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Central American Gangs: An Overview of the Phenomenon in Latin America and the U.S.

NCJ Number
Journal of Gang Research Volume: 15 Issue: 1 Dated: Fall 2007 Pages: 35-52
Thomas Boerman Ph.D.
Date Published
18 pages
This paper provides an overview of Central-American gangs, both in Latin America and the United States, and describes and critiques current national and international responses to these gangs.
Beginning in the 1980s, nearly a million Central-American youth and their families migrated to the United States in order to escape the hardship and violence associated with longstanding civil conflicts within the region. Under conditions of poverty and social isolation, may of these youth became involved with gangs in the United States, most notably the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the 18th Street gang. The latter was an existing Hispanic gang established in Southern California. Rivalry between these gangs ushered in a new era of Central-American gang criminality and violence that continues today. During the early 1990s, partially in response to increasing levels of Hispanic criminal gang activity, U.S. officials began mass deportations of youth back to Central America, a policy that contributed significantly to the proliferation of gangs in Central-American countries. MS13 and 18th Street gang members are also active in several Mexican States, a circumstance that the Mexican Government regards as a national security threat. Not only do gang members move freely across Central-American and Mexican borders, but there is a "revolving door" between the region and the United States. This circumstance requires the creation and implementation of a coordinated transnational strategy based on an analysis of the problem and a response that balances law enforcement, prevention, rehabilitation, and socioeconomic policies. This will require a long-term commitment by the United States in working with Central-American gang programs and human services organizations in building transnational professional networks capable of addressing the complex needs of existing gang members and the populations from which they are recruited. 30 references


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