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IN THIS ISSUE Youth Gangs in Central America

Differing Perspectives
on Gangs ...........................................1
Issues in Human Rights, Effective
Police Reform and the Rule of
Law in Central America ................8
Policing, and Prevention
Social Cleansing and Extra
Judicial Execution: A Human
Rights Challenge .......................... 15
Differing Perspectives on Gangs

Preventing Youth Violence ....... 20
sk someone to describe a “gang member” and the response will be almost
immediate. Most people, whether they have ever encountered an actual gang
member or not, will describe a gun-toting, tattooed criminal. Ask someone to
explain what a “Central American youth gang” is and the respondent is likely to paint
an image of a dangerous network of criminal gangs, based in Central America and
spreading their tentacles from there into the United States and other countries. Fueled
by sometimes one-sided media coverage, these terms carry with them a strong set of
prejudices and assumptions.

The reality is far more complex. Gangs and gang members are very serious threats to
public security in some communities both in Central America and in the United States.
But the character and the origins of Central American youth gangs, and the problem of
youth gang violence, are not simple to understand or address. They have both local and
transnational aspects and are a social as well as a law enforcement issue.

In Central America, youth gangs have existed since at least the 1960s, although their
character changed significantly in the 1990s.

To understand youth gangs in Central American immigrant communities in the United

A WOLA Special Report States, one must recognize that youth gangs in the U.S. can be traced back as far as the
1780s. Gangs based in particular ethnic groups (Irish, Italian, Jewish, Slavic, etc.) emerged
November 2006
with successive waves of immigration to media have all attempted to address the
the United States. And since World War issue from a number of angles and using a
II, youth gangs like the Blackstone Rangers, variety of methods.
the Vice Lords, Skinheads, the Bloods
and the Crips, and the Latin Kings have Each of these actors plays an important
been present in most major cities. In the role in addressing the issue of youth
Central American immigrant community gangs and youth gang violence. Yet, each
in the U.S, youth gangs emerged in Los actor approaches the problem from a
Angeles in the 1980s. The two dominant different point of view, and often with
youth gangs in this community became the different assumptions about the origins
Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, and the Barrio and nature of Central American youth
Dieciocho, or the 18th Street gang. gangs. Different definitions of who is a
Today, migration flows gang member, and what it means to be a
between the U.S. and As Central American youth who had gang member determine how one counts
emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s began the number of gangs and gang members;
Central America are this in turn influences assessments of how
to return to their countries of origin in the
strong, and the links 1990s (often involuntarily because of U.S. much of a threat to public security gangs
between the gangs in deportation policies), and as U.S. cultural are considered to be. Different analyses
influences spread more widely in Central of why gangs form and why young people
various countries have America, youth gangs in the region began join gangs shape how one decides the best
been reinforced. to adopt the style, and the names of the Los strategies to combat them.
Angeles gangs. While connections between
gangs in the two regions developed, the
two phenomena—growing ethnic youth Research Efforts and
gangs in Central American immigrant
communities in the U.S, and the youth
Government Responses
gangs in Central America that were re- There are several efforts underway
inventing themselves—were distinct. that seek to analyze comprehensively
the phenomenon of youth gangs in
Today, migration flows between the U.S. Central America and the related, but
and Central America are strong, and distinct, phenomenon of U.S. youth
the links between the gangs in various gangs which started in the Central
countries have been reinforced. However, American immigrant communities of Los
there is little evidence that those links Angeles and have spread in the United
have, as yet, taken on a structured, States. Since the mid-1990s, a network
institutional character, and the level of of Jesuit-related research centers in
transnational communication does not Central America has produced important
appear to be highly organized or consistent. information and statistics on the gang
phenomenon in Central America.
In the past few years, as youth gangs Centered at the University of Central
in Central America have grown and America’s Institute for the Study of
become more violent, as youth gang Public Opinion (IUDOP) in El Salvador,
activity in Central American immigrant the research teams have published four
communities in the United States has volumes entitled, “Maras y Pandillas en
become more visible, and as cross-border Centroamérica,” which report on survey
contact between gangs has raised concerns research among gang members, analyze
among national security specialists, the factors that lead young people to join
these gangs (in particular MS-13 and gangs, and discuss related issues such as
18th Street) have been the focus of much social capital, rehabilitation, and civil
attention in Central America and the society responses.1
United States. Governments, homeland
security agencies, police, social service Another important research effort is the
providers, youth advocacy groups, and the Network on Transnational Youth Gangs

2 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
(Red Transnacional de Análisis sobre Maras) Today, governments in El Salvador,
of the Center for Inter-American Studies Guatemala, and Honduras continue to
and Programs at the Instituto Tecnológico focus on repressive policing as the principle
Autónomo de Mexico. They are conducting response to youth gang violence.
a comparative analysis of youth gangs in
Central America and youth gangs made up
of Central American immigrants or their Central American Gangs
children in Mexico and the United States. and the Impact of U.S.
Their findings on the nature of youth gangs
and transnational aspects of the youth Deportation Polices
gang problem (including a section by the Estimates of the number of gangs and gang
Washington Office on Latin America members that exist in Central America
(WOLA) on Central American immigrant vary enormously. Low-end estimates MS-13 is one of the
youth gangs in the Washington D.C. metro suggest there are 70,000 – 100,000 gang most well known youth
area) will be released in early 2007. members in the Central American region
gang connected to
and high end estimates sometimes triple
In addition, the U.S. Agency for that number.3 the Central American
International Development (USAID) community. By most
published a comprehensive report in April of Estimates of the numbers of Central
2006 which examines the factors contributing American immigrant gangs and gang accounts, MS-13 was
to gang membership from the U.S. to members in the U.S. are somewhat more initially formed in
Mexico and Central America and makes precise, although certainly not exact. The
Los Angeles during
recommendations for the U.S. government.2 U.S. Department of Justice, looking at
youth gangs overall, questioned a sample the 1980s by Central
These efforts to understand the complexity of police forces across the country in 2004. American immigrants,
of the phenomenon of youth gang violence Based on this survey, they estimated that
will contribute, over time, to sensible there were 760,000 gang members in 2004,
many of whom lived in
policy responses to the problem. including members of predominantly poor neighborhoods
African-American gangs, members of already rife with racial
While research goes forward, governments mostly white gangs, and of predominantly
have begun to take action. Starting in Asian gangs, and gangs reflecting different and ethnic gangs.
2003, Central American governments ethnic groups within the U.S. Latino
began to respond to youth gang community (predominantly Mexican-
violence with what politicians called a American gangs, Puerto Rican gangs,
mano dura (iron fist), highly repressive Central American immigrant gangs,
policing strategies that included massive etc.)4 This report did not provide a more
detentions of young people for the crime detailed breakdown. Separately, the
of gang membership, relaxed evidentiary Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
standards, and harsh prison sentences. and the U.S. National Drug Intelligence
These government strategies were driven Center estimate that there are some
by a mix of factors. Growing levels of 38,000 members of MS-13 or the 18th
violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Street gang in the United States, the
Honduras, and sometimes sensationalistic two predominant gangs in the Central
media coverage of that violence, American immigrant community.5
intensified the sense of insecurity that
many citizens expected their governments MS-13 is one of the most well known youth
and politicians to address. Simplistic gang connected to the Central American
understanding of the nature of youth community. By most accounts, MS-13 was
gangs and a tendency to attribute to gangs initially formed in Los Angeles during the
– often without evidence – the blame for 1980s by Central American immigrants,
most of the crime and violence in the many of whom lived in poor neighborhoods
region, also increased pressure for hard already rife with racial and ethnic gangs.
line policies. Refugees or the children of refugees

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 3

America involuntarily, they were left
with few options and often join existing
local gangs in Central America, bringing
with them the gang culture that had
developed in Central American immigrant
communities in 1980s Los Angeles.

Deportation policies played an important

role in the evolution of gangs in the
Central American region and a key role in
the “transnationalization” of the problem.
As migration between the U.S. and the
region continues to surge, the connections
and influences between the gangs in each
country have only become stronger.

Some in the United States have proposed

a still stronger emphasis on deportation,
from the civil war in El Salvador in the as a way to get criminals out of the United
1980s created MS-13 as a way to protect States. There are legislative proposals,
themselves from local gangs (principally such as the “Alien Gang Removal Act.”
Deportation policies Mexican-American gangs) in their new There are policing practices, such as
L.A. neighborhoods.6 “Operation Community Shield,” in which
played an important
federal authorities seek to identify, arrest
role in the evolution In the1990s, U.S. deportation policy and deport suspected gang members based
of gangs in the Central (the Illegal Immigration Reform and on immigration violations. Increasingly
Immigrant Responsibility Act, IIRIRA, of aggressive deportation policies are likely to
American region 1995) began to more aggressively target further strengthen the transnational links
and a key role in the individuals with criminal records for between gangs in Central America and
“transnationalization” deportation. Any non-citizen, including in the United States and to worsen the
legal permanent residents of the United problems in the region. At the same time,
of the problem. As States, who was convicted of a crime they are likely to have little impact on levels
migration between whose sentence might last longer than a of youth gang violence in Central American
year was subject to removal from the U.S. communities in the United States. 10
the U.S. and the region
after they had served a full jail sentence.
continues to surge, 7
In a three year period (1994-1997), this
the connections and deportation strategy caused the forced Addressing the Problem in
migration of more than 150,000 back
influences between to their “home country,” bereft of social Central America: Obstacles
the gangs in each networks and sometimes without Spanish and the Need for Alterna-
language skills.8 Similar tactics have been
country have only
stepped up in the past year with 2,179
tive Approaches
become stronger. “criminal aliens” deported in May 2006 Gangs in the Central American countries
alone as a result of “Operation Return of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador
to Sender.” Approximately 370 of these have been transformed by their contact with
deportees were thought to be members of U.S. based gang culture and style and they
MS-13.9 There is no hard data available have become serious public security threats
about the total number of gang-involved in many communities in Central America.
deportees since 1994, but most analysts Partly in response to indiscriminate and
believe that many of the younger people repressive tactics used by the police, these
convicted of criminal activity and gangs are becoming more organized and
deported had become gang-involved while more violent, and are turning toward
in the United States. Returned to Central new forms of criminal conduct. While

4 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
sensationalized reporting and political Specifically, the governments of
posturing contributes to citizens’ fear of Honduras and El Salvador have
gangs, that fear remains high based on real responded to youth gangs with repressive
experiences. Once primarily neighborhood mano dura strategies in an attempt to
based groups that fought over turf with control gangs and appease constituents.
rival gangs, some gangs have become more These laws make membership in a gang
violent and are often involved in extortion illegal. Thousands of youth, guilty of
of neighborhood residents, businesses, and nothing more than having a tattoo
public transportation operators, as well as in or wearing baggy pants, have been
neighborhood drug dealing. indiscriminately arrested. Massive arrests
have violated the rights of thousands of
Central American societies face structural Salvadoran and Honduran youth and
Most Central American
problems in dealing with gang violence and placed considerable pressure on the
its causes. Governments are still in the early already overcrowded prison system. While government policies
stages of democratization and stabilization. Guatemala has not passed such legislation, have treated gangs as
Levels of poverty and unemployment are police have implemented many of the
high, police and other institutions remain same repressive policing strategies. enemy combatants to
weak, youth are marginalized, and there be eliminated rather
are very few resources to address many of Much as the U.S. deportation strategy than as the product
the root problems which lead youth to join since the mid-90s unexpectedly
gangs in the first place. contributed to the growth of gangs, these of various societal
mano dura policies have pushed the problems that need to
Gang violence is only one of many serious gangs underground and, as a result, they
be addressed through
security issues in the region. Organized have become more organized.11 Many
crime, narco-trafficking, common crime, gang members have lowered their public comprehensive
and family violence are widespread and profile. They are no longer tattooing strategies that
threaten citizen security everywhere in the themselves or wearing identifiable
region. Gangs are often used as scapegoats clothing nor are they congregating include smart law
for various other security problems and publicly; but they are continuing to enforcement, combined
criminal activity for which they are meet, and to carry out gang activities.
with prevention and
not responsible. The majority of youth Meanwhile, the prisons have provided
deemed to be “gang members” still belong an ideal location for the gangs to rehabilitation programs.
to smaller, neighborhood gangs and are become more cohesive. In addition to
not involved in serious criminal activity. contributing to the mutation of gangs,
Unfortunately, the fear in communities repressive policies have done nothing
with a gang presence is sometimes inflated to alleviate the rising level of violence
by inflammatory media reports. and number of homicides in Guatemala,
Honduras, and El Salvador.
Governments have been quick to pander
to these fears by implementing short term In our view, these mano dura responses
repressive measures that appear to offer to youth gang violence have been
immediate results. Additionally, they ineffective in controlling the problem
have seized these provocative reports as while posing serious threats to human
an opportunity to blame nearly all crime rights and democratic governance in the
and violence on gangs. Most Central region. This publication examines these
American government policies have threats (repressive government policies,
treated gangs as enemy combatants to ineffective policing, and social cleansing)
be eliminated rather than as the product while exploring what is known about
of various societal problems that need alternative approaches and highlighting
to be addressed through comprehensive best practices in curbing gang violence and
strategies that include smart law membership (community policing that
enforcement, combined with prevention respects human rights and comprehensive
and rehabilitation programs. prevention-oriented programs). The U.S.

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 5

experience with the evolution of gangs and numerous U.S. government officials about
developing effective responses can provide their perspectives on the problem. Finally,
a useful framework for Central American we met with colleagues in the NGO
countries to begin deciphering the issue community and with U.S. experts on youth
within their own cultural and historical gang violence.
contexts. Additionally, the policies and
reactions of one region in dealing with In February of 2005, WOLA, in conjunction
Central American youth gangs have clear with the Due Process of Law Foundation,
implications for the other. Transnational the Pan-American Health Organization
cooperation and a nuanced understanding (PAHO), and the Inter-American
As youth gang violence of the realities of each country are essential Coalition for the Prevention of Violence (a
to effectively addressing the Central coalition that includes the Inter-American
has emerged as a major American youth gang phenomenon. Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank,
problem in Central USAID, the Centers for Disease Control,
and others), organized an event entitled
America (and as an issue
WOLA’s Interest “Voices from the Field: Local Initiatives and
in Central American New Research on Youth Gang Violence
in the Issues in Central America.”12 The day-long
immigrant communities
The Washington Office on Latin America conference was held in Washington, DC.
in the United States), (WOLA) has long followed issues of With financial support from PAHO and
WOLA has begun to human rights and public security in Central the World Bank, we brought researchers
focus on the need for America. We saw police reform as a central and NGO speakers from Central America,
element of the peace processes in the a prominent U.S. academic, police from
an effective response region and believed that citizen security northern Virginia and Central America, and
to gang violence that could be guaranteed by modern, effective others to speak on the issue.
police forces that respected human rights
respects human rights
and due process. WOLA has worked with That conference underscored a central
and involves civil society a number of civil society organizations message in our work: while youth gang
and community groups. in Central America on citizen security violence is a difficult problem, without
and police reform issues over the years. magic solutions, progress can be made
As youth gang violence has emerged as a if governments adopt comprehensive
major problem in Central America (and as strategies that recognize the problem as one
an issue in Central American immigrant that requires prevention and rehabilitation
communities in the United States), WOLA programs, as well as effective, rights-
has begun to focus on the need for an respecting law enforcement.
effective response to gang violence that
respects human rights and involves civil Since that conference, we have worked,
society and community groups. with the support of the Ford Foundation and
the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to convey
We began to monitor the problem of gang that message as widely as possible, especially
violence in Central America and the by working with Central American
responses of governments, civil society, colleagues who formed the Central
and donors in early 2004. We gathered American Coalition for the Prevention of
information about the problem of youth Youth Violence. During this period, we have
gang violence in Central America examined issues of human rights, police
and consulted with colleagues in the practices, and youth violence prevention
region, including human rights activists, in Central America, and touched on some
government officials, church groups, youth of the issues in the development of youth
workers, and others. We participated gangs in Central American immigrant
in several events sponsored by U.S. communities in the United States. This
government agencies and talked with a report reflects our views.

6 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
See 10
This report makes a number of policy
See recommendations. Most are contained in the sections
on social cleansing and human rights, effective law
Ribando, Clare. Gangs in Central America. Washington, enforcement, and prevention programs. The issue of
DC: Congressional Research Service, January 2006. U.S. deportation policy is a complex and politically
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. charged topic which is not addressed in this report. Here
2004 National Youth Gang Survey. Washington, DC: we note though that if high levels of deportation are
Department of Justice, April 2006. to continue, the U.S. needs to work more closely with
United States Agency for International Development. Central American governments to keep them informed
Central America and Mexico Gangs Assessment. about deportees, and to help governments develop
Washington, DC: April 2006. effective programs to receive deportees, enabling them
to re-integrate into Central American societies. Beyond
Logan, Sam. Deportation Feeds a Cycle of Violence
that, the policy of aggressive deportation needs to be
in Central America. Washington, DC: International
re-evaluated. Its impact on Central American societies
Relations Center, March 2006.
needs to be rigorously analyzed, as does its effectiveness
Morawetz, Nancy. Understanding the Impact of the in reducing youth violence in the United States.
1996 Deportation Laws and the Limited Scope of Proposed 11
Cruz, Jose Miguel and Marlon Carranza. Pandillas y
Reforms. Boston: Harvard Law Review, 2000. Vol. 113.
Politicas Públicas: El Caso de El Salvador, Juventudes,
Taylor, Margaret and Alexander Aleinikoff. Deportation Violencia y Exclusión: Desafios para las Politicas Publicas.
of Criminal Aliens: A Geopolitical Perspective. Washington, San Salvador, El Salvador: INDES, January 2006.
DC: Inter-American Dialogue, June 1998. 12
Washington Office on Latin America. Voices from the
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE Field: Local Initiatives and New Research on Youth Gang
apprehends more than 2,100 criminal aliens, gang members, Violence in Central America. Washington, DC: WOLA,
fugitives and other immigration violators in nationwide interior August 2005.
enforcement operation. Washington, DC: Department of
Homeland Security, June 2006.

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 7

Police Reform and the Rule
of Law in Central America

he application of mano dura  strengthen the investigative capacity
practices in response to youth gang of the police, particularly of detective
violence has had a negative impact units, thus reducing the likelihood
on the consolidation of the police forces that police would resort to coercive
The application of of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras practices or forced confession in order
as professional forces that respect human to solve crimes;
mano dura practices
rights and due process, and has weakened
in response to youth  reduce and control police corruption.
respect for the rule of law. This is an
gang violence has had especially serious problem, from the point
of view of human rights and democracy. These reforms were seen as vital to
a negative impact on the consolidation of peace and the
the consolidation of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras democratization of the region. They were
all began processes of demilitarization intended first and foremost to re-assure
the police forces of El
and democratization in the 1990s. It former rebels and the political opposition
Salvador, Guatemala, is common today to describe Central that the police would not be employed
and Honduras as America as a region in which a transition as instruments of political repression.
to democracy has taken place, although Creating apolitical, professional, and
professional forces that it is more accurate to say that a fragile civilian police leadership was central
respect human rights and uneven transition is still underway. to this. They were also intended to end
and due process, and The reform and professionalization the human rights abuses practiced with
of police was a central element of the impunity by both police and security
has weakened respect transition to a more democratic state. forces during the 1980s. And they were
for the rule of law. Reform of the police and security forces intended as part of the larger project
was written into the 1992 Peace Accords of creating modern states in Central
in El Salvador, and the 1995 peace America, in which citizens, businesses,
agreements in Guatemala. With the political groups, and others have a level
end of the “contra war” in Nicaragua, of confidence in the police in controlling
and the peace agreement in El Salvador, crime and providing citizen security,
the space for reform began to emerge without favor or advantage to any
in Honduras, as well, and a slow reform individual or group.
process began there in the early 1990s,
in which police and security forces were The police reform process in Central
separated, and a process of police reform America has been difficult. The results to
and professionalization began.1 date are uneven, and the process is by no
means complete.
The police reform processes in Central
America were generally intended to: El Salvador has made the most progress
of the three countries. The war-time
 separate police and security forces, and
police forces were dissolved and their
delineate clearly the mandates and
members forbidden from joining the new
appropriate roles and spheres of each in
force. Recruits for the new force – which
a democratic society;
eventually reached nearly 20,000 members
 subject police practice to a system of – were primarily civilians, although a
internal controls and rules, preventing percentage of former guerrillas and former
arbitrary detentions, the abuse of soldiers were admitted. Though imperfectly
detainees or suspects, the excessive use implemented, this design substantially
of force, and extra-judicial actions by reduced the influence of the old security
the police; services. This was perhaps the most

8 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
significant factor in developing a new, more detective unit was created; although
professional force. initially separate from the preventive
police, it was eventually placed under the
Other changes were instituted, though control of Minister of Security, along with
their impact has been less significant. An the rest of the force. And the “new internal
internal affairs unit was created; it has affairs bureau . . . has barely functioned
had serious weaknesses and been subject since its creation.”4
to political and police pressures. Media
scandals about police involvement in As this brief summary suggests, the
crime led to a purge of some 1500 officers progress toward police reform and
in the second half of 2000, but this was professionalization in Central America has
carried out under a special legislative been slow and difficult. Police have, by and
decree, rather than through the weak large, been separated from the military,
internal disciplinary process. A special although former military officials continue The consolidation of
detective unit was created, as was a to play some role in the police forces, democracy in Central
special anti-drug unit; both have received especially in Guatemala and Honduras.
extensive international training and Most police forces have not yet developed America, and the
support, although both of these have been strong command and control structures, successful transition
troubled by charges of corruption and and functioning internal control systems,
to modern states that
political influence. although police abuse in every country is
clearly less widespread and less tolerated operate under the rule
In Guatemala, the creation of a new than it was in the 1980s. Investigative of law, requires that
police force was even more difficult. While units continue to be weak, and plagued
surveys suggest that the Guatemalan public by leadership problems, politicization and the region continue to
views the new force more favorably than corruption. And while police forces are progress in the process
the old police2, the impact of the reforms generally seen as more independent than
of police reform and
has been limited. Formal civilian control they were in the 1980s, the forces have
was established, but many members of the made only limited progress in controlling professionalization.
old force were moved into the new force, corruption. The well-connected, as well as
including the entire police leadership. criminal elements can still influence police
New detective and new anti-drug units practice. (And because police reform,
were created; they have faced the same to be effective, must progress in tandem
kinds of difficulties that the similar units with reforms in the judiciary and the
in El Salvador have confronted. Internal prosecutorial system, weaknesses in these
disciplinary procedures were established, systems have complicated police reform.)
but have had limited effectiveness
(although a significant number of police Police reform is not, under any
have been dismissed for corruption or circumstances, an easy process. But the
criminal activity in the last two years).3 consolidation of democracy in Central
Successive governments have named new America, and the successful transition to
leadership for the police, and there has modern states that operate under the rule
been less stability in police leadership than of law, requires that the region continue to
in El Salvador. progress in the process of police reform and
In Honduras, the police were formally
separated from the military in 1993, and
an investigative unit with a serious history Mano Dura Strategies
of human rights abuses was shut down. But and their Impact on
most police officers were simply transferred
to the new civilian force, without any Police Reform
serious review of their records, without a Unfortunately, the mano dura strategies
substantial influx of new members, and that Central American governments have
without substantial re-training. A new employed in the last few years threaten

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 9

to undermine the modest progress that Increasing the arbitrary
has been made to date on police reform authority of the police
in the region. There are at least three The laws in El Salvador and Honduras,
areas in which mano dura strategies have and police practice in Guatemala, has
undermined police reform: in blurring the allowed for the detention of suspected
line between the police and the military; gang members based on the crime of “illicit
in giving arbitrary authority to police to association” or gang membership. There
carry out raids and detentions of suspected are two significant problems with this
gang members; and in creating a climate approach. First, it substantially weakens
in which police abuse and extra-judicial the presumption of innocence, since it
action by police is tolerated. makes “gang membership” a crime, without
requiring proof of criminal activity.
Blurring the lines between Second, it substantially loosens evidentiary
Joint patrols between the police and the military standards, permitting police to arrest
police and military Mano dura approaches, by involving the suspects for the crime of gang membership
military in joint patrols with the police, on very thin evidence. For example, the
blur the lines between
have involved the military in internal first Ley anti-mara in El Salvador, approved
the structures and roles security matters, and eroded the line in 2003, allowed the police to introduce, as
of the two institutions, between the police and the armed forces. In evidence of gang membership, the presence
all three countries in the region, presidents of tattoos or other aspects of appearance
undermining the (including dress), or the fact that suspects
have ordered military troops to accompany
separation of powers, special police patrols carrying out anti-gang had been detained while gathering in
activities, arguing that police forces are public places in groups of three or more.5
which was a significant
not large enough, or well-armed enough
accomplishment of to combat violent gangs. In principle, the Taken together, these changes substantially
the peace processes police are supposed to take the lead in increase the authority of the police to carry
making arrests, with troops providing back- out arrests based on arbitrary decisions
in the region. – police officers’ individual judgments
up and additional fire power, if needed.
about particular young people, based on
Putting aside the question of whether a their appearance or presence in groups,
massive deployment of police power is and heavily influenced by officers’ own
an effective strategy for responding to opinions, biases, etc. Even in the most
gangs, ordering the military to join in troubled police forces in Central America,
police patrols raises serious concerns. Joint most police officers are trustworthy,
patrols between police and military blur dedicated and honest individuals doing
the lines between the structures and roles difficult work. But given the power and
of the two institutions, undermining the the potential for abuse of that power
separation of powers, which was a significant that is inherent in police work, civilian
accomplishment of the peace processes in police forces generally seek to constrain
the region. In addition, to the extent that the discretion of police officers, and limit
it is true that the police are too small or their arbitrary authority. The police
too poorly armed to combat violent gangs, reforms of the 1990s in Central America
the appropriate response is to build up the were intended to reduce arbitrary police
capacity of the police, not to re-engage authority and to require police to act based
the military. History suggests that while on clear criteria and evidentiary standards.
governments often justify the deployment of
military forces in joint patrols as a short-term In the year after the first mano dura law
measure to respond to a crisis, they rarely was enacted in El Salvador (from July
order the troops back to the barracks. (Joint 23, 2003 to August 30, 2004), 19,275
patrols in rural areas of El Salvador were people were detained by the police on the
ordered as emergency measures in 1996, and charge of belonging to a gang. In a striking
are still underway today, for example.) illustration of what happens when police

10 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
are allowed to carry out detentions based and while most crime cannot be attributed
on such arbitrary criteria, 91% of those to gang members, overall crime trends in
detained were released without charge due Central America are a rough indicator of
to lack of evidence.6 levels of gang violence. When compared to
2003, the year that mano dura approaches
Overall, mano dura approaches allow, and were first systematically implemented in
often encourage, police to carry out arrests El Salvador and Honduras, overall crime
based on vague and arbitrary criteria, and levels have increased. And based on
to act against suspected criminals based interviews with both active and imprisoned
on their own opinions, judgments, and gang members, researchers argue that youth
prejudices, rather than on clear evidentiary gangs in Central America have not been
standards. This is clearly a step backwards weakened by mano dura policing. Instead,
in the reform and professionalization of the they have become more clandestine and
police in Central America. more organized. Thus, there is a need for The practice of massive
alternative approaches.7
detention of suspected
Extra-Judicial Action
There is some consensus about elements gang members has
The emphasis in mano dura policing is
of policing that are important. In not reduced gang-
on tough action by the police to detain
general, support for police reform requires
suspected gang members, and deter gang related crime, and
strengthening police command and control
activity in high-crime neighborhoods. As
systems, and improving the effectiveness shows of police force,
noted above, police are given new powers
of disciplinary systems and oversight
to arrest suspected gang members, and or of police-military
mechanisms. In relation to gang violence
the arbitrary authority of the police is force, while sometimes
in particular, there are law enforcement
increased. One consequence of this may
measures that can be taken. These include: driving gang activity
be to create a climate in which extra-
judicial action by members of the police underground, have not
Intelligence gathering. In areas where
force against suspected gang members is
gangs are present police should have an broken up gangs or
tolerated. This is discussed at greater length
anti-gang unit, which collects information reduced crime levels.
in the section of this publication on extra-
about gang members, gang structures,
judicial executions.
etc. That unit needs specialized training
in understanding gangs, information
collection and analysis, etc.
The search for alternative policing methods Gang intelligence gathering, like all
is motivated in part by the recognition that police intelligence gathering, has the
mano dura approaches undermine the rule potential for very serious abuse. Human
of law and set back police reform processes rights concerns must be addressed in the
in Central America. intelligence gathering process. Intelligence
units in public security forces in Central
It is worth noting as well that mano dura America have a bad history from the
approaches have proven to be ineffective 1980s, when intelligence information was
in controlling youth gang violence, and used to extrajudicially detain, torture, and
that from a pragmatic law enforcement execute suspects. Oversight mechanisms
point of view, alternatives are needed. The to prevent abuses, and respond to citizen
practice of massive detention of suspected complaints are crucial; training in anti-
gang members has not reduced gang- gang law enforcement should insist on the
related crime, and shows of police force, or establishment, and effective functioning of
of police-military force, while sometimes these mechanisms, as a fundamental aspect
driving gang activity underground, of the process.
have not broken up gangs or reduced
crime levels. While crime statistics are The quality of anti-gang intelligence
notoriously unreliable in Central America, needs to be carefully evaluated, as well.

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 11

Informants and detainees do not always need to pass that information along to anti-
provide complete or truthful information, gang units. Again, training in respect for
and anti-gang intelligence units need privacy, civil liberties, and human rights,
to carefully assess the information needs to be built into this training process.
they receive, rather than making snap
judgments, based on limited or biased Given the dangers for abuse, donors should
information, about who are gang members be careful to monitor police practices, and
or gang leaders. (In the United States, be prepared to respond strongly if there is
community activists often complain evidence that police trained or assisted by
that young people get put on police donors are engaged in abusive practices or
intelligence lists as suspected gang the misuse of intelligence.
Training and assistance members, and are never removed from
focused on gang them, no matter how law-abiding their Differentiating among gang members,
conduct. Thus, they remain subject to and targeting gang leaders. Mano dura
intelligence units ought higher levels of police scrutiny, long after approaches in Central America, and their
to include sections on such scrutiny is appropriate.) counterpart in “zero tolerance” approaches
in the U.S., tend to treat all young
institutional controls
In addition, intelligence gathering itself people, or all young people who fit some
and oversight and can be problematic. For example, in both criteria, as gang members or potential
human rights issues. El Salvador and Guatemala, police have gang members. Another approach, one
engaged in sweeps that pick up hundreds of employed in the Operation Ceasefire (the
young men in high crime neighborhoods. Boston Youth Violence Initiative), and
Law enforcement authorities have told the used by the Northern Virginia Anti-Gang
author that police sometimes conduct these Task Force, and the Washington, D.C.
sweeps, knowing that most of those arrested Gang Intervention Partnership, focuses
will be released without charge, because the on identifying serious criminals within
arrests allow them to gather information youth gangs, and tries to treat other
from each arrestee. This is troubling from a gang members in a way that does not
civil liberties perspective. It is troubling too consolidate their involvement in criminal
because some part of the abuse committed activity, but reduces it.
by police and security forces in the 1980s
was based in the ability of the police to In this approach, teams that include police
arbitrarily detain people, based on suspicion, and other community figures (school
and without solid evidence. Police reform officials, community social service agency
and professionalization in the1990s sought staff, etc.) work to identify the relatively
to reduce the power of the police to arrest small number of youth most likely, based
arbitrarily and on suspicion. The practice of on their history and their leadership roles,
arresting young people without evidence of to engage in violent behavior. Rather
a crime in order to gather gang intelligence than trying to find a reason to arrest
undermines this progress. these individuals, the teams seek to deter
those specific individuals from carrying
Training and assistance focused on gang out violent acts. This approach is based
intelligence units ought to include sections on the notion that traditional deterrence
on institutional controls and oversight, doesn’t work because violence-prone youth
and human rights issues, as well as on the do not believe that they will personally
technical aspects of intelligence collection experience any consequences if they
and analysis. engage in violent criminal behavior. This
approach targets these young people, and
In addition to training for specialized units, has police, probation officials, judges,
governments and international donors school officials, and others all sit down
ought to offer training to patrol officers, together with targeted gang-involved youth
who also need to be trained in information to communicate clearly that they will be
gathering and awareness about gangs, and closely monitored by law enforcement

12 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
officials and community leaders, and that Community Oriented Policing. Local police
there will be a swift legal response to – patrol officers and their superiors, as well
violent criminal behavior. At the same as detectives and specialized units – ought
time, community, school, and social to receive some basic training in community
service groups offer programs and positive oriented policing. This approach, in
alternatives to these youth.8 While this which police officers seek to know and to
approach requires coordination of resources, respond to particular communities and their
and intensive work by the police and others concerns, and in which police officers help
in the community, the evidence is that it identify and resolve community problems,
can contribute to significant reductions in fits well with the need to understand and
violent crime. While there are issues about address the problem of youth gangs in
how it is applied in the Central American particular communities. In combating youth
context, where resource constraints are gang violence, police
different, the principle – that police and Training in respect for the presumption
community leaders together should target of innocence and due process. Increased are under a great deal
potentially violent gang leaders with awareness of the presumption of innocence, of pressure to achieve
intensive deterrent efforts, rather than go and respect for due process concerns,
results, often measured
after all gang members – is a sound one. are among the most important advances
in police and judicial reform in Central by the number of
Distinguishing youth gangs from organized America in the last decade. In combating arrests they make,
crime. There’s a tendency in much of the youth gang violence, police are under a
discussion about youth gangs to conflate great deal of pressure to achieve results, and the number
youth gangs with organized crime. While often measured by the number of arrests of gang members
youth gangs can turn into organized crime they make, and the number of gang
taken off the streets.
groups – and some have, sometimes as a members taken off the streets. Mano dura
reaction to the mano dura strategies – the approaches tend to increase this pressure Mano dura approaches
two are separate, and need to be treated further. In this context, regular training tend to increase this
separately by police. Training ought to for officers on respect for the presumption
help police officers and anti-gang specialists of innocence and for due process, and the pressure further.
understand the distinction, and employ it in institutionalization of procedures based on
their dealings with young people. those norms, are extremely important.

Understanding the social origins of gangs. Combined with a serious commitment to

Police – both at the level of patrol officers, investment in prevention, intervention,
and in anti-gang detective units – need and rehabilitation, these kinds of policing
some training that helps them better strategies could have a significant long-term
understand that young people have many impact in controlling youth gang violence,
reasons for joining gangs, and that not all in ways that support police reform,
are hardened criminals who need to be professionalization, and the consolidation
taken off the streets. While police should of democracy. Central American police
not be expected to become sociologists, forces ought to pursue these approaches and
or social workers, they do need enough the U.S. and other international donors
understanding to help them approach their ought to offer them technical assistance
work in a sophisticated way. and training.

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 13

WOLA has published a number of briefs on police 4
Neild, Rachel. Sustaining Reform: Democratic Policing in
reform processes in Central America. An early Central America, Citizen Security Monitor. Volume 1,
overview is Demilitarizing Public Order, The International Number 1. Washington, DC: WOLA, October 2002.
Community, Police Reform, and Human Rights in Central 5
Lakshmanan, Indira A.R. Gangs Roil Central America:
America and Haiti. Washington, DC: WOLA, November, Troubles Linked to U.S. Deportee. The Boston Globe,
1995. Another regional overview is Sustaining Reform: April 17, 2006.
Democratic Policing in Central America. Citizen Security 6
Martinez Ventura, Jaime. Limites Democráticos al Poder
Monitor, Volume 1, Number 1. Washington, DC: Penal, Reformas de la Seguridad Publica y la Justicia Penal.
WOLA, October 2002. San Salvador: FESPAD 2005, p.401.
Neild, Rachel. Sustaining Reform: Democratic Policing in 7
Cruz, Jose Miguel and Marlon Carranza. Pandillas y
Central America. Citizen Security Monitor, Volume 1, Politicas Públicas: El Caso de El Salvador, Juventudes,
Number 1. Washington, DC: WOLA, October 2002. Violencia y Exclusión: Desafios para las Politicas Publicas.
Ribando, Clare. Gangs in Central America, Guatemala: INDES, January 2006. p.134.
Congressional Research Service, Washington, DC, 8
Duane, Daniel. Straight Outta Boston, Mother Jones
January 2006, p.4 Magazine, January-February, 2006.

14 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
Social Cleansing and Extra Judicial Execution:
A Human Rights Challenge

C Background on
rime and violence have grown
dramatically in Central America
in recent years, and citizens’ sense Extrajudicial Murders
of insecurity has increased. In the first “Social cleansing” is the name given to
quarter of 2006, for example, 710 murders the chilling process in which individuals
were reported in Honduras, 100 more or groups, acting without legal authority,
than in the same time period in 2005.1 decide to rid a community of those Social cleansing is the
Homicide rates have gone up in Honduras, they have identified as criminals or
El Salvador, and Guatemala, as have rates troublemakers. They take justice into name given to the
of robbery and assault. Youth gangs are not their own hands, and capture and execute chilling process in
wholly responsible for the increase (in El their victims. In the last few years, there
which individuals or
Salvador, police have variably attributed have been disturbing indications that such
between 20% and 60% of killings to gang- social cleansing is taking place in Central groups, acting without
related violence), but they are responsible America, as unknown individuals or groups legal authority, decide
for a significant part of it. And they are a appear to be detaining and killing suspected
highly visible symbol of the growing sense gang members. to rid a community
of insecurity that many people in Central of those they have
America feel. Social cleansing has a sad history in identified as criminals or
Central America. In the 1970s and 1980s,
As noted in the introduction to this report, these kinds of killings were widespread troublemakers. They take
youth gangs have become an increasingly and politically motivated. Groups of justice into their own
present and violent phenomenon in Central “heavily armed men in civilian dress,” to
America over the last decade. As gangs
hands, and capture and
use the term often cited in descriptions
have become more present in the daily lives of these cases, captured and disappeared execute their victims.
of many Central Americans, their presence “troublemakers”: opposition politicians,
has contributed to the growing sense of community activists, and organizers. As
insecurity. To date, governments have peace agreements brought the wars of the
responded to this insecurity principally by era to an end, these killings declined. But
implementing repressive “mano dura” law acts of social cleansing did not disappear
enforcement policies. completely. They changed in character,
and often targeted suspected criminals.
The inability of Central American In a well-known case in El Salvador in
governments to rein in gang violence, as well the mid-1990s, a shadowy group called
as the other sources of insecurity, creates a the Sombra Negra took credit for killing
climate in which many in Central American seventeen alleged gang members in eastern
society have to protect themselves. The El Salvador. Although sixteen people,
growing numbers of gated middle class including four police officials were arrested
communities and the dramatic rise in private in connection with the case, no one was
security forces provide clear examples of ever convicted for these killings.4
this trend. According to published statistics,
there are some 10,000 national police in When this type of killing takes place
Honduras and an estimated 30,000 private with the cooperation or tolerance of state
security guards.2 The ratio is similar in both actors or agents, it is called “extrajudicial
Guatemala and El Salvador.3 It is in this execution.” Whether state actors are
context that some individuals and groups involved or not, these kinds of killings
have apparently turned to the extrajudicial – in which an individual or group, without
killings of gang members as a solution to the any legal process or authority, takes it
problem of insecurity. upon themselves to judge and execute

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 15

someone – frequently take place because cleansing. More often, there are only
the police and judicial system are perceived bodies, left in public places, killed for no
as weak and ineffective in providing justice apparent reason, sometimes showing signs
and citizen security. In these situations, of torture, and often murdered execution-
community members or local leaders, and style (hands tied behind the back, shots to
sometimes local authorities, may decide to the back of the head, etc.).
take matters into their own hands to rid
their community of troublemakers. Local Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras
businesses or property owners may decide have all seen increases in the number of
that they are no longer willing to tolerate these kinds of unexplained murders in the
extortion by gang members. Rather than last few years. Not all these deaths can
Whether state actors are calling the police, who they believe to be be attributed to acts of social cleansing;
involved or not, these slow and ineffective, they may contract criminal rivals may have carried out
security guards or others to solve their execution-style killings in some of the
kinds of killings – in
problem through extrajudicial executions. cases, and other motives may be found.
which an individual or In other cases, police officers themselves That being said, many analysts believe that
group, without any legal may decide that the judicial system is a part of the explanation for the increases
too slow, and the constraints of the rules in murders committed by unknown persons
process or authority, of evidence are too burdensome, and so for unknown motives is that there are
takes it upon themselves they take it upon themselves to remove growing numbers of extrajudicial killings of
criminals from the community. gang members.
to judge and execute
someone – frequently Most often, these murders are carried out
take place because by small groups acting on their own. In Social Cleansing and Youth
the worst cases, extrajudicial executions Gangs in Central America
the police and judicial occur with the knowledge, the complicity,
system are perceived or sometimes even the approval of local Crime statistics are notoriously difficult
authorities, police officers, or national to collect and compare everywhere. In
as weak and ineffective
government officials. Those captured are Central America, police record-keeping is
in providing justice and denied due process, and the right to a often poor, and police data often differ from
citizen security. fair trial, or to defend themselves. Those the data kept by coroners’ offices and by
involved in the killings assume the role public prosecutors. And all of these differ
of judge, jury, and executioner without from the information gathered by reviewing
any legal right to do so. Beyond these newspaper or other media accounts that
obvious and basic problems, extrajudicial report violent crimes.
killings undermine the authority of the
state by usurping legal and judicial power Nonetheless, a review of available data
that ought to be the exclusive preserve of suggests some broad trends. Homicide
the state. States that seek to protect their rates in Guatemala, El Salvador, and
power and defend the rule of law cannot Honduras have long been high by world
tolerate extrajudicial killings. These killings standards. Wartime rates were extremely
are always wrong; when governments are high, and did not drop substantially in the
involved in these gross violations of human immediate post-war period. Some sources
rights, the situation is exacerbated. put El Salvador’s intentional homicide rate
at an astonishing 139 deaths per hundred
What are the signs of “social cleansing” thousand persons in 1995, for example.5
murders? Sometimes, the killers leave Rates declined somewhat in the late 90s
messages, such as signs or notes left with and the first years of the new century,
the bodies, or statements sent to the press, but started to rise again in 2003. They
declaring that the victims were killed have risen steadily in El Salvador and
because of alleged criminal activity, or Guatemala; in Honduras, they rose in 2003,
that they were killed by a group that has dipped in 2004, rose again in 2005, and
announced itself as carrying out social have risen again in the first half of 2006.

16 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
In particular, homicides rates among arbitrary [extrajudicial] executions that had
children and youth have risen. For presented themselves in previous years:
example, the children’s rights group Casa the bodies of children and youth found
Alianza gathers and reports statistics on in open fields, in rivers, or on deserted
homicides of young people in Honduras, roads, bodies burned or showing signs of
tabulating all media reports of killings of torture, having the hands or feet tied, and
people 23 or under, and reporting them on with shots to the head, and/or other vital
a regular basis. According to their figures, organs.” Of the total of children and youth
there were 1,976 reported violent deaths found murdered, 42% “presented one or
and/or executions of children and youth more characteristics similar to patterns of
in the period of 2002 -2006. This is a 90% arbitrary executions.” 7
increase in comparison to the number of Because most Central
deaths recorded from 1998-2002, in which Given this analysis, Casa Alianza argues American police
1,019 youth murders were registered.6 that “it is undeniable that in Honduras
forces have limited
Similar increases in youth homicides can be boys, girls, and young adults face
observed in Guatemala and El Salvador. assassination and systematic execution.”8 investigative capacity,
it may be that some
Many of these homicides are the result of This is not a new allegation in Honduras.
domestic disputes, or crimes of passion, or Casa Alianza began gathering data on the of these murders with
are killings that take place in the course murders of children and youth in 1998. no apparent motive
of arguments or disputes among friends The Honduran government’s National
could be explained with
or acquaintances. Some are related to Commissioner for the Protection of
drugs, and many are the result of disputes Human Rights investigated allegations better police work. Still,
among gang members or between rival of extrajudicial executions in 2001, and the trend is clear: larger
gangs. Law enforcement authorities have published a report in January of 2002.
a duty to investigate these crimes, to carry In 2001, the UN Special Rapporteur on
numbers of unexplained
out criminal prosecutions, and to see that Extrajudicial, Arbitrary, and Summary murders, many with
those judged responsible are punished. Executions visited Honduras. She issued the marks that suggest
a 2002 report that said not only that
Disturbingly, though, there are significant extrajudicial killings were taking place, social cleansing.
numbers of these killings that have no but that government security forces were
apparent explanation. These are killings involved in covering up their involvement
where there is no obvious motive. Often in some of the summary killings of youth
the body is found in a public place. No and children, and that some of the killings
gang violence was reported by neighbors involved police.9
or witnesses, there is no evidence of other
criminal activity, and there are no signs In response to these criticisms, the
that the death resulted from a crime of Honduran government set up a special
passion or a domestic dispute that spilled Unit for the Investigation of the Murders
into a public space. Because most Central of Minors. The Unit has investigated,
American police forces have limited between June of 2003 and November of
investigative capacity, it may be that some 2005, 980 cases of murder of minors, or
of these murders with no apparent motive about a third of the 2,995 cases that Casa
could be explained with better police work. Alianza has documented since 1998. Of the
Still, the trend is clear: larger numbers of 980 cases, 166 cases have been forwarded
unexplained murders, many with the marks to the Attorney General’s office for possible
that suggest social cleansing. prosecution. Forty-eight cases have gone to
trial and as of November 2005, only eight
In an analysis of murders of children and cases have ended with convictions and the
youth without apparent explanation in sentencing of those found guilty.10
2005 in Honduras, Casa Alianza found
that many of these murders “show the same Similar patterns of apparent extrajudicial
characteristics and the modus operandi of killings are visible in Guatemala and in

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 17

El Salvador. In Guatemala, the Group for department of Sonsonate were responsible
Mutual Support (GAM), a human rights for the extrajudicial killing of three
organization, recently issued a report alleged gang members.15
examining violent deaths in Guatemala. Of
the 1,590 violent deaths that occurred in These are particularly troubling
Guatemala in the first six months of 2005, allegations. It is central to the rule of law
As gangs continue to GAM noted that 1,294 of them had some that the public have confidence that the
evidence suggesting that they might be police themselves respect the law and do
be perceived as an acts of “social cleansing.”11 The evidence not circumvent it. Any allegation that
increasing threat to included signs of torture, the tiro de gracia police have been involved in extrajudicial
(a shot to the back of the head), and the killings of any kind must be taken seriously
national security, some
use of high caliber weapons often associated and fully investigated. This requires
police officials may with the police. Similarly, on June 15, assuring that internal affairs offices and
feel at greater liberty 2006, lawyers from the Archbishop’s Legal inspector generals’ offices in Central
Aid Office in San Salvador attributed American police forces are functioning
to execute youth gang many of El Salvador’s homicides to “social well, politically independent, and
members without due cleansing” groups. They reported that, “The adequately staffed, and that prosecutors’
systematic nature of the cases leads one to offices are prepared to fully and impartially
process of law.
believe that they have been committed to investigate these allegations.
… carry out social cleansing.”12

A particularly sensitive issue is the Recommendations

allegation that police officers have been Though precise information is scarce, and
involved in some of the extrajudicial the number of cases is not clear, there
executions that have taken place. High are strong indications that in all three
homicide rates increase public pressure countries where gang violence is a serious
on government officials and on police problem, extrajudicial executions and
themselves. Under these circumstances, social cleansing are part of the response.
and given the weak rule of law that still The U.S. State Department’s 2005 Human
persists in Central America, as well as Rights reports for Guatemala, El Salvador,
the relative lack of oversight on police and Honduras all note the allegations of
officers, police are sometimes prone to act extrajudicial executions.
harshly with little fear of legal restraint
or punishment. As gangs continue to It is imperative for police and government
be perceived as an increasing threat to agencies to improve the techniques used for
national security, some police officials may data collection and the method for recording
feel at greater liberty to execute youth gang this information in a clear and systematic
members without due process of law. fashion; Without this information, it is
difficult to determine the true causes of
In Honduras, Casa Alianza produces violence and, therefore, impossible to
monthly reports on extrajudicial address the problem at its root.
executions. Just to take one example, in
May of 2006, Casa Alianza reported that Beyond that, governments in the region
uniformed police were responsible for two should acknowledge the strong evidence
of twenty-six killings.13 In Guatemala, that social cleansing and extrajudicial
according to press reports, the police executions are taking place, and should
internal affairs department investigated respond to this serious human rights
24 reports of police involvement in problem. Governments need to strongly
extrajudicial executions in 2005.14 In and publicly condemn extrajudicial
June of 2006, in a case in El Salvador, the killings, and to make clear that they will
Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman not tolerate people taking the law into
charged that police officers in the their own hands.

18 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
To make their public declarations in those cases where there are credible
meaningful, governments need to seriously allegations that police officers may be
investigate the widespread allegations involved in extrajudicial executions,
of extrajudicial killings. Honduras needs governments, including police internal
to strengthen the technical capacity affairs units and attorney generals’ offices,
and political resources of the special have a special responsibility to carry out
investigative unit. Other countries need to thorough investigations that demonstrate It is clear that attempting
task detectives, whether in a special unit their commitment to the rule of law.
or not, to investigate crimes that show to eliminate gangs and
signs of social cleansing. Investigations and It is clear that attempting to eliminate their criminal behavior
prosecutions need to happen. gangs and their criminal behavior through
through extrajudicial
extrajudicial action is wrong on moral as
The United States and others in the well as legal grounds. It is also likely to action is wrong on moral
international community need to continue be ineffective in reducing crime and gang as well as legal grounds.
to monitor allegations of extrajudicial violence. Tolerance for, or indifference to,
executions, report on them, and strongly extrajudicial executions undermines the It is also likely to be
encourage the governments of Central rule of law and the authority of the state. ineffective in reducing
America to condemn any extrajudicial Governments and civil society must oppose
crime and gang violence.
action and to promptly and thoroughly it, and instead support effective and rights-
investigate cases. respecting law enforcement strategies,
while seeking to address the roots of the
Extrajudicial executions cannot and should problem through programs that focus on
not be tolerated by any state. Especially prevention and rehabilitation.

Endnotes 7

Andino, Leonarda. Presentan en la Ciudad Universitaria: 9
Human Rights Watch. Principal Concerns of Human
Observatorio de la Violencia. Honduras: Universidad Rights Watch for the 58th Session of the UN Human Rights
Nacional Autónoma de Honduras, August 2006. Commission.
Rosenzweig, Howard. Copan Update, Honduras This Toc536531977
Week Online. September 18, 2006. http://www.marrder. 10
Op Cit. Casa Alianza.
com/htw/travel.html 11 “Crueles crímenes se atribuyen a ‘limpieza
3 social’ en Guatemala.” 2005,
html story?section=latin-america&id=3535946.
Douglas Payne. El Salvador: Re-emergence of “Social 12
Reuters. El Salvador death squads targeting criminals:
Cleansing” Death Squads. Washington, DC: INS Resource Church. San Salvador, El Salvador: Reuters, June 15,
Information Center, March 1999. 2006.
Spence, Jack; Mike Lanchin; and Geoff Thale. From 13
Casa Alianza. Analisis Mensual Sobre Problematicas de la
Elections to Earthquakes: Reform and Participation in Post- Ninez Hondurena.Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Casa Alianza,
War El Salvador, Hemisphere Initiatives. Cambridge, June 2006.
MA: WOLA, April 2001. 14
Lakshmanan, Indira A.R. Death Squads Said to Target
Casa Alianza, Honduras. Informe de Ejecuciones y Youths. Boston: Boston Globe, April 19, 2006.
Muertes Violentos de Niños, Niñas, y Jóvenes Durante la 14
Leonel Herrera. PDDH insiste en investigar a grupos de
Administración del Presidente Ricardo Maduro, Enero 2002 exterminio. San Salvador: Diario CoLatino, August 30,
– Enero 2006. Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Casa Alianza, 2006.
January 2006.

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 19

Preventing Youth Violence

The problem solution. At worst, they can actually

aggravate the problem.

number of different approaches to
preventing youth gang violence In the Triangulo del Norte of Central
have been developed, and many America, made up of Guatemala, El
different violence prevention programs Salvador, and Honduras, research shows
have been implemented in the United that in response to the repressive mano
There is a consensus States and in Latin America. These include dura policing strategies adopted by
programs to address some of the underlying governments, youth gangs have adapted.
among experts that issues that lead young people to join gangs They have protected themselves by
the key to effectively and engage in violence; targeted programs developing higher levels of organization,
directed at keeping young people out of and by forming underground networks
addressing the issue
gangs and offering them alternatives; and relinquishing the use of distinctive
of youth gangs is programs that help young people leave clothing or tattoos, in order to protect
a comprehensive gangs; and programs that discourage violent themselves from indiscriminate arrests and
behavior by gangs members. Many of these imprisonment. In a sad irony, hardline
approach that includes policing strategies designed to break up
prevention programs have been shown to
prevention, rehabilitation, be effective in reducing violent or criminal and defeat youth gangs have led some
and carefully designed behavior. They can be cost effective gangs to more closely resemble organized
investments as well, when the costs of criminal groups.1
suppression strategies policing and incarceration are considered.
supported by the Violence prevention programs should be There is a consensus among experts that
a key element of the response to gangs on the key to effectively addressing the
community, local
the part of the governments of Central issue of youth gangs is a comprehensive
institutions, government, America and the international community. approach that includes prevention,
and the police. rehabilitation, and carefully designed
The emergence of gangs leaves suppression strategies supported by the
neighborhood residents feeling insecure, community, local institutions, government,
even terrified, and governments struggling and the police. The Office of Juvenile
for immediate answers to the needs of Justice and Delinquency Prevention
their citizens. For a number of reasons, (OJJDP) at the U.S. Department of Justice
law enforcement efforts to suppress gangs is among those who support this view
are often the first and sometimes the point based on experiences in the United
only response. Police forces are already States. In the region, the World Bank,
existing bodies which are organized and Viva Rio in Brazil, the Inter-American
have considerable resources, especially Development Bank, and the Pan American
in comparison to other governmental Health Organization have compiled a
or private organizations that might deal number of reports which come to the same
with youth violence issues. Thus they conclusions.
can react quickly, and can sustain their
engagement for prolonged periods of
time. Government officials are inclined Central American reality
to use policing, incarceration, and other
punitive mechanisms because they can
and social risk factors
be quickly implemented, and are highly Much of the research on youth violence
visible; they offer citizens an immediate prevention and on successful programs
sense of heightened security. But while has been done in the United States.
the problem of gangs is a pressing There are successful programs in Latin
one, quick reactions focused solely on America (the Pan-American Health
suppressing gangs are at best only a partial Organization will release a study of

20 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
successful programs in Latin America late
in 2006, and there are well-documented
examples of violence reduction programs
in Colombia and in Brazil), but the bulk
of the programs and research to date
comes from the United States.

In moving toward a greater focus on

prevention-based responses to gangs
in Central America, it is imperative to
understand the current political and Social violence
economic situations within Central Guatemalan youth congregate at a rehabilitation center.
America and to take these realities
impedes economic
into consideration when applying the gang membership, it is clearly one of the development, and
lessons learned from model programs in root causes of the cycle of violence and a lack of economic
the U.S. The risk factors for youth in key “risk factor” to be addressed.
Central America are broadly similar but opportunity is, in
not identical to those in the U.S. Youth Social violence impedes economic itself, another leading
violence emerges in Central America in development, and lack of economic
risk factor associated
the aftermath of years of civil war and the opportunity is, in itself, another leading
struggle to rebuild democratic institutions risk factor associated with youth violence. with youth violence.
with scarce resources. Social services Weak economies lead to widespread Weak economies
available to the general public and to unemployment and underemployment, to
at-risk youth are extremely limited due to limited access to educational opportunities, lead to widespread
lack of government funding; those funding and to states that can provide only unemployment and
shortages reflect not only governments’ poor quality education and few social
political priorities, but also low tax bases, services. Many youth are unemployed
and very low effective tax rates. or underemployed in Central America. to limited access
In Honduras, for example, 64% of the to educational
Several broad social factors contribute to population is under the age of 25, and
youth violence in Central America. One unemployment levels for people between opportunities, and to
of the factors most strongly associated the ages of 19 and 25 are 54.5%. Of the states that can provide
with violent behavior by teens and young remaining 45.5%, a substantial majority are only poor quality
adults is exposure to violence in the home. making less than $166 per month.5
Children who experience, or observe, education and few
violent behavior in the home are far more Relatively weak community institutions, social services.
likely to engage in violence themselves. and a frayed social fabric, are another
Unfortunately, intra-family violence is contributing factor. In many communities
common in Central America. A study in in Central America, modernity and
El Salvador showed that physical violence exposure to globalization have brought
is present in 80% of households there.2 more liberal attitudes and greater
Studies show that domestic violence tolerance. But traditional institutions
significantly increases the likelihood that have lost authority, and the values they
a child will be the perpetrator of violent promoted, which often restrained youth
acts later on in life, whether they are behavior, have less power. Meanwhile,
domestic or social acts of violence.3 In a increased migration and population
survey of gang members in Honduras by movements, caused by decades of armed
the relief and development organization conflict and by economic changes, such
Save the Children, 38% stated that they as the decline in rural economies and
had been beaten or abused on a regular rapid urbanization, have weakened young
basis during their youth. Of this group, people’s ties to particular communities
13.5% were beaten daily.4 While intra- and community structures. And limited
family violence is not the sole reason for job opportunities have undermined the

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 21

commitment many young people feel to
their communities, as the communities are
unable to offer the economic incentives
and rewards that build loyalty and
community solidarity.6

Domestic/social violence, economic

instability, and weak community
institutions are three broad and
significant risk factors contributing to the
growth of gangs throughout the Central
Domestic/social American region. Other factors, such as Young women at a center for at risk youth in Honduras.

violence, economic high school drop out rates, easy access

to guns, and the availability of drugs, amounts of money and prevent suffering
instability, and weak
are contributing factors as well. These and keep youth from delinquency. An
community institutions major underlying factors must be taken investigation by the Inter-American
are three broad and into account when developing youth Development Bank found that for every
violence prevention programs. None dollar invested in a prevention program
significant risk factors of these are issues that can be easily or in the U.S., between six and seven dollars
contributing to the quickly addressed, and it is necessary to would be saved on “control programs”-
recognize the challenges presented by on investigation, prosecution and
growth of gangs
resource-strapped governments, weak incarceration after the violence occurs. 9
throughout the Central community groups and non-governmental
American region. Other organizations, schools, and religious At a hearing in October, 2005, in front
organizations, all functioning in a post- of the Crime Subcommittee of the
factors, such as high war period of relative instability. Judiciary Committee in the U.S. House of
school drop out rates, Representatives, a researcher on violence
easy access to guns, Resolving the problem of youth violence and crime in the United States testified
requires recognizing and addressing these about the benefits of prevention programs
and the availability of broad social factors. At the same time, in addressing youth gang violence.
drugs, are contributing specific and targeted violence prevention
programs have been shown to make a “Prevention is more effective and less costly
factors as well.
significant difference, and governments than punishment and incarceration. The
and civil society groups should pursue handful of scientific comparisons conducted
these programs. shows that violence prevention reduces
future crime more, costs less to deliver,
provides greater cost savings over time and
Benefits of Prevention produces a broader set of health and social
The costs of crime and violence are high. benefits than treatment or punishment.”10
There are economic losses, and pain,
suffering, and emotional trauma for the Another study of the impact of prevention
victim. There are social costs, including the programs compared the costs and benefits
costs to the legal, penitentiary, and health of several prevention programs with those
sectors for both the perpetrator and victim. of a tough law enforcement approach.
A 1999 cost assessment of violence in Latin The 1995 comparative research project
America found that the total direct and by Greenwood & Associates compared
indirect cost of violence to El Salvador was California’s “three strikes law” (mandatory
24.9% of the nation’s GDP.7 In the United life sentence for repeat offenders) with other
States, violence costs nearly $500 billion crime prevention strategies. The research
dollars a year in direct and indirect costs.8 found that the three strikes law could
reduce serious crime by 21%, by keeping
Given these costs, effective violence those likely to commit crimes in prison
prevention programs could save enormous for the rest of their lives. In comparison,

22 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
a combination of four prevention and of what’s known to date, based on research
intervention techniques would have reduced about effective ways to design prevention
crime by nearly 80% while costing 90% less programs, and a few examples of programs
to implement than incarceration. that have had some impact in the U.S.

At the same time, not all prevention Violence preventions specialists generally
programs are equal. In particular, the characterize programs as primary,
Greenwood researchers found that secondary, or tertiary, depending on
programs oriented toward youth facing whether they focus on broad outreach,
substantial risk factors are both more cost- targeted outreach to at-risk youth, or work
effective and more successful than programs with already gang-involved youth. Many
that do education and outreach to the of these best practices could be of great
general youth population.11 use to those addressing the gang issue in
Central America, despite the significant
situational differences.
Primary, Secondary, and
Primary prevention includes school and
Tertiary Programs community based activities that reach out
What follows is a brief overview of the to a broad population. They range from
specific categories of prevention programs the general – educational campaigns to
(primary, secondary, and tertiary), a summary encourage young people to stay in school,

CASASTART (Striving Together to Achieve Rewarding Tomorrows)

is an example of a successful community-based program that brought together
social services, law enforcement, and juvenile justice agencies. It was designed by
the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University
to keep youth between the ages of 8-13 away from delinquency and drugs
in Austin, Bridgeport, Memphis, Newark, and Savannah. 16 After a grant from
the Ford Foundation to replicate the model in five new sites, the program was
effectively implemented in 23 urban and rural communities in 11 states and
the District of Columbia. The Urban Institute conducted a full evaluation of the
impact of the program entitled, “CASASTART: A Proven Youth Development
Strategy that Prevents Substance Abuse and Builds Communities.”

CASASTART is a prime example of a program which can be coordinated on

a national level, laying out a basic model with key characteristics, but can be
implemented locally in order to incorporate neighborhood-specific attributes. In
Phase 1, specialists and community organizers work with local groups to carry out
a full community assessment, identify potential leaders and partners, and establish
specific goals. In Phase 2, partnerships are developed between community
organizations, local government agencies, police, etc. and then a clear work plan
is developed. Specialists and organizers offer training and technical assistance for
the service providers who work directly with young people.

Overall, the program had a significant impact on preventing youth from using or
selling drugs (20% and 60% less likely respectively), and committing crimes (20%
less likely). It has also increased the likelihood that youth would stay in school
and be promoted to the next grade. These positive effects directly address three
of the foremost risk factors which lead youth to joining gangs. 17

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 23

Because the impact of these programs is
broad and long term, it can be difficult for
governments to justify the funding needed to
carry them out. Nevertheless, governments
should make a concerted effort to provide
funding for this work just as they do for
other ongoing social services.14

Secondary prevention targets individuals

who are considered “high risk”. Youth
who display the greatest risk of joining
gangs should be presented with practical
and attractive alternatives, offered
effective support systems, and be held
accountable for their actions.15 As noted
above, these programs are those that
appear to be most cost-effective and have
the most impact on preventing youth
from joining gangs.
A sign advertising tattoo removal for former gang members looking for a clean start.
Some of the most successful secondary
prevention programs, and most feasible
Conditions in Central or stay away from drugs, for example - to when working with limited resources,
more specific programs that train young are community based approaches. In
America are different people how to make good decisions, these approaches, experts on violence
than they are in the or that offer anti-gang training in the prevention, usually provided by the
United States, and U.S. schools. Their major goal is to decrease national government, work with
risk factors and increase protection factors. community and church groups, local
based programs cannot Often times, programs that reach out to governments, police, and others to
simply be replicated. the general youth population seem too conduct an assessment of the particular
broad to have a direct effect on gang community. The assessment tries to
But while there are
prevention, but preventing drug use and identifying the various risk factors in the
nowhere near as many other acts of delinquency can significantly specific community that might lead young
social service providers reduce the possibility that youth will people to join gangs. The assessment also
eventually join gangs. 12 seeks to identify myths or misconceptions
and while many in the community (due to race, clothing
existing institutions The most effective primary programs style, or speech) that make it harder to
are “skills oriented” At the core, these deal realistically with at-risk youth. Once
are far less stable, the
programs aim to give youth the training the assessment is done, and potential
basic principle and they need to make the right decisions solutions identified, partnerships are
value of community through adolescence and into adulthood. formed among the various members of the
The Life Skills Training program is one community. In order to make the most
collaboration still holds. example of a primary prevention model out of minimal resources, new programs
which is aimed at preventing drug use. By or organizations seeking to address the
teaching social skills, personal management gangs issue are built upon established
skills, and “street-smart” skills, teachers service agencies and other institutions
reduced the possibility that youth will (church, school etc…) in order to increase
begin regular drug use. 13 If this can be feasibility and financial sustainability.
prevented from the outset, youth are
less likely to move from street drug use As noted earlier, conditions in Central
onto other varied and more serious drugs America are different than they are
and are, therefore, less likely to become in the United States, and U.S. based
involved in violent and criminal behavior. programs cannot simply be replicated. But

24 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
Operation Cease Fire is an example of prevention through law enforcement
tactics. It focused on gun violence control when it was created in 1996, a period
when homicides in the United States were at an all time high and gangs were
proliferating in African-American and Latino communities. In response to a
wave of violence, the Boston Police Department formed an Anti Gang Violence
Unit which used non-traditional strategies to combat violence. It combined
a very intensive focus on the relatively small number of individuals who were
likely to commit crimes with guns, with a community policing approach (done
in partnership with community members, service providers, schools etc.),
problem solving, and prevention programs. It included a community-wide
While rehabilitation
assessment in which all sectors were involved, and a number of myths around
gangs and gang members were addressed. The primary focus of this program programs allow youth
was enforcement (as described in the section on police reform, pg. 8) but the to readjust to society
overall program was comprehensive.
they do not always
The results of Operation Ceasefire were striking, and are a clear indication of provide a mechanism to
the importance of community-wide involvement in addressing gangs. After ensure that the youth
the second full year of operation, through May 31, 1998, there was a 71%
decrease in homicides by youth ages 24 and under and a 70% reduction in will become part of the
gun assaults for all ages. 19 labor force or otherwise
become productive
Over time, funding for this program was reduced, and its impact decreased.
But its initial success, and the fact that it has been replicated in a number of members of society.
other communities, shows that by sending a strong message that violence will Without this, many
not be tolerated in conjunction with services and support, gang violence can
be reduced. youth remain vulnerable
to the lure of the gang.

while there are nowhere near as many America demonstrate as well, these can be
social service providers and while many productive. These programs work to reduce
existing institutions are far less stable, the violence by gang members. They provide
basic principle and value of community counseling and support, and sometimes
collaboration still holds. Local service offer housing alternatives, social services,
providers, churches, community groups, educational programs, and job training to
and non-governmental organizations, need youth who want to leave gangs.
to be brought together as partners, and new
initiatives should be built on their existing A major issue for many tertiary rehabilitation
work. Municipalities are also an ideal programs is economic re-insertion. While
setting for coordinating mutlti-sectoral rehabilitation programs allow youth to
responses to gangs as they encompass a readjust to society they do not always provide
deeper understanding of the history and a mechanism to ensure that the youth will
needs of a community which would likely become part of the labor force or otherwise
be absent from a national strategy.18 become productive members of society.
Without this, many youth remain vulnerable
Tertiary programs are informally referred to the lure of the gang.
to as rehabilitation and are directed toward
youth who are already involved in violence Another problematic element of many
and delinquency. Tertiary programs are tertiary programs was first identified in
the costliest, but, as Operation Cease Fire the Chicago Area Project (CAP). In the
shows, and as many programs in Latin CAP program, social workers worked with

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 25

Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles is a good example of a program which
specifically targets gangs and involves coordination between the federal and
local levels of government.This program is supported by the OJJDP Gang
Reduction Program24 and is one of four model sites located in the United States.
Homeboy Industries focuses on reaching out to at-risk or already gang involved
youth with job opportunities, skills training, and counseling. The combination of
intervention, rehabilitation, and reinsertion has proven to be quite successful.

The employment referral center and economic development program, founded

in 1988 by Father Gregory Boyle, is known as Jobs for a Future. The center helps
over 1,000 people a month find jobs. In 1992, Homeboy Industries was formally
created, out of which were formed Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen,
Homeboy / Homegirl Merchandise, Homeboy Graffiti Removal, Homeboy
Maintenance, and Homeboy Landscaping. Father Boyle’s model provides a
cutting edge framework for how the business community can play a critical and
integrated role in addressing the root causes of youth gangs.

Farther Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries. In a 2004

interview with National Public Radio Father Boyle stated, “Youth who join gangs
are looking for a personal connection and sense of belonging. Community is the
fullest, truest antidote to gangs.”

specific neighborhood youth gangs, seeking  Clearly defining the problem and
to transform the gang from an anti-social gathering accurate information on
youth group to a pro-social group. 20 The youth and the community at large
evaluation showed that attempting to with particular attention placed on
transform an anti-social and violent group identifying key risk factors facing youth;
into a productive one might actually lead
 Creating programs to specifically
to further cohesiveness among the gang
target these risk factors and identifying
members and increase gang crime. Thus,
existing and potential resources
work with gang members in their groups
(institutions, services, funds, etc.);
needs to be carefully structured to ensure
that it is productive.  Implementing the program with care to
ensure proper management; and

Effective Responses to  Monitoring the program and analyzing

the results.
Youth Gang Violence
Research-based knowledge about the Many communities and organizations
effectiveness of specific violence prevention see the need to work with youth in order
programs is limited. While there have been to keep them away from gangs. The
few large scale evaluations of prevention systematic approach outlined above, when
programs, there is useful information from implemented by governments, communities,
the studies that exist. A review of successful and police in a coordinated manner, is
programs indicates some common elements mostly likely to produce long-term results.
in how these programs are designed,
implemented, and reviewed. Most The information gathering stage should
successful programs are developed using the include developing a clear understanding of
following methodology:21 the youth in the community as individuals,

26 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
the gangs as social groups and their hired must receive technical assistance and
structure, and the community context in training from the outset.
which these individuals and gangs exist.
Taking what has been learned over
In assessing risk factors for young people, the years, the Department of Justice’s
successful programs look at a range of Office of Juvenile Justice developed a
issues, from broad social problems to comprehensive model known as the
specific individuals concerns. These risk “Title V Community Prevention Grants
factors are typically categorized into 5 Program.” Based on the idea that national
different groups: models need to be adapted to local
situations, this program provides funding
 broad community factors (poverty, drugs,
to states for programs that are implemented
guns, lack of social opportunities);
locally after adapting the model to the In assessing risk factors
 family factors (broken homes, domestic specific needs of that community. Though
violence, lack of role models); many local programs may not be able to for young people,
tailor their programs this extensively, or successful programs
 school factors (academic failure, achieve this level of support and assistance
negative or untrained teachers); look at a range of issues,
from the national government, this is a
model that both national and municipal from broad social
 peer group factors (delinquent peers,
drugs, peer pressure); and, governments should strive towards in order problems to specific
to make the best use of existing efforts to
 individual factors (prior delinquency, address youth violence. individuals concerns.
victimization, aggression, hopelessness).22
There are a number of key principles
Once the assessment is complete, programs for Title V programs. First, the programs
can be designed to address particular risk have to be based on a comprehensive and
factors or combinations thereof. Once multidisciplinary approach, involving a
implemented, these programs should be range of local organizations and agencies,
tracked and assessed. This analysis should rather than just the police or one
be used not only to determine best practices community group. Second, the community
but to ensure that the program adapts to must be involved in the assessment, and
changes in the community. planning. Third, there must be local
control and decision making. Fourth,
Violence prevention programs are often the community and local government
created by individuals or small groups must make a commitment to the program
inspired to do something proactive for (in the U.S., this generally means that
youth and to regain a sense of security the local government must match the
within their communities. Because these national government’s contribution). Fifth,
efforts are not always supported by larger the program must have an evaluation
institutions or the government, many and monitoring system. And finally, the
programs face problems of sustainability program must be based on a long-term (not
and capacity. This is an especially critical quick-fix) perspective.
in Central America. While it is nearly
impossible to guarantee that a program will These principles provide a framework
be fully funded in the long term, it can be for communities to put into practice the
ensured that the entire program does not methodology without restricting them
rely on a single source of funding or on the to a rigid top-down model. During the
knowledge and expertise of one single staff past nine years, 1400 communities have
member. Institutional knowledge is very received Title V grants. An evaluation
important as is a clear work plan that can of the Title V Community Prevention
be followed with relative ease by a variety Grants Program by Caliber Associates
of people on staff or new people who join identified the most effective programs and
in the future. New programs and the staff pinpointed common difficulties.23

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 27

Best Practices in who are seeking to form comprehensive
approaches to the gang problem.
Latin America
To date, there has not been an extensive
assessment of existing prevention programs Applying lessons learned to
nor an evaluation of best practices in the Central American region
Central America. The Pan American
There are many possibilities for using
Health Organization will be releasing such
these model programs and other lessons
a study later this year. Until then, it is
Beyond offering learned to address gang violence in
worth mentioning a few non-governmental
technical assistance Central America. While entire programs
organizations in Central America have
cannot simply be reproduced, certain
and providing resources, made some important strides in curbing
standards and models can be used as a
violence and gang involvement. The
the United States can basis for developing programs. Some of
Association for the Prevention of
these include:
play in important role Crime (APREDE) in Guatemala has
in advocating with developed a municipal-level model for  Gathering information through youth
youth delinquency and prevention which and community assessments, design the
Central American stresses community involvement and program targeting specific risk factors,
governments for combines primary, secondary, and tertiary and evaluate the results;
prevention. Jovenes Hondureños Adelante,
comprehensive anti-  Adapting models to local conditions;
Juntos Avanzemos (JHAJA) is an example
gang programs that of a tertiary program in Honduras which  Building multi-sectoral local
include significant helps rehabilitate former gang members partnerships, and task forces to address
and reintegrate them into society through the problem from all angles; and
violence prevention job training and placement. While the
programs. results of such programs have not been  Giving priority to secondary programs
formally evaluated, they offer an important which target youth who are most likely
alternative to the failed mano dura policies to join gangs as these have proven to be
which have been embraced in Central the most effective and cost-efficient.
America thus far.
Various multilateral institutions offer
In the larger context of Latin America, models for violence prevention which
there are a few promising programs that focus on at-risk youth in Latin America,
are comprehensive and multi-sectoral. The based on many of the principles cited
most well known and respected is Viva above. The Inter-American Development
Rio in Brazil, which focuses on preventing Bank has funded several violence
urban youth crime. It currently manages prevention projects in Central America
more than 500 projects in various favelas which are designed according to these
(poor communities) in urban Rio de principles. The World Bank offers an
Janeiro. Their work includes disarmament “integrated framework” which seeks to
(similar to Project Ceasefire in Boston), understand the causes of violence and
police training on human rights and the related interventions. The World
conflict mediation, community policing, Bank promotes this methodology out of
community development, job training, and an understanding that investing in youth
counseling, among others. Viva Rio now benefits not only individuals but their
offers a resource guide on how to develop, families and communities, and in turn,
implement, and evaluate youth violence leads to education, health, and labor
prevention programs, which is available in improvements that contribute to the
English, Spanish, and Portuguese.25 The economic development. 26
recommendations and work plan (very
similar to the model outlined by the OJJDP In the approach promoted by multilateral
in the U.S.) are an excellent resource for development banks, local governments
governments and community leaders alike play an essential role. They contribute to

28 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
gang prevention by incorporating violence
prevention efforts into their every day
functions (law enforcement, education,
social welfare). Local government can also
be instrumental in coordinating existing
programs, institutions, and individuals. All
of these are good approaches for the “cash-
strapped” governments of Central America
because they build on existing programs
without starting from scratch.

On a policy level, Central American
countries (especially El Salvador and
Honduras) need to move away from an
almost exclusive government focus on
suppression toward comprehensive policies
with a greater emphasis on prevention.
Governments throughout the region have Painting by a young person participating in a prevention and rehabilitation program that reads, “Say no to drugs.”
begun to shift their rhetoric, talking about
the Mano Amiga and the Mano Extendida
(Friendly Hand and Extended Hand) to effective way to implement alternatives to Evidence suggests
complement the Mano Dura policies, but strictly suppressive measures.
that the most effective
funding for these less repressive policies has
been limited. (In El Salvador, for example, The U.S. and others in the international prevention programs
most of the budget for violence prevention community can play a constructive role build on community
and re-insertion work of the government’s in this process. The United States has
National Council for Public Security significant knowledge and experience
assessments and local
has come from international donors, in youth violence prevention programs. partnerships backed up
rather than from the national budget.) USAID has taken the lead in understanding by national resources.
Governments’ commitment to violence the gangs phenomenon in Central
prevention programs ought to be measured America by producing an assessment of
by the extent to which they commit gangs in Mexico and Central America.
increasing amounts of their own budgets to The Justice Department, especially the
these programs. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention, has experience in program
Because evidence suggests that the most development and in providing technical
effective prevention programs build assistance to local governments. Many civil
on community assessments and local society organizations, including churches,
partnerships, backed up by national social service agencies, community groups,
resources, prevention program design and others, have useful experiences to
should begin with a broad evaluation share. Through the Department of State,
of the current situation in the various USAID, the visitors program of the U.S.
provinces and highly populated urban Information Service, and other agencies,
centers in each country, taking stock of the United States ought to offer resources
the existing prevention, intervention, and and technical assistance to Central
rehabilitation programs run by community American governments to develop effective
organization and churches. Because of a youth violence prevention programs.
severe lack of resources and funding for In particular, the U.S., through the
social services in Central America, using Department of Justice, USAID, universities,
these existing programs as a base to creating and other institutions, ought to provide
a comprehensive approach is the most cost technical assistance and training to Central

Washington Office on Latin America  November 2006 29

WOLA Staff American governments, municipalities, embassies in the region ought to conduct
Joy Olson
and NGO’s in designing and implementing sustained policy dialogue with the Central
Executive Director prevention-focused approaches that build American governments around the need
Geoff Thale on community assessments and develop for a greater emphasis on prevention-based
Director of Programs partnerships at the local level. approaches to the gang problem backed by
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli adequate government resources. A senior
Senior Associate for Colombia
and Haiti Additionally, the U.S. government it is Administration official ought to be tasked
John Walsh in a position to provide funding to help with coordinating efforts to ensure that the
Senior Associate for the Andes launch and sustain these programs. USAID message of support for a comprehensive
and Drug Policy
has laid out proposals country by country approach is heard.
Vicki Gass
Senior Associate for
for its gangs and youth violence prevention
Rights and Development work. Appropriate funding should be Motivated by concerns about the presence
Adriana Beltrán allocated for this. of MS13 and the 18th Street gang in
Associate for Guatemala and the United States, the Department of
Violence Against Women
Beyond offering technical assistance and Homeland Security has increased its
Maureen Meyer
Associate for Mexico providing resources, the United States efforts to deport gang members. To date,
and Central America can play an important role in advocating U.S. efforts have primarily focused on
Elsa Falkenburger with Central American governments for law enforcement techniques driven by
Program Officer for Cuba
and Gangs
comprehensive anti-gang programs that domestic security concerns. Both domestic
Connie McGuire
include significant violence prevention concerns, and concern for public security
Research and Outreach programs. U.S. officials now regularly speak and political stability in Central America
Coordinator for the Central of the need for comprehensive approaches should motivate the U.S. to support a
American Youth Gangs Project
that include youth violence prevention more comprehensive approach to the
Joel Fyke
Program Assistant for Central programs. They ought to take steps to problem in Central America. While gang
America, Brazil, and Rights and assure that Central American governments violence cannot be ended tomorrow,
and publics hear that message. Senior effective programs focused on prevention
Jessica Eby
Program Assistant for Drug Policy,
U.S. officials should seek opportunities and smart policing can contribute to a
Security, the Andes, and Haiti to speak publicly, especially in Central long term solution in the region and in
Kristel Muciño America, to carry this message. U.S. the United States.
Intern Coordinator and Program
Assistant for Mexico and Violence
Against Women
Lori Piccolo
Development Director
Ana Paula Duarte Endnotes
Development Assistant
Cruz, Jose Miguel and Marlon Carranza. Pandillas y institutions have limited the level of youth violence in
Jay Schwartz those countries.
Politicas Públicas: El Caso de El Salvador, Juventudes,
Director of Operations and Finance
Violencia y Exclusión: Desafios para las Politicas Publicas. 7
Londoño, Juan Luis and Rodrigo Guerrero. Violencia en
Rachel Neild Guatemala: INDES, January 2006. América Latina: Epidemiología y costos. Washington, DC:
Senior Fellow Inter-American Development Bank Research Network
Santa Cruz Giralt, and Alberto Concha-Easman.
George Withers Barrio Adentro: La Solidaridad Violenta de las Pandillas. Working Papers R-375, 1999.
Senior Fellow San Salvador, El Salvador: Instituto de Opinión Publica 8
Surgeon General’s Office. Youth Violence: A Report of the
Coletta Youngers Universidad Centroamericana, 2001. Surgeon General – Strategies and Programs. Washington,
Senior 3
Buvinic, Mayra; Andrew Morrison; and Michael DC: Department of Health and Human Services, 2001.
Shifter. Violence in Latin American and the Caribbean: A 9
Buvinic, Mayra and Morrison, Andrew. Violence
Framework for Action. Washington, DC: Inter-American Prevention: Technical Note 5. Washington, DC: Inter-
Development Bank,1999. American Development Bank, 1999.
Save the Children UK. Las Maras en Honduras: 10
Smith, D. Violence Prevention Programs Need Better
Investigación sobre Pandillas y Violencia Juvenil. Honduras: Evaluation, Psychologist Testifies. Monitor in Psychology,
Save the Children UK, 2002. December 2000, V.31, No.11. December 2000.
Ibid 11
Greenwood, Peter and Angela Hawkin. An Assessment
There are some places where strong networks of of the Effect of California’s Three Strikes Law. Greenwood
community institutions or new organizations have & Associates. Los Angeles: Greenwood Associates,
maintained community solidarity and values to March 2002.
integrate young people and offer them opportunities. 12
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
See forthcoming sections on Nicaragua and Mexico in Preventing Adolescent Gang Involvement. Juvenile Justice
a report by the Red Transnacional sobre Maras which Bulletin. Washington, DC: Department of Justice,
argue that relatively strong community networks and September 2000.

30 Youth Gangs in Central America: Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing, and Prevention
Surgeon General’s Office. Youth Violence: A Report the Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire. Washington,
of the Surgeon General – Strategies and Programs. DC: U.S. Department of Justice,.September 2001.
Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human 20
Op cit. Preventing Adolescent Gang Involvement.
Services, 2001. 21
This methodology is used by the OJJDP and the World
One Central American example of in-school primary Bank/Viva Rio in their manuals on gang prevention
prevention programs is the “Culture of Lawfulness” models.
curriculum being used in Salvadoran schools, with 22
Howell, James. Youth Gangs: An Overview.
support from USAID Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and
Wyrick, Phelan. Gang Prevention: How to Make Delinquency Prevention, Department of Justice, 1998.
the “Front End” of Your Anti-Gang Effort Work. U.S. 23
Attorney’s Bulletin. Washington, DC:.U.S. Attorney htm for details on specific program development and
General, 2006. implementation.
16 24
Ibid. 25
See: A Resource Guide for Municipalities: Community
Alda, Erik; Mayra Buvinic; and Jorge Lamas. Based Crime and Violence Prevention in Latin America.
Emphasizing Prevention in Citizen Security: The Inter- Washington, DC: World Bank, November 2003.
American Development Bank’s Contribution to Reducing 26
Moser, Caroline and Bernice Van Bronkhorst. Youth
Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Washington, Violence in Latin American and the Caribbean: Costs,
DC: Inter-American Development Bank, August 2005. Causes, and Interventions, Urban Peace Program Series,
National Institute for Justice. Reducing Gun Violence: Washington, DC: World Bank. August 1999.

This report was written by Geoff Thale, Director of Programs, and Elsa Falkenburger,
Program Officer for Gangs, both from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
They would like to thank Executive Director Joy Olson and Connie McGuire, Research
and Outreach Coordinator for the Central American Youth Gangs Project, for their
invaluable comments and suggestions, as well as Program Assistant Joel Fyke for editing and
publication assistance. Special thanks go to Elena Paredes for her important research on the
subject and to Ernesto Bardales and Emilio Goubaud for their photos.

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