SAN SALVADOR U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this week announced an intensified joint effort between the United States and El Salvador to combat brutal street gangs that have roots in both countries and strong international criminal connections.
Gonzales, on his first stop of a swing through three Latin American nations, said the offensive targets the transnational gangs responsible for the most barbaric violence.
Two of the most powerful and far-reaching street gangs operating in major U.S. cities, Mexico and Central America are the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and the Mara 18.
Both were formed around nuclei of Salvadoran-born young immigrants in Los Angeles, California, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and expanded rapidly both geographically and in terms of criminal activity.
Hundreds of members were arrested and prosecuted in the United States for murder, assault, extortion and trafficking in drugs, humans and weapons.
They later were deported to El Salvador, which despite being their birthplace was a land little known to most of them, having left as infants or toddlers with their emigrant parents.
Once back home, they continued their criminal activity, forming extremely violent organizations including many Salvadoran youths who had never emigrated.
The influence of the maras, as the gangs are known in Central America, spread throughout the isthmus and into Mexico, with many members sneaking into the United States to extend the power of the growing transnational phenomenon.
Gonzales, after meeting Monday with Salvadoran President Tony Saca, said the new bilateral offensive will focus on more efficient detention of gang suspects in both nations, better exchange of information and increased U.S. training programs for Salvadoran police officers.
Also among the initiatives is creation of a fingerprint archive intended to help authorities better track gang leaders and members.
Gonzales announced formation of an elite U.S.-funded anti-gang unit to be composed of FBI agents and officers from El Salvador’s National Police.
Official Salvadoran data puts the number of gang members in this small Central American nation at about 10,000.
Nearly one-third of those people are currently in jail, swept up in anti-gang offensives known as Hard Hand and Super Hard Hand that in recent years have sought to get offenders off the streets.
So far this year, U.S. authorities have deported 1,700 Salvadoran citizens, 341 of whom have criminal records. The remainder were undocumented immigrants.
International cooperation and coordination is critical to combating these gangs that know no borders, said Gonzales, who is Mexican-American.
Saca, for his part, said he requested increased U.S. financial and technological aid to augment the National Police s investigative capacities and to re-enforce security at the prisons with large gangster populations.