Salvadoran President Antonio Saca met Thursday with U.S. President George Bush at the White House. Among the issues they were expected to discuss were ways to cooperate in the fight against organized crime, drug smuggling and gangs. Producer Zulima Palacio has more. Mil Arcega narrates the story.
More than two decades ago, Central American street gangs began to spread in Los Angeles as small cells.
Today, Federal Bureau of Investigation records show some Latino gangs could have tens of thousands of members in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands in Central America. Brian Truchon, with the FBI, says, "They travel between the U.S. and Central America so they have become a very difficult entity to get your hands around."
Truchon says the gangs have a destabilizing effect on Central American countries. "We already know that the gangs are involved in drug trafficking -- drug trafficking for the purpose of producing income for the gang."
Truchon says the gangs's criminal activities include homicide, robbery and car theft, with many cars stolen in the U.S. ending up in Central America. The FBI estimates that perhaps half of the gang members in the U.S. are in the country illegally, but there are American-born gang members, too. "It's not an immigration issue as much as it is a gang issue, is an issue of individuals willing to commit violence."
Truchon says Latino gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, are transnational, with members traveling often between countries. "In this time and this day in age we are talking about an MS-13, we are really talking about a membership group that includes Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Mexicans."
A wide range of governmental, social and private organizations are attempting to deal with crime and violence caused by gangs.
Salvadoran President Antonio Saca told VOA ahead of his meeting with President Bush that a regional approach, known Plan Merida, is being developed to help Central American youth. He said some 60 percent of El Salvador's population is under 30. "The security ministers and justice, the Central American police directors, have been meeting and have designed a document, with a regional strategy against delinquency, against organized crime and against narco-trafficking."
The Inter-American Development Bank has sponsored studies and projects in Central America for 10 years. Juana Salazar is with the Bank. She says the cost of dealing with gangs affects social and economic development. "The cost and size of the violence is such that between five and 25 percent of the gross national product goes to security control. Most of that is dedicated to the control of gangs."
Salazar says that combating gangs is not a simple law enforcement problem. "The iron fist does not work if it is not combined with preventive measures. Repression by itself does not solve neither the causes nor the risk factors. The country with most gang members is Honduras, but the most affected country, with a third of the gangs is El Salvador."
Salazar says years of violence in Central America created a culture of war, a loss of cultural values and broken families. She says gang members have no education, no jobs, no opportunities and are often very poor. But she says poverty alone is not the problem. "Huge inequalities, not poverty, is the problem, because there are countries much poorer that don't have that level of violence. But when there is inequality there is violence."