Part II: Gangs, Deportation and Violence in Central America*

The development of criminal organizations in Central America has been different than in Mexico. The largest organizations trace their roots to the 1980s, when much of the region was engulfed in civil wars. In many ways, those conflicts laid the groundwork for the current wave of violence and criminal activity.

The most famous and sophisticated of these criminal groups drew their core membership from the guerrillas that battled the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador. In the case of Honduras, a counterrevolutionary army fought neighboring Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. The insurgent (and later criminal) groups operated in ungoverned spaces, such as the remote border areas and vast jungles of the region. Guatemala’s Peten province, for example, occupies a third of the country’s territory, yet has just three percent of its population and a minuscule state presence along its 400-kilometer (or about 250-mile) border with Mexico. Honduras’ Gracias a Dios province is largely uninhabited; even in the most developed section of the province, a 40-kilometer (about 25-mile) drive can take six hours.1

In order to operate in these regions, rebel groups used illegal networks and trafficking corridors to obtain the provisions, arms, uniforms, and other materials they needed to run their wars against the state. Some of these corridors had been in use prior to the wars. For example, many had been used to bring cheaper duty-free goods — including such nonthreatening items as dairy products —into the Northern Triangle countries from neighboring nations. Others were used to move illegal drugs and other illicit products through the region on the way to the United States. In the 1980s, such corridors began doubling as arms-trafficking routes.

As in Mexico, the core of most contraband networks started out as family and friends. They are locally called “transportistas,” for their role in transporting goods.2 In some cases, networks now stretch from Panama to Guatemala. They still move all types of products, both illicit and licit, as well as migrants. Some have formed legitimate transportation and/or other businesses (e.g., fishing companies, hotels) to camouflage their activities, and they are generally free to work with various criminal actors seeking to move illegal goods.

Central America’s civil wars indirectly contributed to the later militarization of such family units. During the civil wars, the Northern Triangle governments strengthened their armed forces and police and intelligence services. As these security forces grew in size, they eventually exerted control over numerous government agencies. Their hold on the government was in some cases absolute, as in Guatemala in the early 1980s, when military leaders assumed the presidency.

When the wars ended in Guatemala and El Salvador, however, those governments greatly reduced the size of their armed forces and replaced their intelligence services. Out-of-work officers and operatives offered their services to other sectors of government, or sold their expertise to the underworld or private sector. In Guatemala, for example, a vast network of former military intelligence officials now trades in fake passports, private security, arms, and illegal adoptions.3

The end of the wars also resulted in large numbers of unemployed guerrilla fighters. Some of the more sophisticated rebels entered politics, but others moved into illegal activities such as kidnapping, arms trafficking and, most recently, drug trafficking. Their experience during the wars equipped them with the tools and expertise necessary to excel in extralegal activities. In El Salvador, for example, some members of the Communist Party, who formed the backbone of one of the country’s most formidable guerrilla units, became involved in kidnapping, arms trafficking, and car theft.4

Finally, the civil wars set off a flow of migrants northward that has only grown in years since, and has transformed the countries of the Northern Triangle. Thousands of refugees and economic migrants fled to the United States and settled in big cities such as Los Angeles. Feeling vulnerable to other gangs in these cities, some members of these new enclaves formed their own gangs. At first fulfilling community needs for protection and security, the activities of such gangs quickly degenerated into crime, including murder for hire, extortion, local distribution of drugs, and prostitution.

Such gangs’ emergence in the mid-1990s coincided with state and federal initiatives in the United States that led to longer and higher incarceration rates for gang members and increased deportations of ex-convicts.5 The number of gang members deported quickly increased, as did the number of transnational gangs operating in the Northern Triangle. In many cases, the deported gang members looked to replicate their activities back in Central America, where they found willing recruits to fill the ranks of their organizations. Following the end of the civil wars, many youth lacked educational opportunities and found themselves in scarred or dysfunctional families. In addition, rapid urbanization in the region left many families without a solid economic or social footing. The gangs offered disenfranchised youth the lure of quick profits, a sense of community, and ready access to weaponry and experienced fighters to train and arm young recruits.

The deportations accelerated in the 2000s. Between 2001 and 2010, the United States deported 129,726 convicted criminals to Central America, over 90 percent of whom were sent to the Northern Triangle.6 Honduras alone, a country with roughly the same population as Haiti, had 44,042 criminal deportees during that period. By contrast, during the same period, the Caribbean received 44,522 total criminal deportees.7

Figure 1. Criminal Deportations from the United States, 2001-10

Criminal Deportations US numbersCriminal Deportations US percentage

Notes: *El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Source: US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2010 (Washington, DC: DHS).

With the deportations, the two most prominent Los Angeles gangs — the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the Barrio 18 — quickly became the two largest transnational gangs in the Northern Triangle. By some estimates, the gangs now have between 60,000 and 95,000 members in the Northern Triangle alone.8

[See InSight Crime’s profiles of MS-13 and Barrio 18]

US and Central American gangs are connected by shared names, rules, and dress codes. However, finding empirical evidence that directly links the deportations to criminal activity is difficult. There has been no systematic effort on the part of US, Mexican, or Northern Triangle authorities to track deported gang members and their crime recidivism rates.9 Moreover, there has been little official communication and information sharing among the countries. US Immigration and Customs Service (ICE) does not categorize the deportees as “gang” members on deportation forms, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) provides criminal background information to partner government institutions only upon request.

Several US government projects aim to increase information flows, including fingerprint records and historical data, on deported gang members.10 Nonetheless, problems persist. For example, under one of the more recent pilot programs in El Salvador, the FBI released lists of suspected gang-member deportees to a special unit within the Salvadoran national police, which then disseminated the list across the country’s law enforcement. However, according to interviews conducted by the author of this report, the police unit responsible for disseminating the information did not properly communicate, or in some cases refused to communicate, the names of suspected gang members to other police agencies. There are many reasons for such breakdowns in communication, including distrust about how the information will be used.11

These challenges are not limited to Central America. Mexico receives more criminal deportees than all the countries of Central America combined: between 2001 and 2010, the United States returned 779,968 criminal deportees to Mexico. Communication between US and Mexican officials is similarly weak. For instance, according to Ciudad Juarez’s former mayor, Jose Reyes Ferriz (2007-10), the United States often simply releases criminal deportees at the bridge connecting Juarez and El Paso without warning. The Juarez city government eventually developed a system to bus deportees to other areas of Mexico, but many find their way back to Juarez, where they are lost in the city’s complex criminal landscape.12

Aside from the rise in gang activity, Central America has also experienced an increase in drug trafficking (see Figure 2). For much of the past decade, the area served as a trampoline for the movement of drugs northward, particularly cocaine and heroin. Data on drug seizures show an admittedly incomplete portrait of the full scale of illicit drug trade; that said, reported cocaine seizures in Central America indicate a notable rise, particularly between 2005 and 2007.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that as much as 300 tons of cocaine move through the region every year. The drugs are transported by water, air, and road. Water routes are covered by speedboats, fishing vessels, or a combination of both. The traffickers use the islands and coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras as drop-off points and storage areas. To move products by air, criminal organizations use the hundreds of private and clandestine airstrips located in Honduras and Guatemala. From there, the drugs move in private vehicles or commercial trucks along land routes.

The importance of the Northern Triangle in this distribution chain goes beyond its stock of readymade routes, easily corruptible government officials, and willing and well-trained soldiers. As the Mexican government has increased its pressure on criminal groups in Mexico, they have sought refuge in the countries of the Northern Triangle. Large Mexican criminal organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas have moved important portions of their operations into Guatemala and Honduras. They enter via informal and illegal channels, obtain false local identification from clandestine networks and corrupt local officials, and operate largely incognito. Not surprisingly, the battle among local criminal organizations, the transportistas, and foreign organizations has intensified.

Figure 2. Cocaine Seized in Central America (kilograms), 2002-09

Central America cocaine seizures

Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment (Vienna: UNODC, 2010),

The shift in criminal operations from Mexico to Central America has resulted in a shift in other parts of the underground economy. Throughout the region, large criminal organizations now often pay their contracted workers in illicit products. These contracted workers, which include street gangs in both Central America and Mexico, then sell the products locally. The Mexican drug economy has become a very lucrative venture with pure cocaine prices in Mexico City reaching $18,000 per kilogram. As a result, the competition to gain control of the product has shifted from Mexico to the Northern Triangle, where the price per kilo is closer to $12,000 per kilogram.13


[1] Author interviews, Honduras, February 21-25, 2010.

[2] For more on the transportista networks, see Steven Dudley, “Drug Trafficking Organizations in Central America: Transportisas, Mexican Cartels and Maras” (working paper series on US-Mexico security collaboration, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and the Transborder Institute, June 2010).

[3] Author interviews with former and current intelligence officials, Guatemala City, Guatemala, January 19-February 4, 2010.

[4] Douglas Farah, “Organized Crime in El Salvador: The Homegrown and Transnational Dimensions” (working paper series on organized crime in Central America, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Latin America Program, February 2011).

[5] The “Three Strikes” laws significantly expanded prison sentences for recidivist criminals, and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 expanded the categories for which immigrants could be deported. See Kate Saint Germain and Carly J. Stevens, “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act,” US immigration Legislation Online, 1996.

[6] The data are for events rather than individuals. As a result, some individuals may be counted multiple times in the data. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics, 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Washington, DC: DHS, 2011).

[7] In comparison with some other countries in Central America, the Northern Triangle countries do not receive a high percentage of criminals among their deportees. Nearly two-thirds of deportees to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, for instance, are criminal deportees, whereas the share for the Northern Triangle nations is substantially lower: about one-fifth to Guatemala, one-quarter to Honduras, and one-third to El Salvador. However, these Caribbean nations receive far fewer criminal deportees than the Northern Triangle countries. Clare Ribando Seelke, Gangs in Central America (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2011).

[8] Estimations vary widely. The UNODC says there are 10,500 in El Salvador, 36,000 in Honduras, and 14,000 in Guatemala. In February Guatemala’s interior minister estimated that 20,000 operate in Guatemala, 40,000 in El Salvador, and 35,000 in Honduras. See Marciela Castañon, “Estiman que 95 mil pandilleros operan en Triángulo Norte,” La Hora, February 2012.

[9] A 2007 World Bank report touched on this subject with regard to Jamaica in an attempt to analyze the relationship between deportations and crime. According to the report, between 1993 and 2004 Jamaica absorbed 1,200 criminals a year. Eighty-one percent of the deportees from the United States, Canada, and Great Britain between the years 2001 and 2004 were “nonviolent” offenders. But 224 were convicted murderers, not an insignificant number relative to Jamaica’s population. “In such small countries, it does not take a large number of offenders to have a large impact, particularly if they assume a leadership role in criminal gangs on their return or provide perverse role models for youth,” the Bank report concludes. See World Bank and United Nations, Crime, Violence, and Development: Trends, Costs, and Policy Options in the Caribbean (World Bank and United Nations, 2007).

[10] For a more complete overview and assessment of the US anti-gang policy in the region, see Florina Cristiana Matei, “The Impact of US Anti-gang Policies in Central America: Quo Vadis?” in Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011).

[11] Author interviews, San Salvador, El Salvador, May 11-15, 2011.

[12] Reyes interview with the author, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, May 3, 2010. This flow of information to Mexico, however, is reportedly improving. In September 2012, representatives of the Juarez Municipal Police told the author they were receiving notification of gang members’ deportations, as well as information on prior criminal activity.

[13] Author interviews, conducted in 2011 in Mexico, Guatemala, and the United States with intelligence officials of various governments as well as former members of criminal syndicates.

See also:

Part I: The Emergence of Mexico’s Small Armies

Part III: The Gauntlet

*This work was originally commissioned and published by the Migration Policy Institute, which together with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars has convened a three-year research initiative focusing on Mexico, Central America, and the United States. See complete original work here. See more reports from the research initiative here.