WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Apr 2007

WOLA and Partners Announce Conclusions of Year-Long Study on Youth Gangs

Washington D.C., February 8, 2007—The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and a research team led by the Center for Inter-American Studies and Programs of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) will present the findings of a year long comparative, transnational study of youth gangs in Central America, Mexico, and the Washington, D.C. area of the United States.  The team will present their conclusions during the Press Conference entitled “Youth Gangs in Central America, Mexico and Washington D.C.:  A Transnational Examination” that will be held at the National Press Club from 10:00 am to 11:00 am on Thursday February 8th.

Among the conclusions of the research team:

1) Policy recommendations about dealing with youth gangs and public security issues have to be based in serious analysis of the nature of the problem, rather than on myths, anecdotes, or speculation.  Youth gangs are dynamic; they change, grow and shrink, and should not be treated as static phenomena that are the same everywhere and at all times.

2) The analysis done by the research team suggests that youth gangs are a serious threat to public security in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, although the nature of the gangs varies from country to country.  At the same time, gangs are a much smaller problem, and much less of a threat in Nicaragua.  In the Washington, D.C, area of the United States, gangs made up of Central American immigrants or the children of immigrants are active in “hot spots,” but are not at this time a major public security issue. 

3) In a surprising conclusion, the researchers found that gangs made up of Central American immigrants, or linked to Central American youth gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha or the 18th Street Gang, are not widespread in Mexico.  Mexican youth gangs exist, and drug-trafficking criminal gangs are a serious security problem.  But, despite alarmist rhetoric, research shows that Central American gangs are not a major problem in Mexico.

4) In El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, where the problem is serious, government responses have focused heavily on repressive law enforcement strategies.  This strategy has been counter-productive.  The research shows that gangs have grown more organized rather than less in response to hard-line police approaches.  Public security has not improved as a result of these strategies.

5) Research suggests there are “best practices” in Central America and in the United States that ought to be more fully explored, and that might yield better results.  These include efforts to treat the problem comprehensively, as local authorities have done in the Washington, D.C. area; police involvement in prevention programs, as the police do in Nicaragua, and efforts to develop community-based responses, as has happened in local communities throughout Central America. These lessons have to be considered also in Mexico, where there is a need of preventive and coordinated responses, as well as differentiated and responsible policies to deal with youth violence.

The researchers will also present their study during a forum on youth gang violence at Johns Hopkins University and at a public seminar at the Inter-American Development Bank on Friday, February 9, 2007.