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.

Leonardo Baldovinos/REUTERS
A soldier stands guard as a policeman searches men for drugs and weapons during an operation in San Salvador January 23. As Mexican cartels are moving into Central America, this forces governments to call in army troops to support local law enforcements efforts against drug trafficking. Drug gangs have also established connections with local kingpins and gangs, known as Maras, increasing the levels of violence in the area.

• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

In recent years, officials have expressed increasing concern about the influence of Central American street gangs, known as “maras,” in South America; but while street gangs are on the rise in the region, they are a different beast.

On May 25 last year, 19-year-old Peruvian Oscar Barrientos shot and killed his father in their home in Callao, a city just west of Lima. When Peruvian police arrested him last month, however, his confession was less shocking than his reported motive. According to officials, Barrientos considered himself a member of the Mara Salvatrucha (link in Spanish) – also known as MS-13 – and may have killed his father as part of an initiation rite into the gang (see original post for photo of his tattooed lower lip). This revelation set off a wave of speculation in Peru on the influence of the Central American street gang in the country, and prompted local police to claim that Callao is home to at least one MS-13 crew of about 20 individuals.

Alarm over the spreading influence of Central American “maras” is nothing new. Groups like MS-13 and their rivals, Barrio 18, have expanded across Central America, as well as operating in Mexico and the United States. In recent years, analysts have become concerned about the potential for their growth in South America. Since as far back as 2005, US law enforcement officials have been warning that cells of the Mara Salvatrucha have sprung up in Ecuador, and there have been reports of members of both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 in countries as distant as Bolivia, Venezuela and even Argentina.

But while there may be small cells active in these countries, these groups do not pose anything like the same menace that they do in Central America. Claims to the contrary overlook a primary feature of the maras’ history: the fact that they first formed in the US, and that their spread throughout Central America is due mostly to a wave of deportations of gang members from the US that began in the 1990s.

Both MS-13 and M-18 began as small scale street gangs made up of mostly Central American (and some Mexican) migrants in the barrios, or slums, of Los Angeles in the late 1980s. They eventually became some of the most powerful gangs in the California prison system. By the end of the 1990s, the US started to see these groups as a serious criminal threat. Partly as a result, the Clinton administration significantly strengthened US deportation policies, beginning to send large numbers of foreign-born convicts back to their home countries.

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.

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.

Get daily or weekly updates from CSMonitor.com delivered to your inbox. Sign up today.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.