Research on Mara Salvatrucha

The Heritage Foundation issued an extensive research report this week regarding the problem of "transnational youth gangs." The report is filled with statistics and thorough research and presents an in-depth look at the origin of the gangs and their current reach from Central America to areas throughout the United States. The report emphasizes the impact of US deportations of young males, illegally in the country, who had already spent time in prison:
After free elections brought peace to Nicaragua in 1990 and a negotiated settlement ended El Salvador's conflict in 1992, the United States started sending Central American refugees and migrants home. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service deported 4,000 to 5,000 people per year to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to official figures, roughly one-third of these individuals had criminal records and had spent time in American prisons. In 2003, the United States forcibly removed a total of 186,151 persons, including 19,307 who were returned to these three countries; 5,327 had criminal records: three to four times the number deported in the early 1990s. A relatively minor phenomenon in the 1980s, gangs now number between 150,000 to 300,000 members in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, although no one knows the exact figure.

At first, the U.S. government sent deportees home without ensuring that there were local programs to receive them. Many knew little Spanish and had no ties to Central America except for having been born there. In El Salvador, jails were already packed with ex-soldiers and demobilized guerrillas who had turned to crime in the absence of employment. As a consequence, many returnees sought out the urban slums and rural war zones that their parents had abandoned in the 1980s. There, they introduced local toughs and former combatants to the drug-based crime that they had known in the United States.

The report is too long to be summarized here, but is highly recommended for anyone who wants to have a well researched overview of the gang problem. The weakest part of the report is the recommendation section. The report recommends that the US assist Central American countries by (1) passing CAFTA, (2) supporting family friendly policies, (3) tightening American borders, and (4) providing training and assistance to police and judicial systems.

Newsweek also carries a story this week about Mara Salvatrucha, titled The Most Dangerous Gang in America.