The streets of Central America have become a breeding ground and organizing point for American gangs. El Salvador in particular has spawned what the US Department of Homeland Security now calls the most dangerous street gang in America: Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
The internationalization of American street gangs is largely a product of the Central American conflicts of the 1980’s. As civil war tore through El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, millions of refugees escaped to the United States only to settle in the midst of California’s roughest gang neighborhoods. Many Central Americans joined or created gangs themselves. The Salvadoran gangs grew the fastest as new immigrants flooded Los Angeles, but it was a heavy-handed US deportation policy that truly facilitated the wild fire growth and international reach of what the American government now calls a serious national security threat.
In the US, law enforcement agencies have recently taken broad steps to curb the growth of MS-13, who are consistently drawing new recruits from Central America. The reach and organization of Central American gangs has pushed the FBI to send field agents to El Salvador as well, where US officers work in concert with the Salvadoran government on a zero tolerance anti-gang campaign called “Mano Dura” or “Iron Fist.” The ultra-aggressive methods of Salvadoran security forces enjoy popular support in El Salvador, but have also been condemned by scholars and human rights groups who charge that indiscriminant police actions, and a re-emergent military presence on the street, signal a digression to the Draconian tactics that incited El Salvador’s civil war thirty years ago.