US gang policy, perpetuating international crime?

A member of Mara Salvatrucha. Source: markarinafotos, Flickr CC

Mara Salvatrucha is one of the largest Hispanic street gangs in the United States and has been dubbed the world’s most dangerous gang by the media. It is one of few truly international gangs, whose members are notorious for their brutal violence and their signature tattoos, which often cover their faces. Authorities consider the gang to be highly dangerous, especially because of its international presence. But how did this street gang from Los Angeles become an international crime organization in the first place? Ironically it seems like it might be the United States justice system itself that is to blame.

Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is a huge crime organization. Their numbers are unclear but it was estimated in 2009 that around 10 000 members exist in several states across the USA and that the gang has an international membership of close to 50 000. Its origins are clouded in mystery. Some say it started simply as some kids hanging out on the streets of Los Angeles, but many agree that the gang was most likely born out of the violence that engulfed El Salvador during its civil war in the 1980s. It was a bloody conflict that the USA helped finance in order to defeat the leftist guerilla, FMLN. The conflict resulted in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country and seeking refuge in the USA, among them thousands of ex-soldiers. The majority of these individuals arrived in California as illegal immigrants. There a new struggle replaced the battlegrounds of the civil war. In Los Angeles where most of the refugees settled, Mexican and Afro-American gangs had well established turfs and they did not like the new arrivals. To protect themselves, the young men, fresh from the civil war fighting, created Mara Salvatrucha.

When the civil war in El Salvador ended in 1992, many refugees returned home voluntarily, but around the same time the American authorities also started a large-scale deportation program of criminals. The U.S. Immigration and Neutralization Service (INS) formed The Violent Gang Task Force that focused on street gangs and MS-13 in particular. INS Chief Special Agent Michael Flynn made this statement at the time: “We are focusing on [MS-13] in particular because it is one of the most substantial and violent gangs in Southern California.” The task force was assigned to investigate and deport illegal immigrants who were gang members, but also individuals with legal right to stay but who had committed crimes. During the 90s the number of deportees steadily increased and a new law in 1996 even enabled the authorities to strip foreign born people of their citizenship and deport them. Over time more and more crimes lead to deportation, such as drunk driving and petty theft. Between 2000 and 2004 it is estimated that 20,000 criminals were deported to Central America, often without ever having been there before.

These deportations enabled the gang to grow strong in countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Together with another street gang, Barrio 18, Mara Salvatrucha is seen as responsible for a significant part of the crime statistics in these countries. Besides local criminal actives they also work on an international scale with drugs, trafficking, kidnapping, protection rackets and much more. For years the two gangs fought a war between themselves, resulting in hundreds of deaths on each side and deaths of innocent people. These countries have some of the highest homicide rates in the world; in 2012 Honduras topped the UN list at 90.4 homicides per 100 000 inhabitants. El Salvador and Guatemala came 4th and 5th respectively with rates around 40. In comparison USA had a rate of 4.8 per 100 000 and Sweden 0.7.

The violence in these countries is continuously spilling over into the United States. The deportees regularly return to the States and then sent back again, creating a merry go round scenario where some gang members have been deported several times over.  Attempts in the countries to stifle the violence with prison sentences have proven to be largely ineffective. For years the gang has been largely run from inside the prisons where many of the bosses live, for many gang members going to prison is almost equal to going to graduate school.

Despite all the efforts to stop the gang in the USA and Central America, they hardly seem to diminish in strength. According to the FBI, the gang has been trying to organize its different local groups in America under a cohesive leadership structure. In a press release concerning the arrest of several members the FBI stated that: “the defendants wanted to use this new formalized structure to open new drug distribution channels facilitated by cartel alliances and bloodshed”  The international presence of Mara Salvatrucha makes them hard to combat and while the United States actions are not the sole reason for their success they have arguably been a great facilitator for the gangs rapid expansion.

Lotta Herz

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