The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1834 on Smart Growth

March 21, 2005

March 21, 2005 | Executive Summary on Smart Growth

Executive Summary: North American Transnational Youth Gangs: Breaking the Chain of Violence

Youth gangs have been a familiar part of Ameri­can urban life since the American Revolution. Today, because of their growing size and globaliza­tion, they also pose a serious threat to public secu­rity. Groups that began in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1980s now have fraternal links to an estimated 130,000 to 300,000 members in Mexico and Central America and have spread to cities and small towns across the United States.

Their activities range from fighting rivals to armed robbery, extortion, alien smuggling, and arms and drug trafficking. Domestic anti-gang poli­cies should seek to stabilize gang neighborhoods through migration reforms, to deny time and space to delinquent activities, and to improve coordina­tion among law enforcement agencies. In Mexico and Central America, U.S. engagement should pro­mote family cohesiveness, the rule of law, economic reforms to boost employment, and cooperative security links to track gang member migration.

Gangs Everywhere. Youth gangs are a growing phenomenon in the United States, Mexico, and Central America. The number of U.S. cities report­ing gang activity went from 270 in 1970 to more than 2,500 in 1998-an increase of more than 800 percent. In 2002, a national survey of law enforce­ment agencies revealed that there were some 731,500 active gang members in the United States, mostly in large cities.

Unstable neighborhoods, broken homes, learn­ing problems, violent role models, and access to drugs feed gang growth. A long-term study con­ducted in Seattle found that children affected by these factors are two to four times more likely to join gangs. Historically, poor migrants-whether from another city or overseas-often settle first in marginal neighborhoods. For children with no parents, a single parent, or both parents working, gangs may offer stability and identity where inte­gration and acceptance are unlikely.

International Links. As a consequence of a large Hispanic influx that began in the 1970s, Lat­ino gangs now predominate. The Calle 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, gangs that originated in Los Angeles, are the most notorious and widespread.

After the Salvadoran government and rebels signed a peace accord in 1992 and after the con­clusion of the Guatemalan peace process in 1996, the United States began deporting undocumented Central Americans, especially those convicted of crimes in the United States. The newly organized civilian police forces in El Salvador and Guatemala were barely able to deal with the rampant delin­quency caused by demobilized combatants, much less the deported criminals. Honduras faced a sim­ilar problem even though it did not have a war: Many Honduran youth left in the 1980s to seek jobs in the United States. Those who ran afoul of the law were likewise deported.

In the mid-1990s, Colombian drug traffickers arrived to expand smuggling routes in Central America. Yet U.S. lawmakers cut support for regional justice reforms and police training, believ­ing that peace and democracy had been achieved.

Growing Tentacles. Increasing flows of undoc­umented migrants across porous borders, deporta­tions, and improved transportation and communication systems have helped to fuel the international expansion of Calle 18 and Sal­vatrucha. Los Angeles remains their major hub of activity, and they have members in almost every state, contributing to a rise in violent assaults.

In Mexico, Salvatruchas ambush, rob, and kill Central American migrants on their way to the U.S. border. In El Salvador, Calle 18 and Salvatrucha sell drugs, traffic in arms, and fence cars stolen in the United States. In Honduras, the murder rate has jumped by 50 percent in the past two years, with many of the killings attributable to gangs.

Operating from Nicaragua to the United States, gangs are sought by transnational drug and arms traffickers for their expertise in crossing the U.S. border. Last year, there were unsubstantiated rumors that an al-Qaeda cell leader met with Sal­vatruchas in Mexico and Honduras, supposedly to seek help in smuggling terrorists into the United States.

The Need for a Comprehensive, Sustained Effort. Some communities have attempted to reform entire gangs, but in doing so have increased their cohesiveness. Others have con­ducted massive roundups that cleaned up the streets only temporarily. Research shows that sus­tained efforts work best when police partner with other local agencies. However, the larger process that fuels gang growth requires both national and international coordination. U.S. policymakers at all levels should:

  • Promote stable neighborhoods through col­laboration among federal and local law enforcement agencies to minimize characteris­tics that induce delinquency;
  • Reduce illegal immigration through stronger border zone controls to filter out undocu­mented migrants more effectively and through policies that simplify entry and exit for docu­mented legal workers and visitors;
  • Deny time and space for gang activities through private-public partnerships to expand youth activities that promote integration, com­petition, and self-fulfillment; and
  • Employ multi-agency, multi-strategy polic­ing to rein in gang violence by partnering police, probation officers, social workers, and community leaders in the same quest.

Internationally, to curb transnational gang may­hem, U.S. policy should:

  • Help to open market economies by support­ing foreign projects that foster economic reform, property rights, and the growth of new industry;
  • Strengthen the rule of law by bolstering sup­port for judicial reform in Mexico and Central America;
  • Promote family-friendly policies to improve education and keep families together; and
  • Cooperate with partner countries by sharing intelligence on gangs, in processing deportees, and by helping them to strengthen their own borders through database sharing and training immigration and customs personnel.

Conclusion. Like crime, youth gang activity can be reduced but never eliminated. However, its potency can be reduced at home and abroad by focusing efforts on the systems and factors that feed gang activity.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Stud­ies, and David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heri­tage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Center for Data Analysis

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