Friday, August 26, 2005

Central America's Street Gangs Are Drawn into the World of Geopolitics

Drafted By: Adam Wolfe

Over the course of the past year, the Bush administration has begun to shift its focus in Latin America away from asymmetrical threats, such as terrorism, and toward the more traditional power politics of the region: containing the left-leaning governments bent on curtailing Washington's influence in the region. Threats previously espoused by the administration -- Hezbollah's presence in the tri-border region and in Chile, Venezuela's Margarita Island serving as a terrorist resort and Islamic groups working with the drug traffickers in the region -- have all seemingly been knocked down in their threat level in public declarations. However, in Central America, Washington is getting serious about a problem it helped to create -- and not simply because the region's street gangs and vast criminal networks are making their presence known in the United States.

While media reports, often fueled by some in the Bush administration, have focused on the possibility of al-Qaeda tapping into the criminal networks controlled by the gangs, this threat seems overstated for the time being. However, the street gangs represent an opportunity Washington is likely to exploit in the region. Even as Washington adopts a traditional power politics stance in Latin America, it can be expected that it will use Central America's gang problem to deepen its influence in the region through joint initiatives and training programs, in part designed to block Venezuela's attempts to put a rift between the region and Washington.

A U.S. Export: L.A.'s Gangs in Central America

Central America's gang problem largely can be traced back to policy decisions made in the United States in the mid-1990s. There was a shift in the mid-1990s at the local and federal level toward deporting immigrants who had committed crimes or had a criminal record in the United States. While this helped continue the trend toward decreased street violence in U.S. cities, it left Central America vulnerable to a new community with few ties to the region but bound together by their gang affiliations.

A 1996 change to U.S. immigration law declared that non-citizens, and in some cases foreign-born citizens, sentenced to one or more years in prison could be repatriated to their country of origin. The immigration rules also barred U.S. officials from disclosing the deportees' criminal background in many cases. In 1996, around 38,000 people were deported on these grounds, and by 2003 the number reached nearly 80,000. However, the U.S. does not track the number of deportees suspected of having gang affiliations.

This new initiative was most pronounced in Los Angeles County, where the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) were active. After gang members were arrested, their time in the U.S. penitentiary system served as a "finishing school" for criminal activity. Then they were deported to their countries of origin with little or no warning about their backgrounds for the governments on the receiving end of the arrangement.

Once the gangs arrived in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and Mexico, they quickly put the lessons learned in prison to work. The numbers are difficult to pin down, but estimates put the number of active gang members in Central America and Mexico at over 100,000. In El Salvador (population 6.7 million) there are more than10,000 core gang members, and 15 municipalities have been, or are, controlled by gangs.

In Honduras (population 6.9 million) the number of gang members may be over 40,000 and the murder rate is 154 per 100,000 (compared to 70 per 100,000 in Colombia, which is still dealing with a civil war). MS-13 and Mara 18 (M-18, formed by members of Los Angeles' 18th Street Gang) overwhelmed the local governments who were often unaware of the problem that they had been handed.

MS-13 and M-18 are often involved in turf battles that dislodge local populations and have overwhelmed the states' ability to contain the problem. In November 2002, Guatemala's Anti-Narcotics Operations Department was dismantled after it was discovered that 320 officers were on the gangs' payrolls. The "get tough" approach and "zero tolerance" laws adopted by Honduras starting in 2001 led to overcapacities in prisons and frequent prison riots. This also encouraged the gangs to respond with random acts of violence as a means of protest. The recent prison riots in Guatemala that left some 31 dead demonstrate that the region's governments have yet to hit upon a better method to contain the problem.

MS-13 and M-18 expanded their operations into Mexico and then the U.S, where they have set up lucrative operations smuggling people and drugs across the border. Police in northern Virginia have estimated that there are 2,500 gang members, largely MS-13, in the greater-Washington region, which has the second-largest Salvadoran population after Los Angeles. Washington's initial response was largely incoherent because of a lack clarity of which departments within the newly created Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department would lead the operations designed to prevent the gang infiltration.

In January 2005, an F.B.I. task force was created to deal with MS-13 and Washington announced it would begin to inform Central American states about the criminal records of more deportees. While many local police departments have worked in cooperation with their counterparts in Central America, this move marked a shift toward greater cooperation at the federal level. This shift did not come about simply because of the MS-13 and M-18 operations within and on the border of the U.S.; instead, geopolitical realities helped guide Washington's hand.

The Greater Turf War in Central America

The U.S.' signing of C.A.F.T.A. may have helped to solidify El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua's ties to Washington (as well as Panama as an associate), but the pending agreement remains controversial at best in the region. In order to deflect some of this criticism, the C.A.F.T.A. states may be tempted to align themselves closer to Venezuela and Cuba, the countries at the helm of the growing discontent with Washington in Latin America. Caracas and Havana are making great strides to ensure that there will be no shortage of opportunities for the Central American governments to embrace.

The high price of oil on the global market has allowed Venezuela to move beyond the San Jose Agreement, originally signed in 1980, in which Venezuela and Mexico provide discounted oil to Central American and Caribbean states, in its use of petroleum as a diplomatic tool. Caracas demonstrated the value of this diplomatic chip at the recent Association of Caribbean States meeting, where the C.A.F.T.A. states stood alone in their defense of Washington's policies in the region. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Caribbean Spheres of Influence"]

In another diplomatic move aimed at securing support from the Central American governments, on August 22 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro handed out diplomas to the first graduating class of the Latin American Medical School funded by Cuba, which Chavez has said he would replicate in his country. Several hundred of the new doctors will return to their Central American homelands to practice medicine. Central American governments are also looking at importing Cuba's education policies, an initiative that resonates with the public in ways that a free-trade agreement simply cannot. [See: "Venezuela's Hugo Chavez Makes His Bid for a Bolivarian Revolution"]

Where Caracas and Havana are making inroads in Central America, Washington will move to suture any loss of support by funding popular initiatives designed to strengthen the friendly governments there. One such initiative is likely to be cooperation in tackling the region's burgeoning gang problem.

In a June meeting of the region's presidents in Honduras, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger proposed that a regional, "rapid response" force be created to take on the gang problem in Central America. The leaders have embraced the idea of forming a multilateral force to take on the street gangs, but they are of the shared opinion that it could not function without Washington's involvement.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fisk, at a press conference following the talks in Honduras, said, "We want to strengthen defense mechanisms, especially in terms of gangs." However, Washington was slow to involve itself directly in the "rapid response" force, in order to avoid being perceived as funding a military force designed to subdue the Central American population. Still, similar initiatives are likely to be adopted. For example, the U.S. plans to fund a law enforcement academy in El Salvador to train officials from across the region in anti-gang techniques. The weak judicial systems and police forces in Central America are likely to be reinforced by Washington, in exchange for cooperation on intelligence about the gangs' activities.

The F.B.I. task force created to deal with MS-13 in early 2005 indicates that Washington will focus on law enforcement in its handling of the region's gang problem, while giving less priority to the social factors that have allowed the gangs to proliferate. The weakness of this approach is that it fails to address the environment that fosters the gang problem. For example, a recent study by the International Organization for Migration claims only five percent of youth gang members in Honduras are linked to organized crime. A comprehensive approach would provide incentives to discourage those youths who identify with the gangs from becoming active members in their criminal networks. However, Washington has not publicly addressed any programs aimed at curbing the gang problem through social initiatives.


The incentives for Washington to initiate an anti-gang program in Central America are clear; however, this has been the case for several years now. One of the main reasons that Washington is beginning to give the problem a greater priority is to prevent Venezuela and Cuba from making inroads into its "near abroad." This approach may help to strengthen the Washington-friendly governments in Central America, and, unlike free trade agreements, the benefits of such an initiative will be tangible to the local populations. Should Washington take the lead in fighting Central America's gang problem and fail, it will allow Venezuela and Cuba to gain influence in the region. However, declining to take the lead may only hasten such a power shift.



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