- Maras transnacionales:Origins and Transformations of Central American Street Gangs
With an estimated total membership of 100,000–140,000 individuals, Mara Salvatrucha (MS or MS-13) and Calle 18 (Dieciocho) are the largest street gangs in northern Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) and in the Central American immigrant community in the United States. Although MS-13 and Dieciocho are often referred to as Central American street gangs, because of the national origin of their members, this label is questionable insofar as both groups originated in East Los Angeles, where Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants seeking economic opportunities or respite from U.S.-sponsored civil war found themselves engulfed in racism and social exclusion, conditions propitious for gang formation. The debate as to whether they ought to be classified as U.S. or even transnational street gangs remains unresolved.
The United States has dealt with its domestic gang situation primarily through the suppression and mass deportation of foreign-born members. However, these practices are ineffective in tackling structural problems [End Page 256] and in discouraging the illegal reentry of deportees. Central America's own gang problem dates back to the 1970s, but it was long overshadowed by the political violence that swept through the region. For two decades, numerous territorial or neighborhood-based entities offered socially marginalized youths a means to hang out, party, fight their rivals, and engage in a range of illicit pursuits. With the end of armed conflict in the region, some of these groups dissolved, and the gangs that U.S. deportation implanted in the isthmus absorbed others. Disaffection and continued marginalization prompted many returning youths to continue what they knew best, and their comparatively smarter dress, wealth, and romanticized tales of gang life held a fascination that local adolescents found hard to resist. The importation of U.S. street gang culture, notably MS-13 and Dieciocho, and the conflicts between these groups, transformed the existing landscape in unprecedented ways.
Few territorial gangs survive today and their public security threat is minimal. MS-13 and Dieciocho, however, maintain a visible presence in many marginal metropolitan areas and have acquired notoriety because of their ready use of violence and the involvement of their members in robberies, homicides, extortions, and drug dealing. Although residents long ago identified a growing gang presence in their communities, authorities failed to develop a coherent antigang strategy. Only in 2003 did several governments unexpectedly adopt a mano dura ("iron hand") policy. Driven more by electoral ambition than concern for gang control, this policy not only witnessed a sharp rise in homicide rates but also increased gang cohesion and criminality by indiscriminately suppressing gang members and by concentrating them in special prisons.
The existing literature on Central American street gangs is largely concerned with their domestic dynamics and the responses that their emergence has elicited. In particular, these works explore gang-spawning factors and gang life, including violence and drug use. They also appraise public policies, rehabilitation programs, and the civil society initiatives that have arisen in response to the limitations of suppression-centered antigang efforts.1 The proliferation of MS-13 and Dieciocho in the United States, Central America, and ostensibly Mexico, as well as their growing delinquency, has encouraged officials, journalists, and security analysts [End Page 257] to characterize them as...