Latina Lista: News from the Latinx perspective > Columns & Features > Guest Voz > Guest Voz: British Researcher Finds US Deportations to Blame for Rise in Violent Gang Crime in Central America

Guest Voz: British Researcher Finds US Deportations to Blame for Rise in Violent Gang Crime in Central America

By Dr. Dennis Rodgers
Dr. Dennis Rodgers is a political anthropologist and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Manchester’s Brooks World Poverty Institute in the United Kingdom. He is also an Associate Fellow of the University of London Institute for the Study of the Americas, and a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics.
Yet, it is his extensive research on the rising gang phenomenon in Central America that has garnered him the most recognition and attention to his work.

Having been a member of a Nicaraguan youth gang for one year, Dr. Rodgers has a unique perspective on the inner workings and motivations of gangs and has been able to correlate the rise of gangs in Central America to the deportations from the United States.
Dr. Rodgers is the author of the upcoming title Youth Violence in Latin America: Gangs and Juvenile Justice in Perspective due to be published in October 2008.
As a special favor to Latina Lista, Dr. Rodgers traces the US’ role in Central American gang development and exposes the next chapter in this evolving phenomenon that poses a security threat to both sides of the US border.

Over the past few years, Central American youth gangs known as “maras” have become a ubiquitous feature of US media and policy reports. These have particularly focused on what is sensationally characterised as a veritable “invasion” of North America by Central American gangs, with the FBI and the Department of Justice estimating that there are some 40,000 Central American mareros operating across the US. Perhaps not surprisingly, the State Department recently declared the maras a critical national security threat.
The mara phenomenon is more complex than a simple South-North exportation of violence, however. Its origins lie in the 18th Street gang in Los Angeles, which was founded by Mexican immigrants in the 1960s, but grew radically during the late 1970s and early 1980s as a result of the influx of Central American refugees, to the extent that in the latter half of the 1980s, a splinter group – mainly composed of a second wave of Salvadoran refugees – broke off, taking the name of mara Salvatrucha.
The mara Salvatrucha and the mara Dieciocho – as the 18th Street gang came to be known –rapidly become bitter rivals, and fought frequently. In the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King riots, California implemented strict anti-gang laws, and minor gang members were charged as adults, with hundreds sent to jail for felonies and other serious crimes as a result. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act meant that all non-US citizens sentenced to a year or more in prison were to be repatriated to their countries of origin.
Between 1998 and 2005 the US deported 46,000 convicts to Central America, in addition to 160,000 immigrants caught without the requisite permit. Many of these deportees were members of the Dieciocho and Salvatrucha gangs who had arrived in the US as toddlers but had never secured legal residency or citizenship, and had often joined the gang seeking a form of inclusion in a receiving country that frequently actively impeded their integration.

Following their deportation and arrival in countries of origin that they barely knew, these LA gang members perhaps not surprisingly re-created the structures that had provided them with support and security in the US. Deportees rapidly began to found local “clicas”, or chapters, of their gang in their communities of origin, which in turn rapidly began to attract local youth.
Contrarily to media projections, however, although each clica explicitly affiliates itself with either the Dieciocho or the Salvatrucha, neither gang is a real federated structure, and much less a transnational one. Neither has a single chain of command, and their umbrella nature is more symbolic of a particular historical origin than demonstrative of any real unity, be it of leadership or action.
The putatively transnational nature of the maras is more of an imagined social morphology that derives from the steady flow of deportees sharing common reference points. Certainly, there is no evidence of any large-scale cooperation between maras in Central America, and even less with the original maras in Los Angeles.
The exportation of LA gang culture to Central America significantly affected patterns of violence in the isthmus, however. Although gangs were not new to Central American societies, the traditional “pandillas” were much less violent than the maras, largely because they were home-grown, socially embedded institutions. Many studies have shown, for example, how pandillas were often localised vigilante-style self-defence groups that sought to provide a measure of order for their local communities in weak state contexts.
Pandillas were completely supplanted by the maras in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, although they are still present in Nicaragua, mainly because the different migratory patterns displayed by the latter’s population means that there are no maras there. Migrants tend to go to Miami rather than LA, and therefore encounter a very different gang culture, and they also suffer much lower deportation rates. The absence of maras also explains why levels of violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are much higher than in Nicaragua, despite all four countries sharing long histories of war and conflict.
Having said this, evidence is emerging to suggest that both pandillas and maras are radicalising in the face of the repressive anti-gang policies being adopted by Central American governments. A veritable “war on gangs” has been implemented by Central American states over the past 5 years, the opening salvo of which was El Salvador’s adoption of a “Mano Dura” policy in 2003, inspired by California’s draconian anti-gang laws and Rudy Giuliani’s infamous “zero tolerance” policy in New York City.
El Salvador was rapidly imitated by both Honduras and Guatemala, and to a lesser extent Nicaragua, and a series of extremely repressive measures have been taken against gang members, including imprisonment without trial, extended prison sentences, and violent crackdowns. These policies have also precipitated a spiral of tit-for-tat violence between maras and government authorities.
They have also led to a rise in marero emigration, as gang members seek to escape what is increasingly emerging as a veritable campaign of extermination against them. At the same time, however, the contemporary migration of mareros from Central America to the US must first and foremost be considered in light of the fact that they are part of a wider population that has very high rates of migration to the US. It would be surprising if the US migrant community did not include a certain proportion of mareros, all the more so considering that the typical gang member profile – young, poor, and male – corresponds very much to the typical migrant profile.
To this extent, far from constituting a South-North exportation of violence, the original direction of exportation of the contemporary mara phenomenon was in fact from the North to the South, and the principal driving force for contemporary patterns of marero emigration are arguably principally the policies of repression and containment that have been adopted by Central American governments, inspired by and with the active support of the US.

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  • Horace
    March 28, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    This is a clear case for agressively enforcing our immigration laws to assure that illegal aliens don’t get too comfortable here before we get around to deporting them. Illegal aliens come here of their own volition, with full expectation that they can be deported, bringing their children who will have to be deported also. Aren’t the parents truly the cruel actors in this predicament? I’m sorry, but these people were never immigrants, but merely interlopers who had no right to cross our border. Let’s put the blame where it truly belongs, on the parents and the governments of their homelands.

  • Jax
    March 28, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    So? What did these people expect?

  • Evelyn
    March 29, 2008 at 12:36 am

    Our European ancestors had no right to cross the borders and murder or steal, but they did it anyway. Why do you always reek of hypocrisy when you speak. Yes I will remind you of the past. Whats good for the goose is good for the gander. The following comment is NOT directed at you Horace, so dont get all bent out of shape!
    Now here comes Mr Big Mouth Racist Himself. To protest the fact that I had the audacity to remind him of his ancestors.
    I just love it when you get so mad and your heart beats so fast, maby one day you will just ka-put.

  • Frank
    March 29, 2008 at 10:03 am

    It is only hypocricy if YOU do the same things on your own “personal” level. We are not responsible for what others did in the past, shouldn’t be held accountable or make amends for them. None of us were alive back then and did what the Europeans did.
    My ancestors came here under established U.S. government law and never committed atrocities against anyone. That is true of most Americans today.

  • Evelyn
    March 29, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    To the person who decided he was Mr Big Mouth. Get This! IT’S YOUR FAULT! As long as YOU are STILL reaping the benefits of these despicable acts IT’S YOUR FAULT!
    It’s even more your fault when you are trying to emulate your ancestors by committing these dispicable acts again.

  • Jax
    March 29, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    My ancestors came here legally in 1861.
    They entered the country thru Ellis Island in NYC along with millions of other Irish at the time in our history.
    That’s how it was and how it should be now—legal immigration.

  • Horace
    March 30, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Evelny said: To the person who decided he was Mr Big Mouth. Get This! IT’S YOUR FAULT! As long as YOU are STILL reaping the benefits of these despicable acts IT’S YOUR FAULT!
    It’s even more your fault when you are trying to emulate your ancestors by committing these dispicable acts again.
    Evelyn, how many of their neighbors did your ancestors butcher? The Aztecs were always at war. See: Aztecs were well known for their propensity to sacrifice their enemies to the gods, tearing their hearts out while they were still beating and eating it.
    If your ancestors were Mayans, they’d be worse than any European for the death and destrution they caused in Central America. They worked so hard at destroying one another that their empire collapsed. How many thousands of fellow Mayans did your familiy kill?
    The Aztecs actually helped the Spanish in their conquests, in an effort to conquer indigenous enemies, but hastening their own demise as well. Hate destroyed the Aztecs, not the Spanish. If the Aztecs weren’t so bent on destroying one another, they could easily have beaten the Spanish.
    Evelyn, you’re pathetic. Don’t throw stones at others because of their ancestor’s past, because there’s always something to hide in your own. Who’s being hypocritical now?

  • Frank
    March 30, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Jax, as did my ancestors. They came here legally through Ellis Island.
    Where abouts in the U.S. are murders and rapes of the native indian population occuring today? Do you have any idea, Jax? I don’t!

  • yave begnet
    March 30, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Not sure how your ancestors came through Ellis in 1861 … it didn’t open until 1892. Maybe they were just that resourceful. Also, your claim that they entered legally is meaningless since laws significantly restricting entry weren’t passed until 1882 (for Chinese), 1924, and then really in the last 20 years or so.
    But trust our faithful commenters to completely avoid the issues presented in any individual post and return to tried and true tropes, like a dog to its vomit (Proverbs 26:11).
    Anyhow, this was an informative post, and sheds light on an aspect of our deportation-oriented immigration policies that most Americans know little about.

  • Evelyn
    March 30, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I hate to tell you this Jax but Ellis Island didn’t open till 1892. Only half of Euroamericans can trace their ancestors to Ellis Island. Why not open Ellis Island or some other type of Ellis Island for today’s Immigrants that are already here?

  • Frank
    March 31, 2008 at 8:11 am

    Apparently the U.S. government does it differently now than when Ellis Island was used. The point is that we have a quota for immigrants that we feel best meets the needs of this country and that is as it should be. That policy would be no different even if Ellis Island were still used today.

  • Michael Lorenzo
    March 31, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    People need to chill out on both sides. Accusing peoples’ ancestors of anything is pretty useless. It’s just a way to release your own anger. Go jogging or something.
    I like Evelyn’s suggestion. Something sensible like having an Ellis Island for the present needs to be done. INS just can’t handle the job in it’s current form. I almost think that states should be allowed to chose how many immigrants they want to take in and enforce themselves based on their own criteria. Why is someone in Iowa telling me what I need to have in Boston? They just don’t have the firsthand knowledge. The State should essentially sponsor the people they house (if they choose to do so) and get support from the Federal government by way of documentation.
    I don’t think the Federal Government has the capacity to fulfill each state’s specific labor needs or desires with it’s great sweeping crackdowns or walls or even amnesties.
    I think this would make our lives more difficult in that we may end up having State passports or something like that because it’s too easy to come in from one state and travel to another.
    I’m not saying I have the answers but I will keep thinking about it and all of you should, too. We need a solution A.S.A.P. (other than “throw them out, or keep ’em in)

  • yave begnet
    March 31, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    People need to chill out on both sides.
    It’s just a way to release your own anger. Go jogging or something.
    I work long hours representing immigrants in court and in front of the immigration agencies. At least some readers of LL are migrants or have migrants in their families, some of whom are directly affected by the threat of deportation and draconian and outdated U.S. immigration laws. Would you tell MLK to “just chill out” and give his Southern neighbors a little time to work through things in their own way? Would you tell Cesar Chavez to “chill out” and exhibit a little patience and let big landowners have a human rights epiphany all on their own? Maybe you could put a little more thought into what you’re saying. Or pick a side. “[T]hen because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:16 (I’ve been on a biblical kick lately).
    All right, so maybe some of us are wound a little tight on this issue. But there are good reasons for that. Reading LL on a regular basis should make this clear.
    Having state-by-state immigration policy makes sense in the ways you’ve mentioned–workforce needs and local preferences (i.e., how many nativists per square mile are in a given area) vary by state. But it all falls apart unless you enforce travel restrictions, either against all inhabitants (untenable) or against immigrants only, which raises some serious concerns. Freedom of movement within a country is a fundamental human right. Also, restrictions on internal movement will never fly with the business community for the sensible reason that they would stifle economic development.

  • Michael Lorenzo
    April 1, 2008 at 9:08 am

    Perhaps you didn’t read the above comments. Do you really think it’s a-O.K. to be telling people that their white ancestors marauded all over the continent and so they themselves must be barbaraic? Or, that Latin ancestors were Mayan so their historical atrocities translate to Latinos we see today? How is that helping anyone? I think MLK would, in fact, tell people to “chill out”, yes. That doesn’t mean that he should stop working to help everyone gain greater understanding, but rather that the rhetoric needs to be taken down a notch or two so that people can speak to each other sensibly.
    Once you read the comments above both of ours maybe you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.

  • yave begnet
    April 1, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Ok, point taken. I guess I usually tune out the more strident comments, and it wasn’t entirely clear to me to whom you were directing your suggestion to take it easy. Perhaps what riled me up was the recommendation that both sides should just step back, take a deep breath, and try to work things out.
    That would be sound advice in another setting but is unlikely to happen in this forum, IMHO. I think your advice is well-suited to the general public, who is probably likewise tired of hearing restrictionists and migrant advocates yell at each other. But proponents of comprehensive reform in Congress like McCain, Kennedy, etc. essentially bent over backwards to accommodate restrictionists but ended up with absolutely nada.
    A corollary to your suggestion is that both sides have been unreasonable. I don’t think that’s the case. Migrant advocates have actually asked for very little–the Dream Act, a path to citizenship through comprehensive reform, reasonable quotas for high-skill worker visas. But any moderate step in a direction that would facilitate bringing undocumented migrants in from the shadows is shouted down by restrictionists. They are very well organized, well funded, and have strong representation in Congress. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the pro-migrant side. Supporting non-voting migrants is not an issue that Republicans or Democrats in Congress care deeply about. Or at least the great majority have not shown that they do. And that is why a vocal, motivated restrictionist minority has been able to hijack the entire discussion and stall any legislative progress. They have been extremely effective–I have to hand it to them. Meanwhile, ICE is working 24/7 to deport everyone they can before Bush leaves office.
    This is the background to my reaction to your advice to take it easy and let cooler heads prevail. Cooler heads weighed in and were ignored or marginalized. It’s time for some motivated, energized advocacy to redirect the country from the nativist warpath it has been on.

  • Frank
    April 1, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    What is wrong with being a nativist? That means protecting and preserving one’s culture and heritage. It isn’t the dirty word that you make it out to be. Mexicans are very nativist in their country as most other citizens of other countries are. So what? There is nothing nasty or racist about it.
    Can’t one preserve their own country’s culture and heritage by limiting the number of people coming here who may dilute it, without being called a racist?

  • Horace
    April 1, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    “I don’t think that’s the case. Migrant advocates have actually asked for very little–the Dream Act, a path to citizenship through comprehensive reform, reasonable quotas for high-skill worker visas.”
    Asked for very little? Actually, they’ve asked for the whole enchilada. At one time it was a guest worker program, but that became a demand for a path to citizenship, one that, outside of the circle of Central Americans, would give preference over foreigners who patiently awaited approval for green cards in their homelands. And, even though they are supporting illegal aliens, amnistas move to defeat any effort to prevent expenditure of public funds from being expended to support them. They even seek to reward illegal aliens with the privilege to drive, futhering their ability to put roots in a community and evade deportation. Contrary to common sense (but who could accuse the ACLU or its ilk of having that), all rights are to be accorded the illegal aliens, regardless of his authorization to live in this country. The 14th Amendment was designed to give everyone equal right to due process, not every right accorded a citizen. After all, we do have federal laws that specifically prevent illegal aliens from receiving welfare benefits. If the 14th Amenment were applicable, nothing could be denied these people, even the right to demand residency. Misinterpretation of the 14th Amendment is what provokes the outrage from the citizen after the same fashion of blatantly guilty felons who escape justice on the basis of legal technicalities.
    We hear people like Yave and Kyle Deb (Citzens Orange blog) calling everyone they disagree with as racist, nativist or bigot if they agree with our current immigration laws. These people are practically apoplectic in their ralings concerning unsupported claims to alleged inalienable rights not recognized by any nation on the planet, never mind the U.S. I got news for them, we are far from granting an amnesty to illegal aliens. Polls showing luke warm margins in favor are nowhere near indicative of a close call on CIR. Amnestas have counted on public ignorance to railroad their ambitious CIR through Congress, but have failed, and will continue to fail, as the public becomes better informed of the true cost of adopting millions of semi-literate people.
    Reasonable quotas for high-skill worker visas? Is it reasonable for citizens to be given first consideration for such jobs? We’ve seen immigration lawyers giving seminars to business entities on how to defeat the laws. These businesses are looking for worker replacement pools to hire cheap engineers and other professionals. Is it any wonder that these demands for “high-skill worker visas” are being met with resistance. It’s private industry, by its duplicity that has evoked suspicion of the professionals in this country. The lawyers don’t seem to care, because they’re not subject to outsourcing. I just hope that someday that these people become subject to the same competition as the rest of us. I can guarrantee that there will be fewer shrill legal beagles demanding more H-1b visas. Want more H-1b visas? Try working on restoring the trust of the citizen in that program. It works better than abusing him.

  • Jax
    April 2, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Mea Culpa!!!
    My grandparents did come here from Ireland in 1861. They came here through NyC. I guess I took that to mean Ellis Island but surely I was wrong.

  • Maria Diaz
    April 2, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    Since when is “competition” a negative thing? Your point in the above post is not very clear. Do you mean to say that you are concerned of losing your job to other Professionals? And I assure you, those high-skill workers are not only coming from Latin America. Hate to brake your bubble but there are other countries which have highly educated, and capable Professionals who, if they have better skills will be offered the job. Why should your country deny entry to better people?

  • Frank
    April 3, 2008 at 8:10 am

    Maria, even with the highly skilled, it is still about cheaper labor. Americans should be protected against importing any foreigner to work in this country just because they will work for less and therefore creating unfair competition for American workers. You assume a lot that they are more qualified.

  • Horace
    April 3, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Ms. Diaz, from your statement, “Why should your country deny entry to better people?”, it’s obvious that you’re not an a citizen, so I have to ask why you think you have a dog in this hunt?
    I hate to burst your bubble, Ms. Diaz, but the law requires private industry to hire Americans first. How would you like to find out that rather than have to compete with a pool of a thousand American engineers for a job, you have to compete with 10,000 others from the rest of the world as well? If you are a citizen, Ms Diaz, I hope that you have a government job or a private industry job working for the government, jobs requiring security clearances and citizenship, because you too are in danger of losing your position. There are very few jobs in this country that private industry would not like to outsource abroad, or replace with cheaper visa labor in my country. Think about it.
    Anybody who agrees with open borders, outsourcing work abroad and importing cheap labor from the same is not very loyal to his countrymen, and therefore not loyal to his country.

  • Maria Diaz
    April 6, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Why would an engineer from another country with the same skills as an American be willing to be paid less? Is it that jobs and professions are overrated, is it that the American Dream is overrated, or is it that the world economy is not balanced, and greatly due to colonialism and big corporations. My citizenships or citizenships are of no importance to what I have to say as a human being.

  • Publius
    April 6, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    “Why would an engineer from another country with the same skills as an American be willing to be paid less?”
    Such ignorance of the way the world works. There are millions of foreigners who would jump at a chance to get a visa to work in this country. For example, India is full of professionals who would accept contract offers to work in the U.S. at better salaries than they’d earn in their own country, even though the money offered is less than what an American citizen would accept. That shouldn’t be such an alien concempt to you, as that’s what illegal aliens also tend to do. This competition between Americans and foreigners for jobs in their own country are a major immigration issue.

  • Liquidmicro
    April 6, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    “This competition between Americans and foreigners for jobs in their own country are a major immigration issue.”
    Which leads us to the question of, does the USA lower wages to that equal of these third world countries, or does the global economy raise the wages of the rest of the world to first world country status?

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