The Relationship Between Central American Street Gangs and Regular and Irregular Migration Patterns

Within the last month, there has been substantial discussion about whether the U.S. is facing a ‘border crisis’ owing to a rise in the number of children who cross the border into the U.S. unaccompanied. Recent articles have discussed the reasons why so many children are embarking on the perilous journey from Central America to the United States and pursuing desperate means, including riding on top of trains and running the risk of being kidnapped, extorted or abandoned in the desert. Despite these known risks, children and adults from Central America, particularly El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (the Northern Triangle) continue to attempt to enter the U.S. through undocumented and irregular means. News agencies have attempted to theorize and address why so many children and adults are leaving the Northern Triangle and generally cite extreme poverty, broken social structures, astronomically high crime rates stemming from gang and cartel violence, and insufficient or corrupt state institutions as major motivating factors. One of the most commonly discussed factors prompting migration for both children and adults is pervasive gang violence in the region. The rise of unaccompanied child migrants has thus prompted examination of the correlation between gangs and migration. I recently completed my MA thesis at Georgetown examining the relationship between the proliferation of Central American street gangs and regular and irregular migratory patterns in the Northern Triangle, Mexico, and the U.S. and have summarized the findings, which contribute, in part, to the understanding of why Central American children are attempting to cross the U.S. border.

This relationship is often oversimplified in the media and lumped together with those escaping ‘narco and drug violence’ and ‘generalized criminality.’ Looking specifically at the relationship between street gangs and migration in the Northern Triangle there are three direct connections. First, gangs or maras, due to their hyper violence and geographic pervasiveness cause individuals to flee from their homes. Second, the governments of these three countries have developed and implemented hardline approaches to ‘combating’ these gangs, which have developed into a vilification of youth involving violent and oppressive tactics that induce internal and external migration. Finally undocumented status in the U.S. may serve as an impetus for gang affiliation.

There has been substantial attention given to the growth and development of Central American, originally Salvadoran, street gangs within the United States. The media has taken particular interest in two of the largest gangs, MS-13 and M-18, with documentaries such as “MS-13 The Most Dangerous Gang in the World” documenting their origins and actions. The Central American gangs developed from the Salvadoran refugee and immigrant influx in Los Angeles during and after the Salvadoran Civil War, which lasted from 1979-1992, and the predominant gang culture that already existed in Los Angeles. These gangs were transplanted back to El Salvador through the subsequent U.S. “Three Strike” criminal and deportation policies implemented during the mid to late 1990s and post-war repatriation efforts. Since the early 2000s the gangs have grown in membership and power in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and, because of this rapid growth, the national governments of these countries have been unable to respond with appropriate measures and tools to combat these gangs, redress the victims of gang violence, and successfully rebuild communities that have been torn apart by the violence.

Gangs in the Northern Triangle have gained de facto control of many territories, communities, and neighborhoods through the use of unregulated violence and their high levels of membership, often spanning large age ranges.Gang members fuel their operations, rather successfully, through the use of extortion, drug trafficking, prostitution rings, forced recruitment, retaliatory violence, and outright kinetic violence to inspire the kind of fear that makes full use of their fierce and violent reputation. For example, in specific reference to MS-13, one of the largest Central American street gangs, the U.S. Treasury Department has stated that, “Domestically, the group [MS-13] is involved in multiple crimes including murder, racketeering, drug trafficking, sex trafficking and human trafficking including prostitution. The group frequently carries out violent attacks on opposing gang members, often injuring innocent bystanders. MS-13 members have been responsible for numerous killings within the United States.”

The violence precipitated by gangs in the Northern Triangle is at an endemic level. San Pedro Sula, a city in Honduras, has been nicknamed, “the Murder Capital of the World,” given that the murder rate in 2011 was 169 per 100,000 inhabitants. This figure is alarming outside of active war zones. The national homicide rates by contrast were 82.1 per 100,000 in Honduras and 66 per 100,000 in El Salvador. In the decade since 1995, the ten most violent countries in the world have included El Salvador and Honduras eight times. As a point of comparison, in May of 2013 the National Police of Nicaragua, a neighbor to the Northern Triangle, stated that the 2012 homicide rate was 11 per 100,000.

Given the inability of the national governments of the Northern Triangle to successfully resolve the gang crisis and the ruthlessness and criminality of the gangs, many individuals are forced to flee to new locations within their home countries or across international borders. If feasible, many individuals attempt to relocate to towns and cities within their home country to escape direct or generalized conditions of gang violence. However due to the geographically small size of the Northern Triangle countries and the pervasiveness of the gangs and their networks, this in-country relocation option is not always available. This inability to relocate internally is confirmed by the high volume of gang-based asylum claims in the U.S. and other countries such as Nicaragua, with the majority of applicants coming from the Northern Triangle.

Due to the extreme violence and forced recruitment practices utilized by gangs, many youth in particular are embarking on the perilous journey to the United States to avoid gang involvement.. Asylum applicants for gang-based cases in the U.S. generally have difficulty meeting the rigid standards imposed by the U.S. legal system and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1963 Protocol, especially in establishing themselves as being part of a particular social group with sufficient particularity and sufficient social distinction in the society in question.

The governments of the Northern Triangle countries have implemented repressive responses called Mano Dura to combat the growing gang problems. The principles and practices of Mano Dura have created more generalized violence and increased mistrust in government institutions, in particular the police force and judiciary. Ordinary citizens do not feel that these institutions can be trusted or utilized. While such hardline policies have received glowing praise by a variety of political actors such as Tony Saca, the former president of El Salvador, and Juan Orlando Hernandez, the current president of Honduras, many have contended that they generate more violence and undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions. University of Glasglow professor, Dr. Mo Hume in, “Mano Dura: El Salvador Responds to Gangs,” argues that Mano Dura relies on creating a politics of fear and panic that regenerates structures and individual manifestations of violence. Youth have become targets of the state and can be detained and jailed on simple suspicion of gang activity, such as dressing in certain clothing or having visible tattoos, which poses a real concern for parents trying to protect their children. The role and authority of the police and military have been blurred, in direct violation of the El Salvador and Guatemala Peace Accords, which creates fear of state actors, in addition to the gangs.

An example of potential state sanctioned or enacted violence can be seen in the homicide rates for El Salvador in 2012. MS-13 and M-18, in El Salvador, reached an historic truce in March 2012. The truce contributed to a drastic decrease in homicides in the country and there was tremendous optimism about the success of the truce. The Institute Medicina Legal (IML), El Salvador’s forensic institute, reported 2,492 murders in 2013, with an average of 6.83 murders per day, whereas in 2012 there was a reported 2,594 murders with an average of 7.11 per day. While it is remarkable that these numbers decreased, the overall homicide rate remained troublingly high and begs the question: who is committing these murders? Further questions arise from these concerns: are state actors using excessive force against perceived or established gang members? Are vigilante groups attacking suspected gang members?

The causes of the homicide rate in El Salvador, as in Guatemala and Honduras, are in large part unaccounted for in the sense that popular rhetoric, largely fueled by the national government, suggests that the majority of homicides are gang related, although the governments have been unable to concretely substantiate these claims. In addition to possible state generated violence, there are high levels of police corruption, inefficiency and indifference, which diminish the state’s capacity to effectively protect its citizens.

Non-gang based migration trends also contribute to the proliferation of the gangs. When migrants arrive in the United States, often without documentation, they find themselves living in shadow or “undocumented” communities with severe structural challenges to successful assimilation. Those who stay behind in the Northern Triangle, however, have to cope with the loss of family members and stability. The dynamics created by out-migration and unlawful presence put tremendous pressures on individuals and families. Such pressures may create conditions ideal for gang involvement both in the country of origin or in the U.S.: parents are often absent, separated, or work lengthy hours; the lack of legal status in the United States creates certain insecurities; language and cultural discrimination exists and a lack of a cohesive individual or cultural identity, amongst many others.

The Northern Triangle presents a complex case study due to a variety of competing factors: structurally entrenched poverty, pervasive gang violence, the presence of highly sophisticated drug cartels, oppressive state violence, weak or ineffective state institutions, and geographically separated families, amongst other trends and problems. There may be a decisive reason for sudden flight, such as a direct physical assault; whereas in other scenarios multiple factors may contribute to a gradual decision to migrate, such as lack of employment opportunities coupled with generalized gang violence. It should always be understood that the relationship between gangs and migration is complicated and multifaceted. Having a better and more holistic understanding of each component can help create better protection programs, and eventually solutions.


  1. […] + The Relationship Between Central American Street Gangs and Migration Patterns Excellent analysis of the crisis of violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle: […]


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