The Evolution of Central America’s ‘Third Generation Gangs’

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Gangs in Central America have become
Gangs in Central America have become "de facto" governments, charging "taxes" and outnumbering the police and military.

The children of Central America who come to CARECEN’s office every day seeking help tell us story after story of being threated or attacked by the violent gangs that have taken over wide swaths of their home countries. The gangs like Mara Salvatrucha took hold when gang members from Los Angeles were deported back to El Salvador and Honduras in the 1990s. They have become stronger now that drug smuggling operations have been pushed out of Colombia and the drug lords have sought a haven in the disordered states of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

One estimate puts the number of Mara Salvatrucha members in El Salvador at 27,500. That makes the Mara larger than the Salvadoran army. What were once street gangs have morphed into what the experts call “Third Generation Gangs.” Lieutenant Colonel Howard L. Gray wrote an analysis of this development for the Army War College several years ago:

“The third generation gang poses a challenge to the legitimate state monopoly on the exercise of control and use of violence within a given political territory. This challenge elevates the leader of the gang to warlord or drug baron status. That status clearly takes the gang into intrastate war or nonstate war. Third generation gangs have broad objectives that surpass petty criminal activities and work to erode the very core of national sovereignty. … [T]hird generation gangs look to depose or replace the incumbent government, control parts or regions within a nation-state and work to change the values in a society to those of the gang.”

Military experts say that the three northern countries of Central America are now the most dangerous regions of the world outside of a war zone, according to Professor Debbie Anker of Harvard Law School. She says, “Like a government, the MS-13, for example, collects ‘taxes’ by extorting payments from bus drivers, cab drivers, and local business owners, among others.” The gangs are trying to impose their laws and values on Central American society.

The gangs are no longer merely gangs. They have become insurgent governments in many places.


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