Investigation of youth gangs in central America

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Youth gangs have existed in Central America since 1960's, though their emergence as a threat to the security was evidence in mid-1990. It is essential to note that, the existence of these gangs can be traced back as far as the 1780's. The gangs were based on ethnic groups such as the Irish, Italians, Jewish and the Slavic. These gangs established themselves as they migrated from the United States and other countries. Some of the gangs present in major cities in Central America are; the Blackstone Rangers, the Vice Lords, Skinheads, and the Crisps. The youth gangs emerged in El Salvador in the 1980's with two dominant groups being the Mara Salvatrucha also referred to as the MS-13, and the Barrio Dieciocho also called 18th street gang. There were three circumstances that perpetrated evolution of these gangs.

First, it was enhanced by the United States immigration policy that created a population of criminals who had been repatriated without any idea or support to know their homes. This resulted in many of the criminals inhabiting Central America. Second the severe and prolonged civil wars in the area commenced the violence attitude within the society. This also increased availability of weapons to the people. Finally, drug trade that has been transnational in the area and supported by other illegal activities have provided finances to these organizations. The most affected area was the Northern triangle of Central America in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These gangs originally formed to protect their well being and that of their neighbors. Evolution of these gangs led into a transformation from a protective institution into smuggling of drugs and violence. At present there exists an intensive race war between Black and Hispanic gangs. In this quest for power and control the race wars have now extended beyond conflict among gang members into killing innocent children and adults.

Background and Facts

In order to have a better understanding of the evolutionary process in the gangs, it is paramount to differentiate between a gang and a criminal group which are wrongly perceived to be similar. A gang is a group of young men with similar interest and identity. It differs with criminal organization in there structure. Gangs do not have hierarchy hence do not have a specific central leader to develop strategies nor discipline to head and pioneer criminal syndicates. The two main rivalry groups, the MS-13 and the 18th street gang started fighting regularly affecting the security of the neighborhood and killing innocent people (Seelke 4). This prompted the government to impose the repatriation policy in which repatriated criminals were to be deported back to their home towns and countries.

From 1998 to 2005 many convicted people of foreign citizenship were deported back to their countries of birth. At that time the new immigration rules prevented the U.S officials and security agencies from disclosing the criminal records of those being deported to officials of their countries of origin. Consequently, the Central American government did not know the characters of the individual who they received hence there were no proper programs put in place to integrate them. These groups of incoming deportees created a state of violent entity that complicated the already complex and fragile security situation. These deportations further supported the Maras to franchise and create networks of many gangs. At present the strong establishment of immigration routes has enhanced these links. However it is not yet evident if those links have concreted distinct structural institutions.

The magnitude and complexity of this current situation is alarming and enormous. It has become difficult to distinguish the level of violence experienced in Central America at present. The region is facing the highest rates of homicides in the entire world. This situation is more concentrated in the Northern triangle of Central America. This does not come as a surprise as this part received more than 90 percent of the deportees from the U.S. Maras have further exacerbated the drug problem in central America by introducing drug use to the larger society. Drugs have taken root due to its geographical location between the U.S and South America resulting into the area being an important smuggling route (Estrada 48). To conceptualize the root causes of the violence there must be intensive exploitation of the conditions contributing and influencing this radicalization.

In 1992 the peace accord to end the brutal twelve year civil war was implemented. Nevertheless, the accord contained many flaws; the most devastating is the fact that it did not address the social and economical circumstances that caused the civil war. The implementation of the accord was taking a slow course and far behind schedule. In the military reforms the guerilla did not turn over all their weapons as expected by the Central American government. Military restructuring still did not follow the minor details of the accord with limited changes being made to judicial system and police reforms. All these aspects inflated criminal and delinquent behavior and enhanced difficulties in the democratic, economical and social stability. Young men formed organizations as a way to establish proper order and implementation of the failed government policies. These Padilla's were numerous, more violent and institutionalized to a great complexity than the street gangs present during the civil war. This in turn has driven transmission into future generation that is now uncontrollable.

Slums and some sections of the city of Los Angeles had adopted the character of this forbidden gangs finally becoming crime zones. It is further alarming that 15 municipalities are believed to be under the control of Maras. Manipulation of the physical construction of space by the gangs impacts negatively to citizens filling them with fear. The fear and violence has been responded to by the elite through creating protective walls and controlling transportation network to counter the links between these gangs. Consequently this resulted into fragmentation of public infrastructure, causing a clear break down of social cohesion, spatial segregation and discrimination relating to social ethics. Rapidly, violence became a significant and ingrained part of the culture and security state in Central America (Newton 89).

The current drug syndicate and violence in Central America has called for immediate response in diverse ways. In sorting for solutions it is considerable to note that US deportation policies contributed immensely to the evolution and growth of youth violence gangs in Central America. There transformation into a ferocious state has been influenced by the contact with US gang culture resulting into an enormous security threat to the society. A number of structural problems have been outlined to hinder countering of these gangs. These include high poverty levels and weak security institutions and agencies. Then government hastily stepped in with the Manor Dura policies in which force, restrain and suppression were to be used to conquer these gangs. This impacted negatively to human rights policies, respect for rule of law that was being violated, and police reforms.

The suppression policy undermined progress made in establishing police force having respect for human rights as its basis. It blurred the line between police force and military that combined to carry out patrols. This policy allowed police to arrest suspects without any credible evidence leading to harassment of some innocent civilians that were mistakenly purported to be members of the gang. An environment of extrajudicial actions against suspected gangs was being tolerated making these gangs be more radical.

It is high time that the government tackled this menace through using better measure. Such measures are like gathering intelligence with investigations to distinguish gang leaders from members, and youth gangs from organized crime to ensure the right individuals and suspects are arrested. Social origin of the gangs should be understood clearly and undertake community training in orienting policies and respect for innocence and legal processes. The Central American government has the obligation to investigate extrajudicial killings and harassment and make it clear that they are not acceptable (Reid and Jolyon 47). Moving from suppression of youth gangs into comprehensive policies against youth violation, will help in protecting the human rights policy hence encourage citizens to work in hand with the police to scrap off this gangs.

Other alternative programs have to be effected. Such a program is the Mano Amiga or friendly hand and Mano Extendida or extended hand (Rabasa 116). This is where force is not used but consultations and investigations. More non aggressive methods include strengthening of domestic institutions, improving the education sector and reduction of poverty. All these measures are going to influence the society to adopt intelligent methods to counteract the youth gangs. Moreover, young people will be involved in the quest to achieve credible education and elude affiliations with these gangs. Most of the youths are involved with these groups due to lack of employment. The government should take action to provide employment opportunities that will give the youth useful things to do in the community and enhance social mobility.

Spatial environmental control and restrictions in Central America have also been established as the framework to reduce urban violence. Integrating ideal policies like the environmental design have reduced opportunities of crimes. This has been accomplished through infrastructure upgrading and environmental renewal, deterring youth from access to the gangs. Social cohesion has become effective in addressing space socialization of violence. In this context it is argued that space within cities perpetuate disorder and fear, communicating a lack of authority and investment in the community. Escalation in the crime levels has invited impunity to be practiced without fear or caution as a result of the ineffectiveness in addressing these criminal gangs.


It is now evident that gang violence in Central America has been elevated into a complex issue in great levels and diversity. A wholesome strategy addressing the causes of this problem has to be initiated. The concept of socialization spaces needs to be understood and strategic development established to claim these places. This will not only aid in reduction of violence but also reinforce social cohesion. The Central American government has to avoid hard line approaches but swift and cohesive mechanisms that will address the gang issue and the involved drug cartels.