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Criminal Street Gangs

Gangs are a concern throughout the Western Hemisphere. Criminal street gangs have evolved to pose significant security and public safety threats in individual neighborhoods, metropolitan areas, nations, and across borders. Such gangs-widely known as maras-are no longer just street gangs. They have morphed across three generations through interactions with other gangs and transnational organized crime organizations (e.g., narcotics cartels) into complex networked threats.

While street gangs are generally viewed as minor criminal nuisances with varying degrees of sophistication and reach, some gangs have evolved or morphed into potentially more dangerous entities. In many of the world's cities, especially in the 'lawless zones' of mega-slums where civil governance is weak, insecurity and instability dominate organized armed groups: gangs, maras or pandillas reign.

Third generation gangs reside at the intersection between crime and war. They are a byproduct of the significant changes in societal organization that result from the confluence of globalization and technological advances that alter the nature of conflict and crime, favor small, agile groups and fuel the privatization of violence.

Gangs - widely known as 'maras' - have evolved into a transnational security concern throughout North and Central America. As a result of globalization, the influence of information and communications technology, and travel/migration patterns, gangs formerly confined to local neighborhoods have spread their reach across neighborhoods, cities and countries. In some cases, this reach is increasingly cross-border and transnational. Current transnational gang activity is a concern in several Central American States (as well as Mexico). These criminal gangs operate as interlinked groups of individuals, gangs, and networks. Individual gangsters and their networks are heterogeneous: "Although each country has its own brand of gang problem, the factors driving gang activity throughout the region include a lack of educational and economic opportunities, marginalized urban areas, intra-familial violence and family disintegration, easy access to drugs and firearms, overwhelmed and ineffective justice systems, and the 'revolving door' along the U.S.-Mexico border."

The networked nature of these transnational gangs makes them a regional, transnational problem. The most notable current transnational gangs are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Eighteenth Street (M-18). These transnational maras conduct business internationally and are engaged in kidnapping, robbery, extortion, assassinations, and the trafficking of people and contraband across borders. The impact of the maras varies throughout the region. For example, the "USAID Central America and Mexico Gang Assessment" reports that El Salvador and Honduras have a serious international gang problem, while Guatemala has a serious localized gang problem with a limited international presence; Mexico has a largely unacknowledged international and local mix, and Nicaragua has a minor localized problem with no international gangs.

Federico Breve, former Minister of Defense of Honduras, observes that "the maras are in many ways a symptom as well as a cause of the climate of insecurity that is overwhelming Central America." When describing the maras in Honduras (MS-13 arrived there in 1989, M-18 in the early 1990s), Breve emphasizes the influence of organized crime in gang evolution. He notes that the maras first appeared in El Salvador and Honduras, and later expanded to Guatemala. Specifically, he highlights the influence of the Mexican Mafia's role in the transition of local Honduran gangs (barrio cliques) to mara outposts operating with "relative impunity due to the state's lack of authority and presence in the poorest sections of the region's largest cities." The transnational nature of these gangs makes them particularly troublesome.

Transnational gangs have been defined as having one or more of the following characteristics: 1) criminally active and operational in more than one country; 2) criminal operations committed by gangsters in one country are planned, directed, and controlled by leadership in another country; 3) they are mobile and adapt to new areas of operations; and 4) their activities are sophisticated and transcend borders. The gangs most frequently mentioned in this context are MS-13 and M-18.

The Congressional Research Service reports that MS-13 with around 8,000-10,000 members and M-18 with about 30,000 members, which originated in Los Angeles, have an established presence in Washington, DC, Maryland, Tennessee, New York City, Houston, and elsewhere in the US. As a result of migration (both voluntary and the forced deportation of alien gang members), US-styled gangs have emerged in Central America (and Mexico). Estimated MS-13 and M-18 membership in Central America and Mexico ranges from 70,000 to 100,000. Some researchers have also observed that these transnational maras are continuing to spread their reach into South America, with maras in the formative stages in Argentina.

A close analysis of urban street gangs (as well as their prison-based cousins) shows that some of these criminal enterprises have transitioned from traditional turf gangs, to market-oriented drug gangs, to a new third generation that combines political and mercenary aims.

As gangs transverse this generational shift, their progress can be charted by the interaction of three factors: politicization, internationalization, and sophistication. The resulting 'third generation' gang possesses many of the organizational and operational attributes found with net-based triads, cartels and terrorist entities.

The progress of gangs along this 'generational" continuum is a consequence of technological and organizational changes that enhance the power of relatively small groups, where the information revolution enables small groups to exercise their reach. These actors can extend their influence in seconds across vast distances, enabling a shift from hierarchies to network forms of organization.

First Generation Gangs are traditional street (or prison) gangs with a turf orientation. Operating at the lower end of extreme societal violence, they have loose leadership and focus their attention on turf protection and gang loyalty within their immediate environs (often a few blocks or a neighborhood). When they engage in criminal enterprise, it is largely opportunistic and local in scope. These turf gangs are limited in political scope and sophistication.

Traditional street gangs are almost exclusively turf-oriented. They operate at the lower threshold of extreme societal violence, possess loose leadership and concentrate their attention on turf protection and gang loyalty within their immediate environs (often a few blocks, a cell-block, or a neighborhood). When they engage in criminal activity, it is largely opportunistic and individual in scope. Turf gangs are limited in political scope, and are unsophisticated in tactics, means, and outlook. When they engage in rivalry with competing gangs, it is localized. Despite their limited spatial influence, these gangs due to their informal network-like attributes can be viewed as proto-netwarriors. Local criminal organizations can evolve into armed bands of non-state soldiers should they gain in sophistication within failed communities with disintegrating social structure. While most gangs will stay firmly in the first generation, a few (e.g., some 'Crip' and 'Blood' sets and some Hispanic gangs) span both the first and second (nascent organized crime groups with a drug focus).

Second Generation Gangs have a business focus. They are entrepreneurial and drug-centered. They protect their markets and use violence to control their competition. They have a broader, market-focused, sometimes overtly political agenda and operate in a broader spatial or geographic area. Their operations sometimes involve multi-state and even international areas. Their tendency for centralized leadership and sophisticated operations for market protection places them in the center of the range of politicization, internationalization and sophistication.

Second generation gangs are essentially criminal businesses. They are entrepreneurial in outlook and generally drug-centered. They use violence to protect their markets and limit or control their competition. They seek a broader, market-focused, occasionally overt political agenda and often operate in a broader spatial or geographic area. Their operations sometimes involve multi-state, cross-border, or international reach. They tend to embrace centralized leadership and conduct sophisticated operations for market protection. As such, they occupy the center of the range of politicization, internationalization and sophistication. Second generation gangs sometimes use violence as political interference to incapacitate enforcement efforts by police and security organs. Generally, this instrumental violence occurs in failed states, but clearly occurs when gangs dominate community life within 'failed communities.' Further evolution of these gangs is a danger when they link with and provide services to transnational criminal organizations or collaborate within narcotics trafficking and distribution networks and other criminal ventures. Because of their attributes, second generation gangs can be considered emerging netwarriors.

Third Generation Gangs have evolved political aims. These are the most complex gangs and they operate-or aspire to operate-at the global end of the spectrum, using their sophistication to garner power, aid financial acquisition and engage in mercenary-type activities. To date, most 3 GEN Gangs have been primarily mercenary in orientation; in some instances, however, they have sought to further their own political and social objectives.

The overwhelming majority of street or prison gangs remain firmly in the first or second generations; however, a small number in the United States, Canada, Central and South America, as well as South Africa have acquired third generation characteristics. Third generation gangs have evolved political aims, operate or seek to operate at the global end of the spectrum, and employ their sophistication to acquire power, money, and engage in mercenary or political activities. To date, these gangs have been primarily mercenary in orientation; yet, in some cases they seek political and social objectives. Examples of third generation gangs can be seen in Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, Brazil, South Africa, and throughout Central America.

These gangs have evolved from turf-based entities, to drug-oriented enterprises operating in up to 35 states, to complex organizations controlling entire housing projects, schools and blocks, that conduct overt political activity while actively seeking to infiltrate and co-opt local police and contract security forces. South Africa also experiences third generation activity, with Cape area gangs - such as 'Hard Livings' - engaged in both political action and a long-standing terrorist or quasi-terrorist near-war with the vigilante group Pagad (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs). These activities demonstrate the often-subtle interaction of gangs and politics. This shift from simple market protection to power acquisition is characteristic of third generation activity.

The case of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Eighteenth Street (Calle 18, Mara 18 or M-18) spreading from Los Angeles across North and Central America saliently illustrate the potential impact of third generation gangs with clicas (cliques or cells) of both gangs demonstrating elaborate, flexible, and redundant organization and leadership, functioning as networks with extensive transnational linkages. These maras have their own internal culture (symbols, tattoos, graffiti), recruit, perform internal logistics functions, conduct attacks, collect intelligence, perform information operations (websites), and arm their members with heavier small arms (AK-47s, M-16s, and grenades).

The attraction to gang life is a feature of slums and a lack of opportunity in the globalized economy. It is also amplified by the power of global networks and communications. "Street gangs create systems of social networks. These networks rely on crime to finance what is essentially a lifestyle that allows youths to survive in a world where there are limited opportunities, a lack of parental presence, and little hope for a chance at a better life." This 'need' is found throughout the regions where the maras and their counterparts flourish. A consequence of this networked criminal social bonding is the spread of criminal norms and, increasingly, impunity and the 'barbarization' of criminal conflict.

Prisons play a pivotal role in the evolution of gangs. Prison-gang interaction is key to solidifying gang culture, recruiting new members, and establishing a base of operations for indoctrination and communications. Prisons can become a key node in a gang's internal network or as a key node in inter-gang connectivity. In El Salvador, a prison near San Miguel is such a node, where "some of the connections between the Salvadoran branches of the gang [MS-13] and their extensions in the U.S. flow through the Ciudad Barrios prison." Close to 1,800 MS-13 gangsters are incarcerated in Salvadoran prisons, with 60% of such gang members deportees from the US. Salvadoran officials have isolated MS-13 members in order to avoid conflict with rival gangs, but this concentration "has created opportunities for deported Los Angeles leaders to turn the gang into a more potent organization."

MS-13's name itself is demonstrative of the influence prisons and prison gangs have over the broader gang milieu. The number 13, which corresponds to the letter 'm' or 'eme' "is a nod to their allegiance to the Mexican Mafia, which maintains a dominant presence in southern California prisons, where gang rival lines are split between northern California gangs, known as Nordenos, and southern California gangs, known as Surdenos." This connection with the prison-based Mexican Mafia, an umbrella for gang interaction, is an important element of gang evolution. "Such close ties to the Mexican mafia, particularly the Tijuana Cartel, helps explain how the MS-13 grew beyond the streets of Los Angeles into a loosely tied organization of members across the US."

Historically, while transnational organized crime groups exploited the seams between states, they benefited from the existence of a stable state. Traditional criminal enterprises, including gangs, did not seek to challenge the state; rather they exploited corruption and political influence to further their activities. This appears to be changing as a new range of transnational gangsters exploit shadow economies, the absence of effective states, and endemic corruption.

Lawless zones can be found in the barrios, favelas, ghettos and mega-slums of global cities; in rural enclaves or frontiers; as well as in urban villages (desakotas) where sprawl has blurred the distinction between urban and rural, center and periphery. Manwaring rightfully observes that these areas are not actually 'lawless' or 'ungoverned', but are de facto "governed by the gangs, warlords, drug barons, and/or insurgents who operate when there is an absence or only partial presence of state institutions." Gangs in these areas fill the political void and seek to further their ends through violence.

Street gangs, specifically 'third generation gangs' such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), originally from the MacArthur Park neighborhood in Los Angeles and which now operates throughout North and Central America, benefit from networked dynamics and city-to-city interconnectedness, exploiting new spatial and geographic relationships afforded by globalization. Once the province of inner-city ghettos, some gangs have evolved from a sole interest in turf or localized crime to gain in sophistication, political interest, and international reach. Exploiting seams in law enforcement and judicial structures, immigration (often by forced deportation), and technologies that foster communication, third generation gangs have also become de facto global criminals, threatening local stability and potentially fueling broader networked conflict.

Stemming the transnational gang threat requires slowing the evolution of gangs across generations. Gangs and their evolution must be contained. Effective policing and community measures must be geared toward containing the spatial reach and sophistication of gangs. The evolution of first-generation turf gangs to second-generation market gangs, and market gangs to third-generation mercenary/political transnational actors, must be limited. And the ability of gangs (at all three generations) to gain transnational reach must be thwarted.

John P. Sullivan. Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America. Air & Space Power Journal. July 1, 2008.

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