How Gangs Threaten Us All

by DOUGLAS FARAH July 9, 2009
For those interested in exploring one of the greatest internal and transnational threats to the United States, there is a new book out this week by Samuel Logan, This is For the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang.
The book traces the history of Brenda Paz, a young Honduran who joins MS-13 and eventually becomes the most effective police witness against the organization, before she was killed. But besides the individual story, the book shows just how powerful and ruthless the MS-13 has become. Given that it now has chapters in thousands of cities across the United States, and maintains its transnational structure through the clan structure in Central America, the gang (or mara in Spanish) presents a significant challenge.
But it is not just a local law enforcement issue. It is truly a transnational threat that can destroy countries. Monday, I heard Carlos Castresana Fernandez, head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala-CICIG) discuss the serious problems of the organized criminal networks operating out of Guatemala.
He noted how the already-disturbing situation in Guatemala had gotten dramatically worse in the past three years and Mexican and Colombian cartel operatives, particularly Los Zetas, moved in and took control of local criminal operations.
The cartels were aided and abetted in their takeover efforts by the local gangs, primarily MS-13. On Guatemala’s northern border with Mexico, Castresana Fernandez said, the organized criminal groups and gangs are the only authority, in the face of the complete absence of the state. “Maras plus organized crime has proven deadly,” he said.
That is the reality on the ground in much of Central America. The gangs are increasingly moving from local criminal operations, coordinated with their partner gangs in the United States, to move illicit products like stolen cars, methamphetamine and weapons, into the muscle for the drug cartels.
The consequences, as Castresana Fernandez noted, is that already weak and corrupt police forces and militaries are simply overwhelmed or bought, allowing the gangs to grow in power both in their home countries and in this country. The richer they become the bigger threat they become, both here and south of our border.
The book offers an inside look at how the gangs operate at granular level. For those of us who spent time with the gangs (I did for a Washington Post series in 1998), it is a harrowing and accurate description of the amazing and disturbing world that gang members inhabit. It also places the development of the gangs and the recruitment of gang members in its proper context of displacement, social dislocation and family separation that has helped define the Central American immigrant narrative.
I am not one who worries a great deal about the use of Hezbollah or other terrorist groups of gang-controlled pipelines to enter the United States. With embassies in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua etc. all willing to issue valid travel documents to them, it is hard to see why they would bother with the riskier and more vulnerable method of moving over the land border clandestinely.
But it is clear that these gangs and cartels are, in their own right, becoming increasingly strong transnational threats, and that they offer other services to Hezbollah and other groups that would be useful – drug trafficking routes, protection of the pipelines they use, etc. To understand why the gangs are a threat, this book is a good place to start. Contributing Editor Douglas Farah is an award-winning investigative journalist and Senior Fellow in Financial Investigations and Transparency at the International Assessment and StrategyCenter. E-mail him at

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