Two Letters, Two Numbers: Gang Violence in Central America

How the United States’ deportation policies established the street gang violence of today’s Central America 

Mural in La 72 Hogar-Refugio para Personas Migrantes, a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico
Mural in La 72 Hogar-Refugio para Personas Migrantes, a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico

Jakelin Caal Maquín from Guatemala was seven-years-old when she died on 8 December 2018 in the custody of the United States. 

Angie Valeria Ramírez was twenty-three-months-old when she was found lying face down on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, on 24 June 2019 with her father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. 

These are just two stories and two deaths that gained international traction amongst the hundreds who have disappeared and go unreported every year. Poverty, political instability, and gang violence have forced many families, just like Jakelin and Angie and their parents, to flee from their homes.

Mara Salvatrucha 13. Barrio 18. Las dos letras and los dos numeros, as they are referred to, are bitter rivals. These two transnational street gangs, known locally as maras, have ravaged the Northern Triangle of Central America (composed of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) since the late 1990s with violence, extortion, and torture, deepening the widespread poverty. Recognised for their tattoos and brutality, the two dominant gangs have been largely responsible for the region now having one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Yet the origins of these gangs do not lie in the streets of San Salvador or Tegucigalpa, but in the streets of Los Angeles. During the 1970s and 1980s over a million central American migrants fleeing civil wars headed northwards for the United States, and many settled in Los Angeles. Denied asylum by the Reagan administration, these undocumented and marginalised young men faced racism, a language barrier and exploitative illegal work conditions. Living in the shadows, they became radicalised and sought a sense of identity, purpose and most importantly protection in the criminal gangs that inhabited the barrios of Los Angeles. 18th Street Gang was initially set up by Mexican immigrants in the 1960s and became one of the first multi-racial, multi-ethnic gangs in the city; with time its members became largely Central Americans. MS-13, on the other hand, was founded in the second half of the 1980s by a later wave of Salvadoran immigrants as a protection from the older gangs of the city, which were predominantly formed by African-Americans, Mexicans and Asians. [1]

Railway tracks of the train 'El tren de la muerte' / 'La Bestia' in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico
Railway tracks of the train ‘El tren de la muerte’ / ‘La Bestia’ in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico

Ten years later, as the Guatemalan and Salvadoran civil wars came to an end in the 1990s, the US government hardened their immigration policies and began a huge deportation campaign, sending the migrants and their children to their countries of origin. It is estimated that between 2000 and 2004, 20,000 Central American gang members were deported back to countries of origin that they hardly knew. [2] Some had arrived in the USA as toddlers, or had even been born there, and had never obtained legal residency. Struggling to adapt, they replicated Los Angeles gang culture and structures and were able to regroup with strength. Guatemala and El Salvador were only just recovering from decades of civil war, and so their already frail justice systems were further weakened; the young and impoverished population of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala were ideal for gang recruitment. This is not to say that criminal groups did not already exist, and continue to, in the region, but the localised pandillas were not comparable in scale and efficacy to the organised, transnational organisations into which Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18 multiplied and mutated. 

Today, the two gangs fight in turf wars over the control of neighbourhoods and cities where extortion, death threats and murder run rife. In these contexts, the paralysed government police forces hold little authority. Disappearances have become common, along with femicide and infanticide. El Salvador has become the country with the highest homicide rate in the world – excluding those which are official war zones. Inadvertently, the United States actually strengthened the power of these two gangs both at home and in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

This cycle of gang culture is only one of the many stories that ties the Northern Triangle of Central America with the United States. The complex web of historical threads was sewn by the significant contribution of the United States to political instability and the civil wars in the region. A century of US interventionism gouged the region and the scars still remain. In particular, in the 1960s and 70s it overthrew democratically elected left-wing governments, installed US-backed right-wing dictatorships and used its army to train death squads which repressed and massacred civilians. Its imperialism was not only political but economic. Neoliberal economic policies were used to create ‘banana republics’ in order to protect the monopoly of American corporations in the region, such as the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International). 

The relationship between the US and Central America is particularly complex because although the US has contributed greatly to the suffering of these countries, many of the thousands of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, who are travelling northwards as I write, are fuelled by the ‘American Dream’ and the prospect of prosperity and safety. The significant Hispanic population residing in the US also means that Latinx culture is a crucial part of the United States’ cultural identity. The history of these communities is clearly intimately tied to American history.

Recently, there has been a shift in immigration patterns in comparison with previous decades. Increasingly, what is being observed on the ground are Central American women, children and hordes of unaccompanied minors standing at the US-Mexico border. They have to make the choice between turning themselves into the US border patrol and requesting asylum or attempting to cross the border illegally. Most have been forced to flee because of poverty, gender-based violence, the effects of climate change, gang violence, and attempted gang recruitment. Yet what awaits these refugees is not prosperity nor safety, but the consequences of the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance policy’ announced in April 2018 and the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy of January 2019. These policies have caused migrant camps of thousands of asylum seekers to spring up in Mexico’s dangerous border cities. Many of these people have suffered years of human rights abuses in their home country, and countless more on the journey through Mexico at the hands of Mexican gang members and public officials with six in ten migrant women and girls being raped along the journey. [3] Yet, the reality is that when they arrive at the ‘land of the free’, they have little reason to hope for being granted asylum. 

The rate of success of asylum applications has been declining for four years now following Matter A-B-, introduced by Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June 2018. Asylum grant rates for refugees from the Northern Triangle fell to an average of 14.4 percent (June to November 2018). [4] Those who are not granted asylum are detained and then deported; for individuals who fled death threats from the maras, deportation can mean being murdered just days after their return. [5] Twenty five years later, the United States’ deportation policies again carry bloodshed to an already vulnerable region.6

Discourse about the contemporary Central American migration crisis cannot be disentangled from the United States’ history of intervention and the transportation of its gang problem. The United States has an obligation to take in those Central Americans fleeing from persecution not only because of the international human rights legal frameworks it has signed, but because it must take responsibility for the violence it has helped cultivate in the region.

By Elisenda Rubiés [linked to LinkedIn profile] as part of the ‘Series Name’ series [if applicable]. Interviewee’s Twitter/Facebook/Website is @handle [linked]


[1] Does, Antonia. “2. The Central American gang phenomenon”. The Construction of the Maras: Between Politicization and Securitization, pp.2 .By Does. Genève: Graduate Institute Publications, 2013. Web.

[2] Arana, Ana. “How the Street Gangs Took Central America.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 3, 2005, pp. 100. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.

[3], Accessed 17 April 2020.

[4], Human Rights First Fact Sheet January 2019, data from the Syracuse University Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) Asylum Decision tool.

[5], Accessed 17 April 2020

[6] Note: the Mexican government’s recent detainment and deportation policies concerning Central American refugees are equally abusive of their human rights.