CRS — Gangs in Central America

January 17, 2013

Gangs in Central America (PDF)

Source: Congressional Research Service (via U.S. State Department Foreign Press Center)

Congress has maintained an interest in the effects of gang violence in Central America, and on the expanding activities of transnational gangs with ties to that region operating in the United States. Since FY2008, Congress has appropriated significant amounts of funding for anti-gang efforts in Central America, as well as domestic anti-gang programs. Two recent developments may affect congressional interest in Central American gangs: a truce between rival gangs has dramatically lowered violence in El Salvador and the U.S. Treasury Department has designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a significant transnational criminal organization (TCO).

MS-13 and its main rival, the “18 th Street” gang (also known as M-18) continue to threaten citizen security and challenge government authority in Central America. Gang-related violence has been particularly acute in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, which have among the highest homicide rates in the world. In recent years, some governments have moved away, at least on a rhetorical level, from repressive anti-gang strategies, with the government of El Salvador now facilitating a historic—and risky—truce involving the country’s largest gangs. The truce has resulted in a dramatic reduction in homicides since March 2012, but carries risks for the Salvadoran government such as what might happen if the gangs were to walk away from the truce and emerge stronger as a result of months of less-stringent prison conditions.

U.S. agencies have been engaged on both the law enforcement and preventive sides of dealing with Central American gangs; an inter-agency committee developed a U.S. Strategy to Combat Criminal Gangs from Central America and Mexico that was first announced in July 2007. The strategy focuses on diplomacy, repatriation, law enforcement, capacity enhancement, and prevention. An April 2010 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that U.S. agencies consider strengthening the anti-gang strategy by developing better oversight and measurement tools to guide its implementation. U.S. law enforcement efforts may be bolstered by the Treasury Department’s October 2012 decision to designate and sanction MS-13 as a major TCO pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13581.

In recent years, Congress has increased funding to support anti-gang efforts in Central America. Between FY2008 and FY2012, Congress appropriated roughly $35 million in global International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) funds for anti-gang efforts in Central America. Congress provided additional support in FY2008 and FY2009 for anti-gang efforts in the region through the Mérida Initiative, a counterdrug and anticrime program for Mexico and Central America, and, more recently, through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Congressional oversight may focus on the efficacy of anti-gang efforts in Central America; the interaction between U.S. domestic and international anti-gang policies, and the impact of the Treasury Department’s TCO designation on law enforcement efforts against MS-13.

This report describes the gang problem in Central America, discusses country and regional approaches to deal with the gangs, and analyzes U.S. policy with respect to gangs in Central America. Also see: CRS Report R41731, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress, by Peter J. Meyer and Clare Ribando Seelke.

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