Over the past six months, the Department of Justice has been taking action to defeat the gangs that are threatening the U.S. and the battered countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle.
Speaking at FIU alongside the attorneys general of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, U.S. Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco announced that they have charged over 3,800 MS-13 and 18th Street gang members in Central America and 70 gang members living in the United States since March, in their coordinated law enforcement anti-gang operation known as “Operation Regional Shield.”
The officials also discussed their strategies on combating gangs, crime, drug cartels and corruption with Frank Mora, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center (LACC), moderating the discussion.
“We continue to collaborate and work together by creating strategies so that our citizens can live in a safe and peaceful environment,” said Blanco. “We are creating these strategies so that gang members and drug traffickers don’t have a place to hide and are forced to follow the law.”
John F. Stack Jr., founding dean of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, welcomed and commended the officials and their agencies for their hard work in representing the U.S. and the Caribbean.
“The issue of transnational organized crime and the threat it poses to stability and security in the region is incredibly important,” he said. “We welcome those incredibly hardworking prosecutors, investigators and law enforcement agencies. [They] are the ones on the front lines facing the violence, the drugs and the highly organized criminal enterprises that threaten to undermine the rule of law.”
Central American gangs such as MS-13 – or Mara Salvatrucha – are among the most violent in the world and are active in major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, New York and D.C.
Recently, FIU researchers Jose Miguel Cruz, director of research for LACC, and Jonathan Rosen, a research scientist with the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, surveyed and interviewed nearly 1,200 current and former gang members in prison, juvenile centers and rehabilitation programs in El Salvador to better understand the nature of youth gangs in Central America and how members are able to leave the gang, a process known as “desistance.”
The researchers released “The New Face of Street Gangs: MS-13 and the Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador,” finding that gang desistance is more common than usually believed. Members can leave through negotiation with gang leadership or involvement of religious or non-governmental organizations that can provide a safe space for former gang members.
The officials stated that they believe their joint efforts in the regional fight against transnational crime and gangs will help provide a safe and peaceful environment for the citizens of their countries.
“I think it is positive that the administration is focusing attention on the violence in Central America, specifically the efforts at greater collaboration among the countries of the Northern Alliance,” said Mora. “However, it seems the U.S., unfortunately, is attempting to address insecurity by returning to the bygone days of failed mano dura policies, repression against gangs rather than taking a more comprehensive, holistic approach that addressed the structural sources of violence and insecurity in the region.”