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

Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America

By John P. Sullivan

Transnational GangsTransnational gangs are a concern throughout the Western Hemisphere. Criminal street gangs have evolved to pose significant security and public safety threats in individual neighborhoods, metropolitan areas, nations, and across borders. Such gangs—widely known as maras—are no longer just street gangs. They have morphed across three generations through interactions with other gangs and transnational organized crime organizations (e.g., narcotics cartels) into complex networked threats.1

While street gangs are generally viewed as minor criminal nuisances with varying degrees of sophistication and reach, some gangs have evolved or morphed into potentially more dangerous entities. In many of the world’s cities, especially in the ’lawless zones’ of mega-slums where civil governance is weak, insecurity and instability dominate organized armed groups: gangs, maras or pandillas reign.

Third generation gangs reside at the intersection between crime and war. They are a byproduct of the significant changes in societal organization that result from the confluence of globalization and technological advances that alter the nature of conflict and crime, favor small, agile groups and fuel the privatization of violence.2 This article looks at the evolution and current transnational gang situation in Central America, with a focus on MS-13 and M-18. It also briefly explores counter-gang strategies that have been employed, and future threat potentials. It is essentially a situation report on third generation gangs in Central America. It also includes background on the Los Angeles (LA) nexus, and transnational gang migration, in the context of third generation gang studies.3

Transnational Gangs (Maras) in Central America (and Mexico)

Gangs—widely known as ‘maras’—have evolved into a transnational security concern throughout North and Central America. As a result of globalization, the influence of information and communications technology, and travel/migration patterns, gangs formerly confined to local neighborhoods have spread their reach across neighborhoods, cities and countries. In some cases, this reach is increasingly cross-border and transnational.4 Current transnational gang activity is a concern in several Central American States (as well as Mexico). These criminal gangs operate as interlinked groups of individuals, gangs, and networks. Individual gangsters and their networks are heterogeneous: “Although each country has its own brand of gang problem, the factors driving gang activity throughout the region include a lack of educational and economic opportunities, marginalized urban areas, intra-familial violence and family disintegration, easy access to drugs and firearms, overwhelmed and ineffective justice systems, and the ‘revolving door’ along the U.S.-Mexico border.” 5

The networked nature of these transnational gangs makes them a regional, transnational problem. The most notable current transnational gangs are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Eighteenth Street (M-18). These transnational maras conduct business internationally and are engaged in kidnapping, robbery, extortion, assassinations, and the trafficking of people and contraband across borders.6 The impact of the maras varies throughout the region. For example, the “USAID Central America and Mexico Gang Assessment” reports that El Salvador and Honduras have a serious international gang problem, while Guatemala has a serious localized gang problem with a limited international presence; Mexico has a largely unacknowledged international and local mix, and Nicaragua has a minor localized problem with no international gangs.7

Federico Brevé, former Minister of Defense of Honduras, observes that “the maras are in many ways a symptom as well as a cause of the climate of insecurity that is overwhelming Central America.”8 When describing the maras in Honduras (MS-13 arrived there in 1989, M-18 in the early 1990s), Brevé emphasizes the influence of organized crime in gang evolution. He notes that the maras first appeared in El Salvador and Honduras, and later expanded to Guatemala. Specifically, he highlights the influence of the Mexican Mafia’s role in the transition of local Honduran gangs (barrio cliques) to mara outposts operating with “relative impunity due to the state’s lack of authority and presence in the poorest sections of the region’s largest cities.”9 The transnational nature of these gangs makes them particularly troublesome.

Transnational gangs have been defined as having one or more of the following characteristics: 1) criminally active and operational in more than one country; 2) criminal operations committed by gangsters in one country are planned, directed, and controlled by leadership in another country; 3) they are mobile and adapt to new areas of operations; and 4) their activities are sophisticated and transcend borders.10 The gangs most frequently mentioned in this context are MS-13 and M-18.

The Congressional Research Service reports that MS-13 with around 8,000-10,000 members and M-18 with about 30,000 members, which originated in Los Angeles, have an established presence in Washington, DC, Maryland, Tennessee, New York City, Houston, and elsewhere in the US.11 As a result of migration (both voluntary and the forced deportation of alien gang members), US-styled gangs have emerged in Central America (and Mexico).12 Estimated MS-13 and M-18 membership in Central America and Mexico ranges from 70,000 to 100,000.13 Some researchers have also observed that these transnational maras are continuing to spread their reach into South America, with maras in the formative stages in Argentina.14

Sociologist Laura Etcharren—author of the forthcoming book Esperando las maras, El estado embrionario en Argentina—describes the distinction between pandillas and maras. In her analysis, pandillas are traditional local gangs that dispute the “control over neighborhoods and base their existence on the retail of drugs.”15 Maras on the other hand “cross over borders and grow based on the power that comes from narcotrafficking…and have links to organized crime, death squads, narcoterrorists.”16 Essentially, she draws a distinction between traditional pandillas and maras based on their focus, sophistication, reach, and degree of challenge to state control. Third generation gang theory addresses these variations and may help in better understanding the scope and impact of transnational gangs and the security challenges they pose.

Defining Third Generation Gangs (3 GEN Gangs)

The organizational framework for understanding contemporary gang evolution was first explored in a series of papers starting with the 1997 article “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels, and Netwarriors.”17 These concepts were expanded in another article with the same title,18 and the model further refined in the 2000 Small Wars and Insurgencies paper “Urban Gangs Evolving as Criminal Netwar Actors.”19 In these papers, I observed that gangs could progress through three generations. A close analysis of urban street gangs (as well as their prison-based cousins) shows that some of these criminal enterprises have transitioned from traditional turf gangs, to market-oriented drug gangs, to a new third generation that combines political and mercenary aims.

As gangs transverse this generational shift, their progress can be charted by the interaction of three factors: politicization, internationalization, and sophistication. The resulting ‘third generation’ gang possesses many of the organizational and operational attributes found with net-based triads, cartels and terrorist entities.

The progress of gangs along this ‘generational” continuum is a consequence of technological and organizational changes that enhance the power of relatively small groups, where the information revolution enables small groups to exercise their reach. These actors can extend their influence in seconds across vast distances, enabling a shift from hierarchies to network forms of organization.

These three gang generations can be summarized as follows:

First Generation Gangs are traditional street (or prison) gangs with a turf orientation. Operating at the lower end of extreme societal violence, they have loose leadership and focus their attention on turf protection and gang loyalty within their immediate environs (often a few blocks or a neighborhood). When they engage in criminal enterprise, it is largely opportunistic and local in scope. These turf gangs are limited in political scope and sophistication.

Second Generation Gangs have a business focus. They are entrepreneurial and drug-centered. They protect their markets and use violence to control their competition. They have a broader, market-focused, sometimes overtly political agenda and operate in a broader spatial or geographic area. Their operations sometimes involve multi-state and even international areas. Their tendency for centralized leadership and sophisticated operations for market protection places them in the center of the range of politicization, internationalization and sophistication.

Third Generation Gangs have evolved political aims. These are the most complex gangs and they operate—or aspire to operate—at the global end of the spectrum, using their sophistication to garner power, aid financial acquisition and engage in mercenary-type activities. To date, most 3 GEN Gangs have been primarily mercenary in orientation; in some instances, however, they have sought to further their own political and social objectives.

The characteristics differentiating the three generations of street gangs are summarized in Table 1. A more detailed discussion of these three generations follows.

First Generation Gangs

Traditional street gangs are almost exclusively turf-oriented. They operate at the lower threshold of extreme societal violence, possess loose leadership and concentrate their attention on turf protection and gang loyalty within their immediate environs (often a few blocks, a cell-block, or a neighborhood). When they engage in criminal activity, it is largely opportunistic and individual in scope. Turf gangs are limited in political scope, and are unsophisticated in tactics, means, and outlook. When they engage in rivalry with competing gangs, it is localized. Despite their limited spatial influence, these gangs due to their informal network-like attributes can be viewed as proto-netwarriors. Local criminal organizations can evolve into armed bands of non-state soldiers should they gain in sophistication within failed communities with disintegrating social structure. While most gangs will stay firmly in the first generation, a few (e.g., some ‘Crip’ and ‘Blood’ sets and some Hispanic gangs) span both the first and second (nascent organized crime groups with a drug focus).

Second Generation Gangs

Second generation gangs are essentially criminal businesses. They are entrepreneurial in outlook and generally drug-centered. They use violence to protect their markets and limit or control their competition. They seek a broader, market-focused, occasionally overt political agenda and often operate in a broader spatial or geographic area. Their operations sometimes involve multi-state, cross-border, or international reach. They tend to embrace centralized leadership and conduct sophisticated operations for market protection. As such, they occupy the center of the range of politicization, internationalization and sophistication. Second generation gangs sometimes use violence as political interference to incapacitate enforcement efforts by police and security organs. Generally, this instrumental violence occurs in failed states, but clearly occurs when gangs dominate community life within ‘failed communities.’ Further evolution of these gangs is a danger when they link with and provide services to transnational criminal organizations or collaborate within narcotics trafficking and distribution networks and other criminal ventures. Because of their attributes, second generation gangs can be considered emerging netwarriors.

Third Generation Gangs

The overwhelming majority of street or prison gangs remain firmly in the first or second generations; however, a small number in the United States, Canada, Central and South America, as well as South Africa have acquired third generation characteristics. Third generation gangs have evolved political aims, operate or seek to operate at the global end of the spectrum, and employ their sophistication to acquire power, money, and engage in mercenary or political activities. To date, these gangs have been primarily mercenary in orientation; yet, in some cases they seek political and social objectives. Examples of third generation gangs can be seen in Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, Brazil, South Africa, and throughout Central America.

Chicago witnessed the first third generation incursion when in 1986 the ‘El Rukn’ gang sought to carry out terrorist attacks on behalf of Libya. The overt political dimension of the third generation also first emerged in Chicago, where gang ‘empowerment’ and political objectives manifest themselves in ‘21st Century Vote’ and ‘United Concerned Voters’ League,’ the political arms of the ‘Gangster Disciples’ and ‘Unknown Conservative Vice Lords’ respectively.

These gangs have evolved from turf-based entities, to drug-oriented enterprises operating in up to 35 states, to complex organizations controlling entire housing projects, schools and blocks, that conduct overt political activity while actively seeking to infiltrate and co-opt local police and contract security forces. South Africa also experiences third generation activity, with Cape area gangs—such as ‘Hard Livings’—engaged in both political action and a long-standing terrorist or quasi-terrorist near-war with the vigilante group Pagad (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs). These activities demonstrate the often-subtle interaction of gangs and politics. This shift from simple market protection to power acquisition is characteristic of third generation activity.

Internationalization is the final indicator of gang evolution. Gangs in Los Angeles and San Diego have been notable in this regard, with Los Angeles gangs having outposts in Tijuana, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Belize, and San Diego gangs linking with Baja cartels. The mercenary foray of San Diego’s ‘Calle Treinta’ (‘30th St.’/‘Logan Heights’) gang into the bi-national orbit of the Arellano-Felix (Tijuana) cartel is notable for assassinations, drive-by shootings and other enforcement slayings. Because of their attributes, third generation gangs can be considered netwarriors. Networked organizational forms are a key factor contributing to the rise of non-state or criminal soldiers.

Maras as Third Generation Gangs

Since the initial publications describing third generation gangs, both operational experience and the literature confirm continued trends in gang evolution and their potential (multi) national security implications.20 The case of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Eighteenth Street (Calle 18, Mara 18 or M-18) spreading from Los Angeles across North and Central America saliently illustrate the potential impact of third generation gangs with clicas (cliques or cells) of both gangs demonstrating elaborate, flexible, and redundant organization and leadership, functioning as networks with extensive transnational linkages.21 These maras have their own internal culture (symbols, tattoos, graffiti), recruit, perform internal logistics functions, conduct attacks, collect intelligence, perform information operations (websites), and arm their members with heavier small arms (AK-47s, M-16s, and grenades).22

Naval Postgraduate School analyst Bruneau, paraphrased below, describes five (multi) national security threats or challenges associated with transnational maras23 :

They strain government capacity by overwhelming police and legal systems through sheer audacity, violence, and numbers. For example in El Salvador, 49 percent of murders committed in January 2005 were attributed to gang violence.

They challenge the legitimacy of the state, particularly in regions where the culture of democracy is challenged by corruption and reinforced by the inability of political systems to function well enough to provide public goods and services.

They act as surrogate or alternate governments. For example in some regions (i.e., El Salvador and Guatemala) the “governments have all but given up in some areas of the capitals, and the maras extract taxes on individuals and businesses.”

They dominate the informal economic sector, establishing small businesses and using violence and coercion to unfairly compete with legitimate businesses while avoiding taxes and co-opting government regulators.

They infiltrate police and non-governmental organizations to further their goals and in doing so demonstrate latent political aims.

Journalist Ana Arana describes how MS-13 and M-18 morphed into substantial transnational security threats as a consequence of the cross-fertilization of criminal actors that results from internationalization. In her Foreign Affairs essay “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” she recounts a December 2004 action in Honduras:

“[A] bus driving through the northern city of Chamalecon in Honduras was stopped by gunmen. The assailants quickly surrounded the bus and opened fire with their AK-47s, killing 28 passengers. The attackers, police later revealed, had been members of the notorious street gang known as Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and had chosen their victims at random. The slaughter had nothing to do with the identities of the people onboard; it was meant as a protest and a warning against the government’s crackdown on gang activities in the country.”24

Ebner Anibal Rivera-Paz, the mastermind behind this symbolic attack, was arrested two months later in Falfurrias, Texas, demonstrating how these “[u]ltraviolent youth gangs, spawned in the ghettos of Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, have slowly migrated south to Central America, where they have transformed themselves into powerful cross-border crime networks.”25 Arana describes how the maras were dispersed from Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, after police determined that local gangs perpetrated much of the riot’s looting and violence.

When changes in US immigration law allowed felons (both non-citizens and naturalized citizens—who could be stripped of citizenship) to be repatriated to their countries of origin and expelled once they completed their prison terms, significant numbers of LA gang members were deported south. As a result, gangs now “battle each other and the police for control of working-class neighborhoods and even entire cities.”26 The depth of impact can be extrapolated from Arana’s finding that El Salvador with a population of 6.5 million now has at least 10,000 hard core gangsters with an additional 20,000 associates; while Honduras with a population of 6.8 million has an estimated gang population of 40,000. In addition, maras are said to effectively rule at least fifteen Salvadoran municipalities.27

In 2005, it was estimated that during the past 12 years, “U.S. immigration authorities have logged more than 50,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records to Central America.”28 Such deportations are credited with creating “an ‘unending chain’ of gang members moving between the U.S. and Central America.”29 The effect of this gang migration through deportation combines with recruitment to spread MS-13 “across El Salvador to places like San Miguel, an agricultural hub and the country’s third-largest city. The area has become a base of the gang’s strength and a pivot point in the group’s spread to the Washington [DC] area.”30

Migration is an intrinsic element of the mara story. Current estimates of MS-13 strength in the US range from 6,000-10,000 members operating in 43 states (up from 32 in 2003 and 15 in 1996).31 MS-13 and other maras “born in the United States now have 70,000 to 100,000 members in Central America, concentrated mostly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.”32 Reflecting this demographic, foreign-born MS-13 members in the US originate primarily from four countries: El Salvador (58%); Honduras (15%); Mexico (15%); and Guatemala (7%), with the remaining 5 percent hailing from other locations.33 Of the foreign-born MS-13 members, US immigration authorities (ICE) have arrested 2,000 members since 2005, and 13 percent of those arrested have been previously deported; in El Salvador police report that 90 percent of gang members deported there return to the US.34 As a consequence, the gang now controls much of the human trafficking that facilitates gang migration to the US. US cities with large numbers of foreign MS-13 members arrested include Washington, DC; Boston; Baltimore, MD; Long Island and New York City, NY; Newark, NJ; Miami; Atlanta; Dallas and Houston, TX; and Los Angeles and San Francisco, CA.35 Limiting the virulent evolution of transnational gangs may require a reassessment of deportation and repatriation strategies. At a minimum, police in the receiving jurisdiction must be advised of the pending arrival of a violent gangster to their area enabling them to track the individual gangster, the potential mutation of a local gang cell, and evolving network connections among gang nodes.

MS-13 and its rival M-18 embody the downward spiral of immigration, gang membership and deportation resulting in a state of unofficial war and reciprocal brutalization between gang members and the police that challenges cities from Texas to Tegucigalpa.36 Currently Salvadoran gangs with California ancestry have between 60,000 to 300,000 members spread across nine countries, turning their “neighborhoods and towns into urban guerilla strongholds.”37 These maras recruit from the slums of San Salvador, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, and elsewhere and have morphed into an “international network that extends from the tiny isthmus to the United States and Spain. They traffic in arms and smuggle drugs, control prostitution, and make millions by collecting protection money from truck-drivers, shopkeepers, and even private households in their barrios and shantytowns.”38

The attraction to gang life is a feature of slums and a lack of opportunity in the globalized economy. It is also amplified by the power of global networks and communications. “Street gangs create systems of social networks. These networks rely on crime to finance what is essentially a lifestyle that allows youths to survive in a world where there are limited opportunities, a lack of parental presence, and little hope for a chance at a better life.”39 This ‘need’ is found throughout the regions where the maras and their counterparts flourish. A consequence of this networked criminal social bonding is the spread of criminal norms and, increasingly, impunity and the ‘barbarization’ of criminal conflict.

MS-13, currently the most evolved 3 Gen actor, plays significant roles in smuggling drugs, contraband and people across Central America, Mexico, and the US having “set up shop in seven Mexican states, from Chiapas, in the south, all the way to Tamaulipas, on the U.S. border.”40 In addition, they have embarked upon a return to the US appearing in nontraditional metropolitan areas ranging from New York, Washington, DC, Charlotte, NC, Massachusetts, and several Canadian cities. This bi-directional flow and spread raises several interrelated issues.

Los Angeles has played—and continues to play—a key role in gang migration and evolution. Los Angeles (with approximately 714 gangs and 80,000 gang members) is a focal point in the development of the maras as transnational entities. Journalist Peter Landesman reports that “Federal, state and local law enforcement across the country [US] agree that street gangs connected to or mimicking the L.A. model have become a national epidemic.”41 This is particularly alarming when you consider that LA gangs have grown in scope, have links elsewhere and, most importantly, are colored by impunity. According to Landesman:

“There are six times as many gangs in L.A. as there were a quarter century ago, and twice as many gang members. But as important as the gang activity itself is what’s different about the violence. In America’s urban ganglands, and in L.A. in particular, the ferocity of the thuggery has surged; gang members, their victims and police long on the gang beat tell me the fighting has become more codeless, more arbitrary and more brutal than ever.”42

I believe this trend results not only from feelings of desolation and hopelessness within the communities dominated by gangs, but from the interaction among gang nodes (in prisons and on the street) across the network. Brutality begets brutality and successful impunity in one area of operations is likely to be mimicked elsewhere in the network.

Prisons: The Crucible for Gang Evolution

Prisons play a pivotal role in the evolution of gangs. Prison-gang interaction is key to solidifying gang culture, recruiting new members, and establishing a base of operations for indoctrination and communications. Prisons can become a key node in a gang’s internal network or as a key node in inter-gang connectivity. In El Salvador, a prison near San Miguel is such a node, where “some of the connections between the Salvadoran branches of the gang [MS-13] and their extensions in the U.S. flow through the Ciudad Barrios prison.”43 Close to 1,800 MS-13 gangsters are incarcerated in Salvadoran prisons, with 60% of such gang members deportees from the US. Salvadoran officials have isolated MS-13 members in order to avoid conflict with rival gangs, but this concentration “has created opportunities for deported Los Angeles leaders to turn the gang into a more potent organization.”44

MS-13’s name itself is demonstrative of the influence prisons and prison gangs have over the broader gang milieu. The number 13, which corresponds to the letter ‘m’ or ‘eme’ “is a nod to their allegiance to the Mexican Mafia, which maintains a dominant presence in southern California prisons, where gang rival lines are split between northern California gangs, known as Nordenos, and southern California gangs, known as Surdenos.”45 This connection with the prison-based Mexican Mafia, an umbrella for gang interaction, is an important element of gang evolution. “Such close ties to the Mexican mafia, particularly the Tijuana Cartel, helps explain how the MS-13 grew beyond the streets of Los Angeles into a loosely tied organization of members across the US.”46

Prisons serve as important sources of gang socialization into the criminal domain. In addition, they solidify group identity and identification of individuals with their gang and gang culture. Equally important, prisons serve as a ‘school house’ where gang members can refine their skills, meet new associates, and build their social network. Prisons can also provide a stable base of refuge from enforcement efforts and their rivals by leveraging the protection of corrupt or co-opted prison officials to shield and further their activities. From this ‘safe haven,’ gangs can extend their reach into the streets to orchestrate gang action beyond prison walls. Law enforcement officials in Los Angeles and El Salvador have observed telephonic interaction between prisoners and gang members in both jurisdictions. As detailed by Quirk, gang “Leadership has no boundaries: MS-13 members who are incarcerated after deportation have managed to turn Central American prisons into bases of power. Gang leaders in the Ciudad Barrios and Quetzaltepque prisons in El Salvador still influence gang activities in the U.S., green-lighting hits and other operations by cell phone.”47 It is reasonable to believe such transactions are reciprocal. Such interaction reinforces transnational bonds and potentially accelerates gang evolution across jurisdictions.

Gangs and Broader Conflict in Central America (and Elsewhere)

Transnational gangs (by definition, operating at the second or third generation) are potential challengers to state authority and the rule of law. As such, they are complex security and public safety threats. US Army War College analyst Max Manwaring highlights the gravity of gang challenges to the state:

“When linked with or working for transnational criminal organizations, insurgents, drug barons, or warlords, the gangs’ activities further reduce police and military authorities’ abilities to maintain stability and, in doing so, challenge the sovereignty within and between which they move.”48

Manwaring amplifies this observation by noting that “A government’s failure to extend a legitimate sovereign presence throughout its national territory leaves a vacuum in which gangs, drug cartels, leftist insurgents, the political and narco-right, and the government itself may all compete for power.”49

Gangs reign when instruments of social control are weak or nonexistent.

Historically, while transnational organized crime groups exploited the seams between states, they benefited from the existence of a stable state. Traditional criminal enterprises, including gangs, did not seek to challenge the state; rather they exploited corruption and political influence to further their activities. This appears to be changing as a new range of transnational gangsters exploit shadow economies, the absence of effective states, and endemic corruption.50 Louise Shelley observes that the “newer crime groups have no interest in a secure state.”51 They promote and exploit grievances at local levels and, through the globalization of conflict, maneuver to capture profit. These dynamics have particularly poignant results in ‘global cities’ and sub-national or cross-border enclaves or ‘lawless zones.’52

Lawless zones can be found in the barrios, favelas, ghettos and mega-slums of global cities; in rural enclaves or frontiers; as well as in urban villages (desakotas) where sprawl has blurred the distinction between urban and rural, center and periphery. Manwaring rightfully observes that these areas are not actually ‘lawless’ or ‘ungoverned’, but are de facto “governed by the gangs, warlords, drug barons, and/or insurgents who operate when there is an absence or only partial presence of state institutions.”53 Gangs in these areas fill the political void and seek to further their ends through violence:

“Crime and violence often blur when criminal enterprises seek to incapacitate enforcement efforts by the state, its police, and security forces. The use of violence as political interference has traditionally been a phenomenon of failed states, but a similar phenomenon occurs when street gangs exploit ‘failed Communities’ and dominate community life.”54

These contested areas range in scale from a few small blocks to large uncontrolled regions and failed states. Despite size, they are areas where state institutions such as the police and traditional government services hold minimal or no traction.

Conclusion: Addressing Transnational Maras

Street gangs, specifically ‘third generation gangs’ such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), originally from the MacArthur Park neighborhood in Los Angeles and which now operates throughout North and Central America, benefit from networked dynamics and city-to-city interconnectedness, exploiting new spatial and geographic relationships afforded by globalization. Once the province of inner-city ghettos, some gangs have evolved from a sole interest in turf or localized crime to gain in sophistication, political interest, and international reach. Exploiting seams in law enforcement and judicial structures, immigration (often by forced deportation), and technologies that foster communication, third generation gangs have also become de facto global criminals, threatening local stability and potentially fueling broader networked conflict.

As described here, gangs exploit the absence of legitimate structure of governance. Children and youths are often the direct victims of gang activity. This is true wherever gangs are found, but in terms of this article the impact on Latin America is particularly salient. In many cases gang members—especially mareros—are effectively “urban child soldiers,” a situation I discussed in an earlier Air & Space Power Journal article “Los Niños Soldados—Desesperación, Deshumanización y Conflictos.”55 These actors have been described as children in organized armed violence (COAV): “children and youth employed or otherwise participating in organized armed violence where there are elements of a command structure and power over territory, local population or resources. Organized armed groups include institutionalized street gangs, maras, and pandillas, drug factions, ethnic militias, vigilantes and even paramilitary groups acting in non-war scenarios.”56 As such, this level of ‘third generation gang’ violence amounts to a ‘criminal insurgency’ that challenges the legitimacy of state functions and the rule of law. Children largely wage these gang insurgencies.

Response to transnational gangs must build from effective policing practices for community interaction, investigation, intelligence and enforcement. This must start locally with an eye on global trends and links. At the local level, police must actively work with the community to protect against crime and victimization. At all levels the police must be visible, engaged community partners, actively building trust and not serving as instruments of repression and corruption.

Brevé asserts that a “national and regional interagency effort is needed to counter a threat of the maras’ magnitude and nature.”57 He observes that such cooperation involves both civil police and military cooperation as “the Armed Forces Confederation of Central America have developed plans to counter organized crime through joint efforts to prevent and counteract terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and related crimes.”58 The United States needs to play a central role in such regional, multilateral security cooperation. This is required at both diplomatic (state-to-state) and sub-national (city-to-city) levels and among professional organizations. Linking professional, accountable and democratic police and law enforcement agencies in a distributed networked fashion is also a requirement.

Because overseas criminal networks operate beyond the territorial jurisdiction of domestic law enforcement authorities, they can evade the normal countermeasures pursued in their home countries, further contributing to international insecurity. Law enforcement is constrained by a ‘world without borders,’ while international criminals operate in a ‘borderless’ world.59 Combating this threat requires more than law enforcement: “Achieving a reduction of gang crime requires a balanced and integrated approach that incorporates effective law enforcement with youth gang prevention and interventions that provide opportunities to leave gangs.”60

Anti-gang initiatives, like counterinsurgency measures must involve diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic (DIME) approaches, as well as policing (P), resulting in an approach that can be called DIME-P. Policing activities should include joint operations, disruption of criminal enterprises pursued by the gangs, and deft use of asset forfeiture and anti-money laundering laws. In some cases this will require the development of enhanced law enforcement and correctional (prison) capacity. Intelligence (both strategic national security intelligence and criminal intelligence) is an important element of multilateral anti-gang initiatives. The concept of jointly developing and analyzing intelligence—known as intelligence ‘co-production’—is an important tool for developing an appropriate understanding of the current and evolving transnational gangs threat. At its simplest level ‘co-production’ of intelligence involves analysts from multiple locations functioning as a sensing and assessment network to detect distributed threats.61

An example of a viable response to transnational gangs is seen in the partnership between US and Salvadoran law enforcement. In this case, the ‘Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG)’ initiative (Centro Antipandillas Transnacional) targets MS-13, by stationing two FBI agents permanently in San Salvador where they work directly alongside investigators and analysts from El Salvador’s Policia Nacional Civil to conduct joint investigations, share information and intelligence, and provide technical assistance.62 In addition to this task force, Salvadoran police have recently embarked upon personnel exchanges with both the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) to foster reciprocal learning and an exchange of effective skills and practices. Such cooperation forms the foundation for effective mitigation of transnational gang activity. The benefits of cooperation can be amplified by the development of on-going information-sharing and the ‘co-production’ of anti-gang intelligence,

Finally, stemming the transnational gang threat requires slowing the evolution of gangs across generations. Gangs and their evolution must be contained. Effective policing and community measures must be geared toward containing the spatial reach and sophistication of gangs. The evolution of first-generation turf gangs to second-generation market gangs, and market gangs to third-generation mercenary/political transnational actors, must be limited. And the ability of gangs (at all three generations) to gain transnational reach must be thwarted.

Characteristics of Street Gang Generations


 1. See John P. Sullivan, “Maras Morphing: Revisiting Third Generation Gangs,” Global Crime, Vol.7, No. 3–4, August– November 2006, pp. 487-504 for a detailed discussion of the current state of maras and third generation (3 GEN) gangs worldwide.

2. John P. Sullivan, “Gangs, Hooligans, and Anarchists—The Vanguard of Netwar,” in the Streets,” Chapter Four in John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (Eds.), Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001, p. 99-126 for a discussion of factors that influence the current shift in the nature of crime and conflict to favor gangs. A detailed discussion of the privatization of violence, and the roles gangs play in that respect is also found at John P. Sullivan, “Terrorism, Crime and Private Armies,” Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement, Vol. 11. No. 2/3. Winter 2002. pp. 239-253. See also Robert J. Bunker, ed., Networks, Terrorism and Global Insurgency, New York: Routledge, 2005. pp. 69-83.

3. See John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gang Studies: An Introduction,” Journal of Gang Research, Vol. 14, No. 4, Summer 2007, pp. 1-10 and Rober J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Subject Bibliography: Third Generation Gangs and Child Soldiers,” FBI Library Bibliographies, Quantico, VA: FBI Library, 7/2007 for a review of writings on third generation gangs.

4. United States Agency for International Development (USAID), “USAID Central America and Mexico Gang Assessment,” Washington, DC, April 2006, p. 5.

5. Ibid, p. 6.

6. Ibid, p. 6.

7. Ibid, p. 6.

8. Federico Brevé. “The Maras: A Menace to the Americas,” Military Review (English Edition), July-August 2007 at

9. Ibid.

10. Cindy Franco, “The MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats?” CRS Report for Congress, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service (RL34233), 02 November 2007, p. 2.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid, p. 3.

13. Ibid, p. 9.

14. Carola Mittrany, “Maras go South,” Comunidade Segura, 27 Februray 2008 found at

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. John P. Sullivan “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels and Netwarriors,” Crime & Justice International, Vol. 13, No. 9.2, October/November 1997.

18. John P. Sullivan, “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels and NetWarriors.” Transnational Organized Crime, Vol. 3. No. 2. Autumn 1997. pp. 95-108.

19. John P. Sullivan. “Urban Gangs Evolving as Criminal Netwar Actors,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 11. No. 1. Spring 2000. pp. 82-96.

20. Thomas C. Bruneau, “The Maras and National Security in Central America,” Strategic Insights, Vol. IV, Issue 5 (May 2005) found at

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 3, May/June 2005, p. 98.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid, p. 100.

27. Ibid.

28. Robert J. Lopez, Rich Connell and Chris Kraul, “MS-13: An International Franchise: Gang Uses Deportation to its Advantage to Flourish in U.S.,” Los Angeles Times, 30 October 2005 found at,0,6717943.story?coll=la-home-headlines.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid. Currently MS-13 membership is estimated at 5,000 in the greater Washington, DC area including Northern Virginia and Maryland. That is twice the estimated MS-13 membership in Los Angeles the gang’s origin. While LA-based MS-13 members established outposts in the National Capitol Region in the early 1990s many now trace their gang roots to Central America.

31. Matthew Quirk, “How to Grow a Gang,” The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 301, No. 4, May 2008, p. 24-25.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid. These figures are derived from reports from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests ranging from February 2005-September 20077 as reported by Quirk.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Sam Logan and Ben Bain, “Street gangs, a transnational security threat,” ISN Security Watch, 08 February 2006 found at

37. “MEDIAWATCH: El Salvador’s gangs,” AlertNet, Reuters Foundation, 18 September 2006.

38. Ibid.

39. Sam Logan and Ben Bain, “Recruitment, redemption in the MS-13,” ISN Security Watch, 14 February 2006 found at

40. Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” p. 103.

41. Peter Landesman, “L.A. Gangs: Nine Miles and Spreading,” LA Weekly, Wednesday, 12 December 2007 at la-gangs-nine-miles-and-spreading/17861/.

42. Ibid.

43. Robert J. Lopez, Rich Connell and Chris Kraul, “MS-13: An International Franchise: Gang Uses Deportation to its Advantage to Flourish in U.S.”

44. Ibid.

45. Sam Logan and Ben Bain, “Street gangs, a transnational security threat.”

46. Ibid.

47. Matthew Quirk, “How to Grow a Gang,” p. 25.

48. Max G. Manwaring, Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, March 2005, p. 11.

49. Max G. Manwaring, A Contemporary Challenge to State Sovereignty: Gangs and Other Illicit Transnational Criminal Organizations in Central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, and Brazil, Carlise, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, December 2007, p. 9.

50. Louise Shelley, “The Unholy Trinity: Transnational Crime, Corruption, and Terrorism,” Brown Journal of World Affairs, Winter/Spring 2005, Vol. XI, Issue 2, p. 102.

51. Ibid.

52. See John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Drugs Cartels, Street Gangs, and Warlords,” in Robert J. Bunker (Ed.), Non-State Threat and Future Wars, pp. 40-53 for a discussion of lawless zones, such as Ciudad del Este and the Tri-Border Region and their impact on the crime-terrorism nexus and state erosion.

53. Max G. Manwaring, A Contemporary Challenge to State Sovereignty, p. 9.

54. John P. Sullivan, “Gangs, Hooligans, and Anarchists—The Vanguard of Netwar in the Streets,” p. 108.

55. John P. Sullivan, “Los Niños Soldados—Desesperación, Deshumanización y Conflictos,” Air & Space Power Journal en Español, Vol. xx, N01, Primer Trimester 2008, pp. 44-57.

56. See Luke Dowdney, neither War nor Peace: international comparisons of children and youth in organised armed violence, COAV, Rio de Janeiro, 2005. Available at:

57. Federico Brevé. “The Maras: A Menace to the Americas.”

58. Ibid.

59. Rohan Gunaratna, “The Terror Market: Networks and Enforcement in the West,” Harvard International Review. Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter 2006, p. 69.

60. United States Department of State, “U.S. Strategy to Combat the Threat of Criminal Gangs from Central America and Mexico,” Washington: DC, 18 July 2007 at http://www.state,gov/p/wha/ris/89887.htm.

61. See John P. Sullivan, “Terrorism Early Warning and Co-production of Counterterrorism Intelligence,” paper presented to Canadian Association for Intelligence and Security Studies, CASIS 20th Anniversary Conference, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 21 October 2005; available at

62. “Going Global on Gangs: New Partnership targets MS-13,” Press Release, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 10 October 2007. MS-13 is a transnational, third generation street gang that operates in 40 US states and 10 different nations across two continents.


John P. Sullivan is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, where he serves as Tactical Planning Lieutenant in the Emergency Operations Bureau. His research focus includes terrorism, emerging threats, conflict, and intelligence studies.  He holds a B.A. in government from the College of William and Mary, and an M.A. in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research.  He is co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network  (Routledge, 2006) and a member of the California Gang Investigators Association.


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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