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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Gangs in Central America

Clare Ribando Seelke
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

During its second session, the 111th Congress is likely to maintain an interest in the effects of crime and gang violence in Central America, and on the expanding activities of transnational gangs with ties to that region operating in the United States. The violent Mara Salvatrucha (MS- 13) and its main rival, the "18th 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. Governments in those countries appear to have moved away, at least on a rhetorical level, from repressive anti-gang strategies. However, they have yet to implement effective anti-gang policies that include an emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation of former gang members. 

U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the expanding presence of the MS-13 and M-18 in cities across the United States, as well as reports that these gangs may be evolving into more sophisticated transnational criminal enterprises. Between February 2005 and September 2009, U.S. officials arrested some 2,572 alleged MS-13 members in cities across the United States, many of whom were subsequently deported. Evidence suggests, however, that previously deported members of both the MS-13 and the M-18 often reenter the United States illegally across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Several U.S. agencies have been actively engaged on both the law enforcement and preventive side of dealing with Central American gangs. An inter-agency committee worked together to develop a U.S. Strategy to Combat Criminal Gangs from Central America and Mexico, first announced at a July 2007 U.S.-Central American Integration System (SICA) summit on security issues. The strategy, which is now being implemented, states that the U.S. government will pursue coordinated anti-gang activities through five broad areas: diplomacy, repatriation, law enforcement, capacity enhancement, and prevention. 

In recent years, Congress has increased funding to support anti-gang efforts in Central America. Congress appropriated roughly $7.9 million in FY2008 and $5 million in FY2009 in global International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) funds for anti-gang efforts in Central America. Congress provided additional support for anti-gang efforts in the region through the Mérida Initiative, including, by CRS calculation, at least $22 million in FY2008 supplemental assistance and close to $19 million in FY2009 funding. On December 13, 2009, Congress passed the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act (H.R. 3288/P.L. 111-117), which provides $83 million for combating gangs and drug trafficking in Central America under a new Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). P.L. 111-117 also includes $8 million in global INCLE for gang programs in the region. 

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. For more information on the Mérida Initiative, see CRS Report R40135, Mérida Initiative for Mexico and Central America: Funding and Policy Issues. For information on Central American gangs in the United States, see CRS Report RL34233, The MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats?, by Celinda Franco. 

Date of Report: January 11, 2010
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: RL34112
Price: $29.95

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