Central American Gangs

January 30, 2015 • Volume 25, Issue 5
Can violence in the region be stopped?
By Peter Katel


A Barrio-18 member in a jail in El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, wears the bold tattoos once favored by violent gangs (Getty Images/Giles Clarke)
A Barrio-18 member in a jail in El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, wears the bold tattoos once favored by violent gangs in Central America, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Tattoos have fallen out of fashion in recent years, after police searching for gang members began targeting men with tattoos. (Getty Images/Giles Clarke)

Young people fleeing Central America's so-called Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — for the United States tell of life made unliveable by violent street gangs, stratospheric homicide rates, extortion threats and official corruption. The violence has washed over into the United States, where Barrio-18 and MS-13 — rival gangs with roots in both Southern California and Central America — have committed murder and mayhem in Los Angeles and other American cities. Though Central American civil wars and state-sponsored death squads were major news in the 1980s and '90s, most Americans only became aware of the present crisis last year, when tens of thousands of young migrants — many of them children traveling alone — poured over the U.S. border, seeking asylum. The Obama administration is funding a preventive strategy aimed at curbing gang violence in Central America, a contrast to the enforcement-heavy “Iron Fist” approach used in the region, now widely questioned. Critics are skeptical about the new U.S. strategy, and few experts expect the crisis to ease anytime soon.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
May 27, 2022  Crime in America
Feb. 10, 2017  Forensic Science Controversies
Feb. 05, 2016  Restorative Justice
Jan. 30, 2015  Central American Gangs
Aug. 29, 2014  Transnational Crime
Aug. 09, 2013  Sexual Assault in the Military
Oct. 26, 2012  Mexico's Future
Apr. 20, 2012  Criminal Records and Employment
Apr. 19, 2011  Honor Killings
Sep. 2010  Crime in Latin America
Jul. 16, 2010  Gangs in the U.S.
Jul. 17, 2009  Examining Forensics
Apr. 17, 2009  Wrongful Convictions Updated
Feb. 08, 2008  Fighting Crime
Oct. 11, 2002  Corporate Crime
Apr. 04, 1997  Declining Crime Rates
Dec. 10, 1982  Arson: America's Most Costly Crime
May 07, 1982  Helping Victims of Crime
Mar. 13, 1981  Violent Crime's Return to Prominence
Jul. 15, 1977  Crime Reduction: Reality or Illusion
Jan. 19, 1972  Crime of Rape
Jan. 22, 1969  Street Crime in America
Jan. 17, 1968  Burglary Prevention
Sep. 22, 1965  Compensation for Victims of Crime
Feb. 17, 1965  Criminal Justice and Crime Control
Oct. 18, 1961  Control of City Crime
Jun. 20, 1929  Crime and the Courts
Crime and Law Enforcement
Global Issues
International Law and Agreements
Latin American Conflicts
Organized Crime
Regional Political Affairs: Latin America and the Caribbean