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Street gangs on the rise in South America: Are Central America's 'Maras' among them?

South American street gangs may not be as notorious as the violent 'maras,' but they pose a significant threat to security, writes guest blogger Geoffrey Ramsey.

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This resulted in a spike in the number of gang members being sent to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and elsewhere. By some estimates, as many as 20,000 criminals were sent to Central America between 2000 and 2004, and the trend has continued to this day. Sources in US law enforcement have told InSight Crime that around 100 ex-convicts are deported every week to El Salvador alone.

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But because South American migrants never formed a significant portion of the membership of these LA gangs, large-scale maras are not likely to develop south of the Darien Gap. However, this is not to say that domestic gangs are not a major threat to security in South America. Countries across the continent are seeing a steady rise in the incidence of homicides, extortion, drug distribution, and kidnapping, mostly driven by urban street gangs.

In countries like Colombia and Brazil, which are plagued by more organized criminal groups, the problem is more complex. These organizations often “subcontract” street gangs to serve as their enforcers, using them to cement their control over urban areas. Like the groups in the US, many South American gangs use prisons as a kind of home base and recruiting ground. Prisons in Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia are often almost entirely controlled by the gangs themselves, and it is not uncommon for gang leaders to run their organizations from behind bars.

South American street gangs may not be as notorious as Central America’s maras, but they pose a significant threat to security. What’s more, it could be set to worsen. UN officials have warned of a surge of cocaine consumption among youths in South America, led by Uruguay, Chile and Argentina (link in Spanish). With the domestic market rising, the incentive to control it is higher, meaning that gang violence in the region could become even more serious.

Geoffrey Ramsey  is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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