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Curbing Gang Violence in Central America

Gang violence, fueled by the drug traffic in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean, is having a serious effect on people’s lives and threatens to alter the social fabric of the countries in the region. Central American gangs, also called maras, named after the voracious ants known as marabuntas, are involved in a wide range of criminal activities, such as arms and drug trafficking, kidnapping, human trafficking, human smuggling, and illegal immigration.

One of the best-known Central American gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has an estimated 70,000 members who are active in urban and suburban areas. It originated in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and then spread to other parts of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. The gang’s activities have caught the attention of the FBI and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which have conducted raids and arrested hundreds of gang members. The FBI called MS-13 “America’s most violent gang.”

MS-13 has been particularly active in Los Angeles County, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Long Island, New York City, and the Boston area. Their code of conduct includes fierce revenge and cruel retribution. Members of this gang were originally recruited by the Sinaloa in their battle against the Los Zetas Mexican cartels in their ongoing drug war south of the U.S. border.

Many gang members living in the U.S. have been deported back to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, adding to the already serious social problems in those countries. They brought with them crack cocaine and predictably, drug-related crimes were soon on a steep increase. Those gang members deported from the United States enlarged the local groups and found easy recruits among the local disenfranchised youth. Today, most of the members are in their 20s, while their leaders are in the late 30s and 40s.

The gangs’ battles with the police for control of working-class neighborhoods were met in each case with strong-arm tactics by the police. They also proved unproductive, since they unleashed more random violence and terror. As a result of each government’s efforts to eliminate them, many gang members returned to the United States, where they continued their involvement in criminal activities. Today, the gangs have expanded into southern Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, which has generated calls for a more organized effort to combat them.

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