US & World

U.S., El Salvador to Open Transnational Gang Center

The United States and El Salvador plan to open a transnational gang center in the Salvadoran capital next month. Law enforcement authorities say the center will allow them to share intelligence and coordinate strategies against gang members deported from Southern California and elsewhere in the U.S. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

Franks Stoltze: It's been more than a decade since Congress made it easier to deport immigrant gang members. Most of them were brought here as young children by parents fleeing Central American wars. But more than it reduced gang violence in the United States, the policy fostered street gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, says the FBI's Robert Loosle.

Robert Loosle: I think the sense is that many gang members, after being deported, go and kind of lie in wait in those countries and then come back to the U.S. where it's more lucrative. In those countries obviously, many times their activities are for subsistence.

Stoltze: Loosle is spearheading the move to establish a transnational gang center in San Salvador. Last month he met with El Salvador's attorney general, Felix Safie. Safie says the center is an important step toward reducing gang violence in his country – where, he told reporters at a Los Angeles news conference, extortions were up 400 percent last year.

Felix Safie (In Spanish): This program is designed to give local support between the FBI and El Salvador's police department. It will have full-time investigators who specialize in organized gang crime. But prosecutors will have an active role too, and we have asked Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley to support us with training.

Stoltze: In addition, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has signed an agreement that will allow LAPD anti-gang officers to embed with Salvadoran police units for months at a time, and vice versa.

The FBI's Robert Loosle says there's a lot to learn about gang trends on both sides of the border. For instance, members are changing one way they identify one another.

Loosle: We know that a lot of them are no longer wearing tattoos and that's happening in both places. It probably started down there first and it's happening up here.

Stoltze: Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gets the most attention. The FBI estimates the gang that started with a few dozen members in Los Angeles a quarter century ago has grown to 10,000 members in 42 states – with five times that number in Central America and Mexico. A National Geographic Explorer documentary dubbed MS-13 "the world's most dangerous gang" for tactics that include machete attacks and beheadings.

Thomas Ward is a USC anthropologist who's spent the last eight years studying MS-13.

Thomas Ward: With regard to the problem in Central America, the problem is greater than in the United States.

Stoltze: But Ward contends that law enforcement also exaggerates the threat. He questions how much gangs really do operate across borders. Criminal enterprises called bandas commit far more crimes, he says, including home invasion robberies.

Ward: These types of crime and violence are the majority of what's happening in El Salvador. But if you read the newspaper you would think that the gang members are responsible for all of the violence.

Stoltze: There are reasons.

Ward: They are visible and it's very expedient for politicians to point them out. It has helped at least a couple of presidents get elected by talking tough.

Stoltze: Ward maintains that suppression by itself won't work. He says Mano Duro – or "heavy handed" – police crackdowns have driven gangs further underground. Ward says gang prevention programs known as Mano Ayuda – or helping hand – go unfunded. Sound familiar? A recent report on anti-gang efforts in Los Angeles says this region's longstanding emphasis on tough law enforcement solutions has failed.

Amnesty International and other groups also contend that Mano Duro has led to human rights abuses. Salvadoran Attorney General Felix Safie dismisses the accusation. He says that kind of violation ceased at the end of his country's civil war 15 years ago.

Safie: I haven't heard any situation concerning human rights in El Salvador after the conflict was finished. Now, we have the rule of law.

Stoltze: The FBI's Loosle isn't so sure. He promises the U.S. government is offering human rights training within its transnational policing assistance.

Loosle: Particularly, the Department of Justice has provided courses in human dignity to the police, to prosecutors, to judges to school them on how to deal with the public in a better way. Obviously we are still going to have bad apples. We have bad apples here in the U.S.

Stoltze: Loosle emphasizes one other point: contrary to some reports, there is no connection between transnational gangs and Al-Qaeda. Police say MS-13 causes enough havoc by itself, without links to Islamist extremism.