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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gangs in Central America

Clare Ribando Seelke
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

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. 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. In recent years, governments in those countries appeared to move away, at least on a rhetorical level, from repressive anti-gang strategies. However, continuing gang-related violence prompted El Salvador to adopt tough new legislation on gangs in September 2010. Guatemala may follow suit.

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 October 2010, U.S. officials arrested some 3,332 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.

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. An April 2010 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that U.S. federal agencies consider strengthening the aforementioned anti-gang strategy by developing better oversight and measurement tools to guide its implementation.

In recent years, Congress has increased funding to support anti-gang efforts in Central America. Between FY2008 and FY2010, Congress appropriated roughly $21 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. In the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 111-117), Congress provided $83 million for combating gangs and drug trafficking under a new Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), splitting Central America from the Mérida Initiative. The Obama Administration asked for $100 million for CARSI in its FY2011 budget request. In the absence of FY2011 appropriations legislation, Congress has passed a series of continuing resolutions (P.L. 111-242 as amended) to fund government programs, with the latest extension set to expire on March 4, 2011. The continuing resolution, as amended, continues funding most foreign aid programs at the FY2010-enacted level, with some exceptions.

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 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 3, 2011
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: RL34112
Price: $29.95

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