Back in the 1980s, due to the civil war in El Salvador, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and Contra counter-revolutionary guerrillas based in southern Honduras, and the oppressive military regimes in Guatemala, thousands of Central Americans fled to the United States to escape the killing fields. A large portion of the refugees went to California and settled in Los Angeles. In an effort to defend themselves against African-American and Mexican-American gangs that were already established in places such as East Los Angeles, some of the Central American refugees formed gangs of their own, including the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Mara 18 (M-18 or Barrio 18).
In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA). The law expanded the list of crimes for which both illegal and legal immigrants could be deported. Central American gang members were targeted. Tens of thousands of convicted criminals were flown back to Central America via the U.S. Marshal Service's Justice Prisoner Alien Transport System, or "Con Air". Yeah, remember the movie with Nicolas Cage? Well, it wasn't entirely fictional.
According to an article published in the Los Angeles Times on October 30, 2005, during the previous 12 years, U.S. immigration authorities had "logged more than 50,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records to Central America." According to an article in The Daily Beast earlier this month, "Between 2001 and 2010, Con Air flew 129,760 convicted criminals back to Central America. These included 44,042 who arrived in Honduras on daily flights that were initially to one of two cities. The flights to the capital, Tegucigalpa, were then suspended and they all began landing at the country's second-largest metropolis, San Pedro Sula."
Prior to the 1990s, there did not exist a gang problem in Central America. While there were certainly gangs in the region during the 1980s, they did not start posing a serious threat until the mass deportations from the U.S. began in the mid-1990s. Now, it is estimated that the gang population in the region may surpass 100,000. Estimates range to as many as 50,000 gang members in El Salvador, about 36,000 in Honduras, and up to 14,000 in Guatemala -- the three "Northern Triangle" countries.
With the Internet and the use of cell phones and smart phones during the past two decades, the gangs in Central America have had no problem staying in close contact with their chapters throughout the United States. There is ample communications and coordination, even with those members who are locked up in prisons. The gangs in both the U.S. and Central America are thriving, because they are benefiting from each other's strengths in vastly different geographic areas.
The gangs in the U.S. cater to consumer demands for drugs and prostitutes (and variations of), while the gangs in Central America supply the products. On the side, the gangs in Central America serve as contract killers for the drug cartels and operate their own local extortion, drug dealing, and human trafficking businesses. They are outstanding entrepreneurs.
The gangs continue growing in numbers because of the relative powerlessness of the authorities in Central America. The police are outgunned and easily corrupted, while the judges and politicians are effortlessly cowed. Most of all, because of the extreme poverty and social decay in the region, there is a seemingly endless reservoir of both willing and unwilling young recruits for the gangs.
The greatest favor the U.S. government can do right now for these gangs is to deport the tens of thousands of child migrants back to whence they came -- mainly to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Who knows, with U.S. assistance perhaps the gang population in Central America could soon top 200,000. Hey, if we're really lucky, pretty soon the U.S. might even be able to accomplish what it has in Iraq. That would be exceptional.