The border crisis of unaccompanied immigrant youths attempting to enter the United States illegally has drawn attention to the conditions in their countries of origin. Most are from Central America—in particular, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. It is clear that many young people are fleeing situations of murderous violence, most of it related to the activities of ruthless gangs.
What is less well known is that the Central American gangs causing such havoc have roots in the United States. Many of their members, having come to the United States themselves during the region’s years of civil war, formerly lived in Los Angeles. The Latino culture there was somewhat like home, but the arrival of so many Central Americans brought tensions to L.A.’s youth culture. Gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang (M-18) grew up on L.A.’s streets and in California’s prisons, as well as in the Washington, DC, area, parts of North Carolina, and elsewhere in the United States.
Then, beginning in 1996, as a result of a U.S. immigration crackdown on noncitizens with criminal records, gang members were deported by the thousands. In effect, their American-style gang structure, including key leaders, was exported. Tattoo-sporting, Spanglish-speaking, they arrived in their native countries, where they reconstituted their gang affiliations and began recruiting new members.
These American-bred gangs proved to be “bigger and badder” than local gangs. It did not take long for them to assert control, and they have become a dominant force in organized crime, primarily through drug trafficking. As Mexico’s drug cartel wars intensified, the gangs of Central America were spurred to more extreme violence, employing tactics of kidnapping, extortion, and worse. These dire conditions are the major factor pushing the surge of youths to leave these countries in search of refuge and opportunity elsewhere.
Image credit: © Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images
- LA Street Gangs Spread to Central America Causing International Threat
This report exposes the connection between deportations of former Los Angeles gang members to Central America and the current crisis of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
(Source: NPR, July 16, 2014)
- American-Grown Gangs Fuel Immigration Crisis from Central America
The article covers the impact of recent U.S. immigration policy on gangs in L.A. and the countries of Central America; includes graph of the world’s highest murder rates.
(Source: NBC News, July 25, 2014)
- American-Born Gangs Helping Drive Immigrant Crisis at U.S. Border
This article provides background concerning the gang connections between Los Angeles and Central America.
(Source: National Geographic, July 23, 2014)