the region, and will do whatever is appropriate, within our authority, in the context of a whole of government approach to combating gangs. But again, only in a supporting role, not as the lead agency."3

Central America- Blurring of Boundaries between Military and Policing Authorities: Coinciding with the view of gangs as a transnational threat is the observation that many of the police forces of the region, particularly in Central America, are not equipped and in many cases are too corrupt to handle transnational illegal activities. The civilian police forces are relatively new creations in all of the countries of Central America, dating to the mid-1990s in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and have yet to fully consolidate their functions and improve capacity. The total number of officers is often well below targets and funding shortfalls for supplies, equipment, and training are persistent realities. This lack of capacity has led to the flourishing of a private security industry and in the extreme case of Guatemala there are approximately 4 private security guards for each police officer. While the private sector has hired its own forces, the frustration caused by a lack of police capability has led many governments in the region to turn to their militaries in desperation. In many cases, joint military and police actions are taken against these non-military threats.

However, many analysts agree that the risks of increased military involvement in public security greatly outweigh the potential, and in many cases questionable, benefits. For example, six months after a surge of 2,400 soldiers began patrolling the streets in Guatemala (roughly 25% of the total civilian force); the murder rates continue to rise. Activists also are concerned that the tactics being used are eerily reminiscent of the atrocities committed during the armed conflicts in Central America in which the overwhelming majority of abuses have been attributed to military structures.4

Finally, by investing resources to support military responses to rising crime, as opposed to the strengthening and professionalization of the civilian police forces, the countries of the region are further undermining the development of broader policing capabilities. There is a heavy opportunity cost for this short-term perspective in which Central America continues to forego the development of efficient civilian institutions in favor of a military response.

Case Study - El Salvador: An analysis of the history of gang violence and the government response in El Salvador leads to some surprising conclusions. In 2005, under the mano dura policies, there were over 17,000 arrests of suspected gang members, yet with fewer than 700 convictions (less than 5%). Many of the detainees were held for long periods of time in horrific prison conditions, some up to 14 months, prior to being released. Survival in the penitentiary system in El Salvador depends on affiliation with a protected group, and the prisons are controlled by the gangs themselves. Thus, not only has the policy led to a violation of due process and human rights, it has also unintentionally boosted the recruitment potential for the gangs. As noted by one anonymous government official, “Instead of taking the long route of accumulating proof of types of crimes committed, we opted to make it illegal to belong to gangs.”5

These policies have not resulted in a decrease in homicide rates, which is the most reliable statistical data point to indicate crime trends. The homicide rate in El Salvador jumped from 41.2 deaths/ 100,000 people in 2004 to 57.2 by 2006, with estimates for 2007 indicating a continued upward trend.6 A recent report issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime indicates that “it is likely that Jamaica presently has the highest recorded intentional homicide rate among all countries for which reliable data are available, with El Salvador coming a close second.”7

Finally recent information has shown that while the government still blames the majority of criminal activities on the gangs, its own data does not substantiate this allegation. El Salvador’s Public Security Minister Rene Figueroa stated in late 2007 that 70% of all violent crimes are committed by young gang members, however the Institute of Legal Medicine cites a 12% gang-related homicide rate and the Supreme Court’s data shows that less than 6% of total penal processes are conducted against minors. Similarly, while many Salvadorians blame the increase of gang violence on deportees from the United States, and there indeed has been a significant increase in the total numbers of deportees, less than 25% of the deportees have a criminal record, and even those with a criminal record are overwhelming convicted of non-violent crimes.8

Towards a New Response- Balance between Prevention, Intervention, and Law Enforcement: With a growing consensus that heavy-handed policies have not been effective at reducing levels of gang violence, the trend domestically in the United States as well as in Central America has been a recent emphasis on the need for a comprehensive approach that takes into account the roles of the local and state governments, police, civil society organizations, federal agencies (when, and if, appropriate), and community service providers. A recent study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute concludes that “Heavy-handed suppression efforts can increase gang cohesion and police-community tensions, and they have a poor track record when it comes to reducing crime and violence.”9 The experience in Los Angeles is an important example of the growing acknowledgement of the failure of heavy-handed tactics. As noted by the newly appointed Deputy Mayor for Gang Reduction and Youth Development, Reverend Jeff Carr, “After decades of suppression oriented tactics which have not helped reduce gang violence, the city of Los Angeles is changing its approach and focusing on integrated community-based interventions that help prevent gang violence.”

Group of ex-gang members in El Salvador

Caption: Group of ex-gang members in El Salvador after completing rehabilitation program and forming a rap group "Veracruz Breakers"

In Central America, while the rhetoric has changed, there is still a significant lag in terms of budgetary allocations and changes in programs and policies. For example, in Honduras the National Program for Gang Prevention operates with an annual budget of roughly $200,000, barely enough to cover staff salaries let alone invest in needed programs, and the Gang Task Force Unit of the civilian police force (PNC) is staffed nationally by a mere two officers. Aside from a dearth of financial resources, there is seemingly a lack of true political will in these countries as well.

Only with a coordinated effort involving diverse sectors will the impacts of gang violence be successfully mitigated. Given the strong ties between the U.S. and Central America and continual cross-border flows, Central American gang violence must be viewed in a regional context and the solutions require the cooperation of all countries of the region along with long-term support for the civilian institutions tasked with upholding public security.

The United States must lead by both example and also providing ongoing technical and financial support to its southern counterparts. In early 2007, the USG announced its comprehensive Strategy to Combat the Threat of Criminal Gangs from Central American and Mexico, a strategy document detailing five key elements of future action including diplomacy, repatriation, law enforcement, capacity enhancement, and prevention. Aside from the breadth of its content, the Strategy was noteworthy as it was developed by a Task Force consisting of key USG agencies including Departments of State, Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security, USAID, FBI, and others.

The Strategy has been followed-up by a series of steps to provide increased funding. The House-passed version of the FY2008 Foreign Operations bill (H.R. 2764) would provide $8 million to the State Department to combat criminal gangs, $3 million above the Administration’s request. The FY2008 Supplemental Appropriations Request includes $50 million for Central America, including funds to support regional anti-gang efforts. Assistant Secretary of State Shannon has indicated that he hopes that $50 million, known as the “Merida Initiative,” will be followed by more funding for Central America in the FY2009 budget request and in subsequent budget requests. The Merida Initiative was announced on October 22, 2007 after months of negotiations between U.S. Mexican, and Central American officials and was named after the location of a March 2007 meeting between Presidents George W. Bush and Felipe Calderon of Mexico. The Initiative includes $500 million for Mexico and $50 million for Central America in the FY2008 Supplemental Appropriations request.

The Initiative, which is still being modified, raises many questions and concerns. The large majority of the funding is destined to provide training and equipment (mainly helicopters) to help Mexico combat drug, human, and weapons trafficking. The resources destined for the several Central American countries, which together would receive only 10% of the total value of the Initiative, are too disperse to result in any significant change in the region. Without details on expenditure categories, it is unclear whether the Central American component does indeed support a balanced approach. The USG must continue to provide ample support for each of the five pillars of the Strategy and encourage its own agencies to increase and enhance coordination as well as improve information sharing with Congress.

WOLA delegation of U.S.
WOLA delegation of U.S. experts in Honduras meeting with the Supreme Court Chief Justice. Official Photo: Taken from MS13 website

It is also clear that USG support alone will not solve the gang problem. The governments in Central America should follow some of the lessons learnt in the United States and design a comprehensive strategy at the national and regional levels. While there is some progress in this area, under the guidance of the Central American Integration System (SICA), there is still much work to be done in each individual country as well as at the regional level. Finally, the Central Americans themselves must begin to prioritize integrated approaches, providing support and funding based on tested best practices, and looking for productive alternatives for youth that counter the influence of the gangs.


1. United States Agency for International Development. “Central America and Mexico Gangs Assessment.” Washington DC, April 2006.

2. See U.S. steps up battle against Salvadoran gang MS-13,

3. Interview with USSOUTHCOM Liaison Officer, December 2007.

4. Alberto Mendoza,. International Press Service News Agency. Guatemala: Army Losing Fight Against Crime. September 27, 2006.
USAID, 2006.

5. National Civilian Police (PNC), El Salvador, Official Statistics.

6. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Drugs, Crime and Development in Central America and the Caribbean: Caught in the Crossfire, 2007.

7. Rene Figueroa comments taken from speech delivered to Culture of Peace and Prevention of Youth Violence Conference, 16 November 2007, San Jose, Costa Rica. Institute of Legal Medicine and Supreme Court data taken from official sources and published by the Central American Coalition for the Prevention of Violence, Press Release November 2007.

8. Justice Policy Institute, Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies, July 2007.


Lainie Reisman Lainie Reisman is a Senior Associate working on issues related to youth gangs and human rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). She has been working on Latin American social and economic issues since 1993. Based in Guatemala between 2000 – 2005, she worked with the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) and at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as the Team Leader for the Peace Program for Guatemala . Upon her return to the United States, Lainie was named the Director of the Inter-American Coalition for the Prevention of Violence, where she developed the Coalition’s Central American gang program as well as programs establishing violence observatories. In 2007, Lainie testified before the U.S. Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee on violence in Central America and also served as a Senior Advisor on Gang Issues for the USAID Central American and Mexico Gang Assessment. She holds a Master’s Degree from the London School of Economics.

Disclaimer : The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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