MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.

El Salvador: The Maras, Community Action, and Social Exclusion

By Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Maras and gangs in El Salvador have become social actors with great power in communities suffering from a high level of social exclusion. They have been linked to violence and organized crime, and they have been blamed for the highest number of homicides, organized criminal actions, and the generalized insecurity in which the country lives. They have brought a sense of isolation to the communities in which they live, as well as a reputation that increases the communities’ exclusion. According to a study being conducted in crime-ridden communities of Santa Tecla (near San Salvador) and Sonsonate (64 km. west of the capital), the maras’ power derives from their ability to cause fear and terror among inhabitants as a result of their effective and organized criminal actions. Their influence has a strong psychological impact and broad influence over people’s lives. The criminal activities of the gangs in the community are generally rejected by inhabitants because they put families at risk, make neighborhoods the target of police operations, and taint both the community and its residents socially – making it hard for people to get or keep jobs.

Nonetheless, many citizens in these communities have a positive assessment of the maras when it comes to providing important neighborhood security, due to a lack of national or local authority. In Santa Tecla and Sonsonate, the Salvadoran government, the municipality, international organizations, and other institutions have invested heavily in programs to stem the tide of mara violence, with mixed results. These communities suffer from low levels of employment, education, and social security, particularly among women. Afraid of retribution, citizens in these communities do not turn to state institutions to report crimes or to request protection, and they instead approach the maras to take actions regarding conflicts with neighbors and situations related to domestic violence. The void in institutional services, which has been permanent in some communities, is being filled by the maras and their members, making them the primary support for the local Asociaciones de Desarrollo and implementers of development plans.

Changes in the community philosophy of the National Civilian Police (PNC) in one of the communities of the study offers a useful example of how new approaches can help improve citizens’ lives. The PNC’s new approach to the community and its underlying social and security problems has also led to the evolution of the maras’ role as community actors and their legitimacy in the people’s eyes, primarily based on the fear they instill. This has benefited some communities.  Likewise, international cooperation – which has played an essential role – and the recent implementation of community policing practices as a model within the national security strategy to reduce gang criminality have driven debate on how communities can confront violence and crime in a sustained manner. The problems are far from resolved, but the gangs, the police, and the state each appear to be redefining strategies and roles. It remains to be seen whether these actions are sustainable and applicable in other territories – and whether the maras’ involvement in development programs can help create conditions for citizens to cope with the violence and social exclusion that plague their communities.

* Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya are researchers at FLACSO-El Salvador.  Their study is funded by the International Development Research Centre.

Children and Migrant Teens: Trapped with No Way Out

By Ursula Roldán Andrade*

Alaks / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Alaks / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The 56,000 Central American children involved in the humanitarian crisis along the Mexico-United States border are trying to reach the United States not only to reunite with their families.  They are also driven by poverty, social exclusion and violence in their home countries of northern Central America.  The response of U.S. and Central American authorities, however, seems to be only to strengthen the barriers to migration – not only along the Mexico-United States border but also between Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  The United States has emphasized immediate deportation, and its request for funding includes an increase in the number of courts to expedite deportations and in enhanced border security with military and police forces.  The Obama Administration also seeks resources to address the consequences of emigration in Central America, where the governments have done little more than begin criminal prosecutions against the “coyote” network.  In Guatemala there are rumors that parents responsible for migrating children could face criminal charges.  Caring for would-be migrants is a much lower priority; there are only two shelters, of a capacity of less than 80 children, in charge of the Social Work Program of the Office of the First Lady of Guatemala (SOSEP), which has also proposed the improvement of child reception conditions.

A mass media campaign in Guatemala promotes the idea of children staying to fulfill the “Guatemalan Dream” rather than risk their lives attempting to live the “American Dream.”  Yet, the “Guatemalan Dream” that authorities are referring to is lacking.  The Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of the Catholic Church of Guatemala (ODHAG), which has tracked human rights for children in the nation for the past 15 years, reported in 2011 that simply being alive in Guatemala means surviving health risks, food insecurity, and violence.  The report’s most revealing data show that over 48 percent of Guatemalan children suffer from chronic malnutrition.  According to ODHAG, 51 percent of the deaths of minors in 2011 were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17.  The report called on the state to take preemptive measures to protect children and adolescents from malnutrition, hunger, violence, abuse, and human trafficking networks, but the government still spends only 3.1 percent of GDP on this population, whereas other Central American countries invest 6 percent.

Central American children are caught in the crossfire of political discourse in the United States – a migrant population that either gains protection or is cast aside, sometimes with xenophobic or even racist overtones.  Partisan politics, interest in cheap labor, and other factors short-circuit debate, creating conditions for exploitation of migrants without recognition of their citizenship, families, or rights.  The Guatemalan government neglects its vulnerable population, is rife with political corruption, and is cursed with the narrow-mindedness of its economic elite, which does not, in the least, attempt to change the structural conditions that exclude and eventually expel their countrymen.  Solutions to the resulting humanitarian crisis will remain elusive as long as Central American governments do not guarantee fundamental rights and undertake policies aimed at the defending the higher interests of children and adolescents. 

* Dr. Roldán Andrade specializes on migration issues at the Center for Research and Policy Management (INGEP) at the Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala.

Drug Dealing in Costa Rica: A Perverse Path toward Social Inclusion

By Rodolfo Calderón Umaña*

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Central America’s emergence as a principal transit route for illicit drugs from South America to the U.S. has given rise to local retail markets supplying users within the region.  A study of three Costa Rican communities – one in greater San José and two along the Caribbean coast – highlights several factors that determine the scale and consequences of these local markets.  Among the most important are the high levels of social exclusion experienced by households in these localities and residents’ motivation to become involved in the business because it offers resources (money, power and prestige) that cannot be achieved through the legitimate channels of education or quality employment.  Other factors include the proximity of the communities to drug trafficking routes and the extent of previously existing demand from local consumers.

One of the most significant characteristics of local drug markets in these communities, as elsewhere, is that they are socially and territorially bounded because trust is the key factor shaping relationships between suppliers, sellers and consumers.  Some local suppliers maintain direct ties to cartels, but they operate their businesses independently.  Youth are assigned the most vulnerable tasks and are thus disproportionately represented among those arrested and convicted of crimes.  Violence serves as the principal instrument for controlling and regulating the drug trade, and the result is that for youth in these settings violence becomes normalized as a routine form of behavior.  This spawns a generalized climate of fear and insecurity, and the typical response of community residents is to retreat from public space and to isolate themselves inside their homes.

These findings support calls for new responses to the drug trade at the community level.  Central American governments, encouraged to a significant degree by U.S. programs, have tended to emphasize repressing and “combatting” the scourge of drug trafficking, yet where this approach has been implemented – particularly in Central America’s Northern Triangle — social problems have only gotten worse.  In Costa Rica, it’s not too late to undertake a comprehensive strategic review of policies in this domain and to bolster programs to stabilize affected areas.  Particularly if designed and implemented from the bottom up, programs can identify and reach out to vulnerable residents before they are drawn into drug micro-markets as vendors, consumers, or both.  Vocational training programs matched to real employment opportunities are absolutely fundamental – to reduce residents’ social exclusion.  Our research findings indicate that enhancement of public spaces where community residents can congregate and initiatives focused on building trust between communities at risk and representatives of the state can also be highly productive.  Costa Rica is at a critical juncture: it can either sustain and expand the participatory policy frameworks that buttress community cohesion and resilience or run the risk of falling into the devastating spiral of delinquency and violence that has plagued its neighbors in the Northern Triangle.

*Dr. Calderón Umaña is a researcher at FLACSO-Costa Rica.  The study is being conducted by FLACSO-Costa Rica with funding from the International Development Research Centre.

The “Informal City” and Latin America’s Urban Future

By Robert Albro

Embed from Getty Images

Latin American cities are powerful engines for growth, but sustaining that progress will require moving workers from the informal into the formal sector.  Latin America is the most urbanized continent in the world, and its cities are now the region’s main economic engine.  Its ten largest cities account for about half of the region’s economic output, and their share of economic activity is projected to increase by 2025.  They are also increasingly aspiring to insertion in the global economy. And mayors often assume a CEO-like autonomy in attracting international capital, business, and talent to their cities, while pursuing policies designed to enhance their municipal standing as critical global nodes, hubs or platforms of innovation, manufacturing and services.  Strategies include international city-to-city cooperation, corporate and multinational partnerships to fund infrastructure, global policy forums for mayors to share best practices regarding sustainability or climate change, and new urban planning intended to increase connectedness to global information flows.  Citi and the Wall Street Journal in 2013 judged Medellín, Colombia, the “most innovative city” in the world.  San José, Costa Rica, has become a telemarketing outsourcing center, in large part because of its well-prepared workforce.  And cities like Monterrey, Mexico, and Curitiba, Brazil, are emerging tech hubs.

Over the last several decades, however, rapid urban growth in Latin America has also greatly expanded the urban informal sector.  With sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America has the largest informal sector in the world.  Of all workers in greater Bogotá, for example, 59 percent operate in the informal economy.  Low levels of technology, finance and job skills conspire to limit productivity and to distance Latin America from the frontiers of the global economy.  Along with low earnings and the lack of social benefits or income security, a large informal labor sector generates inadequate tax revenue for municipalities and chronic underinvestment and neglect of urban infrastructure.  Pervasive informality also contributes to social exclusion.  More than 80 percent of the top 50 most violent cities in the world are in Latin America, and this violence is concentrated along rapidly expanding urban margins.  In the absence of resources from municipal authorities, marginal urban dwellers turn to illicit actors and activities for unregulated or pirated services and protection.  Potentially competitive enterprises are hesitant to establish a presence in cities where property ownership is contested or where government voids leave land, money, governance and other resources, vulnerable to criminal capture.

Latin America’s cities aspire to effective insertion into the global economy while also struggling with very local and hard-to-change challenges of informality and unregulated urban growth.  Labor flexibilization and privatization, hallmarks of 1990s-era neoliberal policies, at once promote the growth of the informal economy and complicate urban planning intended to facilitate the development of assets necessary for global competitiveness.  Urban planners mistakenly continue to treat participants in the informal economy as a transient reserve army of labor composed of rural in-migrants not yet absorbed into the industrial sector.  Yet if cities want to develop their niche in the global economy, policy makers will also have to attend to the connections between urban informality and social exclusion. Large-scale and violent protests, such as last year’s flash mob protests in shopping malls by working-class Brazilian youth, are demanding their “right to the city.” The economic future and competitiveness of Latin America’s cities significantly depends upon their capacity to address the second-class citizenship of their informal workforce. Overcoming social exclusion is a first step to competing effectively in a global economy characterized by increasingly stiff competition among cities.

Social Exclusion and Societal Violence: The Household Dimension

By Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz*

A street in Pacuare, Costa Rica—one of the FLACSO project's research sites  Photo credit: d.kele | Foter | CC BY-NC-SA

A street in Pacuare, Costa Rica—one of the FLACSO project’s research sites
Photo credit: d.kele | Foter | CC BY-NC-SA

Ongoing research in Central America increasingly points to citizens’ exclusion from basic markets, especially the workforce that receives certain social guarantees, as the cause of societal violence in the region.  Their lack of access to the labor, capital, land and other markets, in which almost all income is generated, leads to an extreme disempowerment – a primary exclusion – that reverberates through citizens’ lives.  Analysts of Latin American societies often focus on poverty and income inequality as important elements in violence, but a study by FLACSO-Costa Rica and FLACSO-El Salvador indicates that social exclusion is the underlying cause of these problems and, therefore, is the more reliable indicator of a country’s vulnerability to societal violence.  The processes of social exclusion may be responsible for the epidemic of violence that plagues urban spaces across the isthmus and elsewhere in Latin America.

In Central America, labor markets are increasingly important drivers of primary exclusion.  These are societies riven by endemic unemployment and generalized job precariousness, and much of the population is relegated to the kinds of self-employment that offer no prospects of ever moving beyond satisfying the survival imperatives of households.  Numerous South American governments in recent years have helped neutralize citizens’ exclusion through carefully designed social programs, but when the state lacks the capacity or will to supply access to such “citizenship,” as has been the case in much of Central America, exclusion only deepens.  A least two basic narratives establish clear linkages between social exclusion and violence, especially among youth.

  • First, when the state abandons marginal urban territories, these fall under the control of youth gangs that establish themselves as new authorities and obtain a monopoly on the instruments of violence.
  • Second, precarious employment – the inability of citizens to generate incomes sufficient to satisfy minimal aspirations of consumption – leads to lifestyles in which the line between legal and illegal becomes murky.

FLACSO’s study of several urban communities in Costa Rica and El Salvador has identified a possible third link between social exclusion and violence – in the household.  The domestic sphere, typically glorified as the sole space of security amidst the external insecurity that these communities find in public spaces, can also become a source of exclusion-driven violence.  Male unemployment, especially that of heads of household, is expressed not only in violence among adults but also violence by adults against children.  That violence in turn is projected outward, toward other members of the community, as victims of violence within households become perpetrators of violence outside them.  The complex chain of different types of violence, beginning with the structural violence that society generates through social exclusion, passing through the household unit, and then rebounds outward toward the community.  If this is in fact what is occurring, it suggests that efforts to overcome primary exclusion are imperative to reduce all levels of violence.

*Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz is a senior researcher for the Latin American Social Science Faculty in San José (FLACSO-Costa Rica) and lead researcher in this project supported by the IDRC.  For a description of the project please click here.