Clare Ribando Seelke Specialist in Latin American Affairs
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 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 “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 had
among the highest homicide rates in the world. Recently, some governments
have moved away 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 contributed to a large reduction in
homicides since March 2012, but robberies, assaults, and extortions have
continued. The truce carries risks for the Salvadoran government, such as
what might happen if the gangs were to walk away from the truce stronger,
better organized, and with more political clout.
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.
Date of Report: January 28, 2013
Number of Pages: 24 Order Number: RL34112 Price: $29.95
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