Latino Gang Study Finds Few Links To Overseas Groups

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007; B01

A study of Latino gangs in the Washington area and five Central American nations debunks the popular belief that the gangs are engaged in a systematic, organized effort to spread their influence.

Although the gangs have significant membership, the study found that their crimes are largely limited to petty theft and neighborhood extortion rather than some of those traditionally associated with organized crime — drug trafficking, prostitution, human smuggling and arms sales.

The report, conducted by Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and the nonprofit advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, comes as U.S. and Central American authorities are coordinating intelligence in the belief that the gangs have a networked structure.

“Yet this idea that gangs are like an infection spreading from country to country through a process where the leaders send out missionaries to colonize new areas is fundamentally untrue,” said Geoff Thale, one of the researchers from the Washington Office on Latin America.

For instance, in interviews with 316 gang members in a major Salvadoran prison conducted as part of the study, although a little more than half said they knew fellow gang members in North America, the vast majority said they had no contact with them, and few had traveled to the United States or Mexico.

Recent testimony in Washington area courtrooms has pointed to occasional cooperation between local gang members and counterparts in other regions. A 19-year-old Hyattsville man pleaded guilty in federal court last week to collecting dues and sending wire transfers to members in Los Angeles as treasurer of a cell of Mara Salvatrucha. And in an earlier trial, a Salvadoran police officer testified that gang leaders in El Salvador instructed Maryland gang members on how their organization should be run.

But Connie McGuire, who conducted the Washington area component of the study, said her interviews with law enforcement, community groups and 15 former gang members found no sign of transnational coordination among gang members.

“We shouldn’t pretend that gangs aren’t a big, scary problem,” Thale said. “But we shouldn’t misunderstand what the problem is and misdirect resources for solving it.”

Researchers said the current misconceptions may stem from the transnational nature of the gangs’ origins. The two most powerful Central American gangs, 18th Street, also know as Eighteen, and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, emerged in Los Angeles in the 1980s when Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan immigrants fleeing their region’s various civil wars joined Chicano gangs or started gangs to protect themselves from African American gangs in the same neighborhoods.

After the wars ended in the mid-1990s, many gang members chose to return or were deported to their home countries, where they fueled the rise of sister gangs modeled after the Los Angeles groups that now have 30,000 to 60,000 members, according to Central American government and FBI estimates.

Then, as those members began migrating back to the United States, MS-13 and Eighteen were in turn exported to new regions of the United States — including the Washington area, where a law enforcement task force estimates there are now at least 3,600 Latino gang members.

MS-13, in particular, has garnered headlines in the Washington area for dozens of killings and attacks in recent years, including the gang rape of two teenage girls in Prince George’s County in 2003 and the shooting by an MS-13 member of an 18-year-old member of a rival Latino gang in Arlington last spring.

But McGuire concluded that Central American gangs are a relatively minor problem in the D.C. area compared with other threats. The principal danger they pose is to people living in the particular communities where gang members live and “especially . . . the youth themselves who get drawn into the gang life.”

By contrast, gang violence is a major political issue in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where violent shootouts between rival gangs have driven up national homicide rates, and extortion is common in many urban neighborhoods.

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