The two largest Latin American gangs in the United States—the Salvadoran-American Mara Salvatrucha-13 and the Mexican-American 18th Street Gang—did not even start in Latin America. They came to life in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the current wave of immigration to the United States from Latin America has swollen the gangs’ ranks, with U.S. membership in MS-13 estimated at up to 10,000 and in 18th Street as high as 30,000. Combined membership internationally may be as high as 100,000.
The gangs’ influence is also no longer restricted to the American Southwest; they hold a large presence in places like Washington, D.C., and nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
While law enforcement agencies fight the gangs’ traditional criminal activities—narcotics trafficking, extortion, and violence—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and partner agencies are eying the degree to which gang activities span international borders and whether they present a potential nexus with terrorism.
CRS notes that gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street are popularly cast as “transnational,” because members reside in multiple countries. Federal officials place the bar higher, with criteria including cross-border management and coordination of criminal activity.
FBI spokeswoman Angela Bell says MS-13 is a transnational gang because members in the United States act on orders from leaders in Central America—some of whom are incarcerated there. The U.S. members also remit proceeds of criminal activity that occurs in the United States to other countries.
As for a nexus with terrorism, CRS notes that the FBI says that to-date “no evidence exists establishing a link” between the two major gangs and terrorism. The potential, however, worries experts, given the relative lawlessness of large swaths of Latin America and the ease with which criminals can cross the U.S. border.
Apprehension of gang members, particularly those who reside in the United States illegally, is a focus of a program that is administered by DHS; it is called Operation Community Shield. DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) leads the effort.
Marcy M. Forman, Director of ICE’s Office of Investigations, says the effort has benefited from information sharing between ICE and state and local law enforcement. ICE checks its database of immigration law violators against other jurisdictions’ warrants and criminal intelligence files to target efforts on gangs.
Once collared, gang members might be prosecuted or offered a deal for information they can provide toward prosecution of senior gang members. After resident or illegal aliens serve criminal sentences, their case is then put before an immigration magistrate.
Deported gang members are not forgotten. Instead, they are remanded to authorities in their home countries, which are increasingly working with the United States to fight transnational crime, says Forman, who is a member of the ASIS Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime Council.
A sweep of 53 cities by ICE’s Opertation Community Shield program during this year’s summer months netted nearly 1,500 gang members and 17 gang leaders, according to the agency. Since Community Shield launched in 2005, the task- force-based program has led to the arrest of more than 11,100 gang members, 3,997 of whom have been charged criminally, with 7,109 processed for removal from the United States, according to ICE.
Heritage Foundation security expert James Jay Carafano says that addressing the threat posed by the gangs is a critical one, regardless of whether there’s a demonstrated nexus for terrorism, given the capacity of such enterprises to threaten U.S. sovereignty. “Just because it might not be easily classified as a national security or homeland security issue does not mean that DHS shouldn’t be addressing it,” Carafano says.
Policy experts say that despite the volume of arrests, law enforcement alone is not going to solve the gang problem. Heritage, for example, while supporting ICE programs, also calls for programs that stabilize neighborhoods, counsel at-risk youth, and combat illegal immigration.
Internationally, Heritage recommends that the United States foster economic development and push for other governments to strengthen the rule of law—primarily through training and intelligence sharing with foreign law enforcement.
The United States does reach out internationally to fight gangs. The FBI, together with the State Department, launched a Transnational Anti-Gang unit in 2007, collaborating with Salvadoran officials to fight gangs in Central America and Mexico. The same year, the U. S. government launched the Mérida Initiative, authorizing up to $1.6 billion to fight drug trafficking and money laundering.