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Gang Culture Elements In Latin America

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Gang culture in Latin America is perceived as responsible for various types of criminal problems not just within the continent but around the entire globe. The term ‘gang’, or ‘pandilla’ in Spanish, is widely stigmatised as a crime group that tends to seek violence and inhumane activities. Due to this stigmatisation, blaming these ‘gangs’ as a cause for violent activities seem to be more common than ever. However, these ‘typical’ gangs that are widely known through media coverage, are mostly transnational gangs that have acquired its reputation through extreme brutality(). In order to fully grasp why these groups exist, it is essential to explore and study the motivation behind the formation and development of these gangs. Since the mid-20th century, Latin America has involuntarily produced marginalised urban areas due to its economic and social issues, which has become a ground for the street gangs to develop as a form of reaction to ‘segregation, fragmentation, and inequality’(Alberto Weicher, 2017). Although different gangs might vary in their structure, methods of economic stability and the types and sizes of crimes, inevitably there are some similarities that can contribute to a better response towards gang phenomenon in Latin America. Evidently, only a few of these gangs evolve into a much larger scale, and a typical example of these developed gangs is maras, Central American gangs that are linked to a significant rise in violence and homicides within the continent (Franco, 2008). An emphasised studies on maras can perhaps provide insight about current approach towards the gang phenomenon, and a potential suggestions in the future. An increasing rate of violence caused by gangs in Latin America in recent days implies that undeniably, gang violence is an expanding issue throughout Latin America.

There are numerous elements to consider when approaching such vast and worldwide issue,

Evidently, Schuberth (2016) notes that although ‘urban violence is receiving increasing academic attention,’ it mainly focuses on ‘coercive mano dura policies’ and ‘yet, there remains a paucity of studies beyond such carrots-and-sticks approaches towards gangs.’

This claim further poses a problem of the public policies’ insufficiency in managing the gang phenomenon, and even implies the negative result of such policies.

The information regarding gangs are considered scarce and often contradictory.

The formation of gangs in Latin America, especially ones that are constituted by young adults or adolescents, has been an on-going research topic and a phenomenon that sparks many debates (Schuberth, 2016). Some argue that the gang phenomenon started out, in countries with dominant rates of internal migration, as an alternative method for survival. In parts of society where treatment towards citizens is marginalised, young adults that are predominantly men, have formed gangs due to their sense of disconnection or removal from the society (Jones and Rodgers, 2009).

In particular, Mara Salvatrucha or the M-13 gang, which is a type maras gang, was formed in Los Angeles by ‘Salvadoran migrants who fled the civil war in their country’. Their clear sense of disconnection with the American society is undoubtedly one of the catalyst for its formation. This disconnection, combined with the stigma towards gangs, encourages those who cannot afford education, healthcare, and possibilities of employment, to further differentiate themselves from society. A majority of gang members express this mindset through ‘distinctive modes of dress and act,’ such as wearing certain colours, using gang-specific identifying hand signs, and getting gang-related tattoos (Franco, 2008). For instance, the 18th street gang or M-18, expresses its presence through ‘Mayan numerology for the number 18, XVIII, XV3, Dieciocho, or 666’ as their unique symbols (Franco, 2008).

For most gangs, violence is a common tool for their social interaction. By being involved with numerous crimes with the intention of sustaining themselves economically, they face ‘daily interaction with the criminal justice system’(Gang and Lehman, 1990). In many of these instances, the degree of crime gradually increases as it becomes necessary for them to respond to law-enforcement with ever-increasing violence. For instance, ‘Colombian cities have experienced an uncontrolled expansion’ of outlying areas, which are named communas, as they are excluded from the benefits of normal cities and they do not follow the general rules established by the metropolis (Villoria, 2011). As such, violence has turned into a financial basis of many regions, and ‘the professionalisation of the violent’ has been rooted as the country’s unofficial economy (Villoria, 2011). It almost seems natural that these gangs, not all of them but most, seem to possess a tendency to gradually increase their influence, to attain survivability against the social justice system, or even rival gangs. In the case of Mara Salvatrucha, Wolf (2012) states that ‘gang youth turned from using knives and handmade weapons to employing industrial firearms, thus intensifying the lethality of gang violence’ in means to fight against the system. Although the ways of these gangs’ development vary tremendously, the case above portrays a direct relationship between the criminal justice system and the level of gang violence.

In 2003, El Salvador introduced a ‘draconian anti-gang policy’ called mano dura, which means iron fist (Schuberth, 2016). This repressive policy has essentially increased the deployment of military and police forces, which resulted in increasing confrontation between the gangs and the security forces (Schuberth, 2016). Fundamentally, in the last few decades, Latin America’s response has neglected the social causes of gang phenomenon, by implementing strengthened criminal justice system that solely focused on punishment.

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Despite the risk of falling into generalisation, Jones and Rodgers (2009) proposes that commonly, there are three types of gangs that can be differentiated depending on their criminal activities. The first is a street-based gang that consists a relatively small number of people who participate in illegal activities in a small scale. The second type is more commerce driven, through drug business or territorial domination. Lastly, the third is a transnational gang that transcends the borders in Latin America, which is often linked to organised crime that may possess political goals. However transnational gangs do not form suddenly, but rather any small street gangs carry the potential to evolve into a larger network. Thus these three types represent the different stages of a particular gang with varying degrees of crimes committed. Regardless of the types, few similar characteristics can be noted: 1) Extensive use of violence; 2) consolidation of territorial control; 3) linkage towards illegal activities; and 4) ongoing conflicts with the system and rival gangs (Rodríguez et al., 2016). Considering these similar elements and through the exploration of a specific gang in depth, can perhaps provide a few insight about the phenomenon, which can aid in deriving better methods in handling the gangs. Central American gangs, widely known as maras, are significant because of their strong ties with the trafficking of drugs, arms and even humans.

These gangs, particularly the 18th street gang and Mara Salvatrucha, are generally considered to have gone through the three stages and now possess a transnational gang traits (Franco, 2008). Thus, as the mano dura policy is proven ineffective through recent Latin American history, revision and rectification of it seems imperative and the new policies should be devised through further research, backed with evidence and statistics.

The roots of MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and M-18 (the 18th Street Gang) are similar to those of gangs in Los Angeles, California, and are strongly linked with mass migration and expulsion, culminating in population movement from California and Central America in both directions. MS-13 and M-18 are not at all focused on the structure of gangs in the United States at all, nor are they dependent solely on systems of removal. It has been a routine practice to deport Central American immigrants from the United States (Juan Montes and Martinez V, 2018). There are different views on the essence of MS-13 and M-18. Some scholars, on the one side, identify them as transnational organisations often associated with drug trafficking. In fact, in 2015, El Salvador’s Supreme Court declared both groups to be terrorist organisations, allowing them to be easily dealt with and substantially increasing the sentences of found guilty gang members (Jones and Rodgers, 2009). On the other side, Franco (2008) suggests that gangs are correlated with drug trafficking in the area and particularly aggressive yet common crimes. There has been a consistent phase of consolidating the connection between the Maras and drug trafficking from Central America to the United States. Despite the different perceptions of their history, most gang members’ involvement in the drug market, in the case of Maras, is quite clear. Nevertheless, it should not be presumed that these groups all begun out as strong and highly concentrated institutions that have put together the activities of thousands of young Latin Americans. Opposingly, they started as small groups who shared the same name and , more often than not, common signs, such as ‘tattoos, codes, and values’ (Wolf, 2012).

What is certain is that the information available ties these organisations to weapons and drug trafficking and with kidnappings and ransom, all of which are usually carried out from within goals. The use of violence is a distinguishing mark of these organisations; as Villoria (2011) states that ‘each gang kills in different ways’. As such, the landscape of Latin America is extremely diverse in terms of the nature and participation of adolescent groups in criminal activities. Due to these circumstances, the population is used to dealing with such methods of terror, for which there is no clear response from the government. Lack of studies on this issue restricts the likelihood of addressing the problem with strong public policies (Levy, 2015). Nonetheless, there is global evidence that there are several socioeconomic factors that play a part in participation of young people in violence and crime. Unfortunately, high-level criminal groups with transnational agendas cannot be addressed by social policies alone; but, as mentioned , such organisations are few in every country and use street gangs to expand their regional conglomeration, and public policy can be effective at this lower level of the hierarchy (Jones and Rodgers, 2009).

In Latin America, violence and crime is ever-increasing since the civil wars in Central America, and this has not been tackled effectively by any government. Although the international community has played a role in supporting numerous programs, activities and policies in means to alleviate some of the failing government’s duties, information about the impact and consequences of such programs may be absent (Schuberth, 2016).

The responses of public policy to rising crime levels and the increasing presence of youth gangs on the criminal scene are punitive in nature. Originally, Mano dura initiatives have been constructed to address gang violence by punitive measures and the police force of youth deemed to be hazardous. Several scholars voice that the key outcome of these initiatives was the increasing proliferation of youth gangs and their ties to organised crime (Jones and Rodgers, 2009). Nevertheless, knowledge of the gang problem is limited, and most information on its extent and linkages to organised and transnational crime are not credible. In other nations, ‘penal populism’ is considered to be on the increase, as seen in the rhetoric of rising retribution and the intervention of police forces to combat violence (Alberto Weichert, 2017). The findings are not clear, crime is growing and there is convergence of specific groups linked to organised crime.

Socioeconomic measures clearly indicate that Latin America is facing a youth crisis in general. In fact, the exploitation of violence is one of the most extreme and internationally focused manifestations of such crisis. Sadly, the emphasis has been on criminalising the youth problem, and the policies put in place have not acknowledged the need for substantive multidimensional approaches. It is widely understood that crime prevention will play a significant role in local and national public policy. Gang and Lehman (1990) suggests that there is no clarification about what crime prevention is, after several years of various measures and, thus, almost anything has been called preventive. Ideas spanning from soccer training to community development have been implemented with the goal of preventing crime, with outcomes that have been difficult to measure. Numerous analyses of the policies adopted in Latin America indicate that in primary, secondary and even tertiary crime prevention programmes are needed in order for measures to take place (Levy, 2015). Primary prevention attempts at reducing the occurrence of violence and crime through an emphasis on the entire population, while secondary prevention works on specific risk populations of increased potential to be related to violent or criminal activity (Levy, 2015). Finally, tertiary mitigation is about programmes that focus on people involved in crime or aggressive behaviour. As such, public policies directed at targeting people at risk of being involved with abuse are the most difficult to implement and likely maintain in the long run due to a lack of evident results. This condition has led to the development of numerous social and economic programmes aimed at reducing crime and violence. The distinction between the strategies for social protection and crime prevention should be made clear in order t avoid or restrict the criminalisation of public programmes and raise the effectiveness of decreasing crime and violence.

Because of many governments’ economic difficulties, most projects have been built with the assistance of international donors who, in many situations, lack the resources to assess the impact of their expenditure. Non-governmental organisations have carried out many projects without a clear plan to establish effective plans for assessment (Alberto Weichert, 2017). Strengthening criminal justice systems is the main objective of all programmes, and spending in primary, secondary, and tertiary reduction measures is much smaller than expenditure in crime control initiatives. The report’s most significant conclusions are that 1) the bulk of programmes are geographically focused, 2) initiatives concentrate on criminal activity and do not include such social issues such as public health or school violence reduction, 3) organisational reform and government resources have been a concern, and therefore specific initiatives have had less outcomes, and 4) for almost any of the instances, there is no review or analysis of the outcome (Levy, 2015). Since the awareness of this violence itself by scholars and policy makers is limited, the issue of its root remains open. As in various other policy areas, there is a growing number of other ways which require identification of certain routs to better policy design and implementation. Jones and Rodgers (2009) provides that crime reduction should be aimed more directly at combating organised crime, because addressing organised crime requires a different strategy to tackling certain types of crime. While more precise analyses are required, it is even more important to improve the reliability of the available information. Without clear, timely and reliable information, policies are likely to be described on the basis of personal or political views rather than on the basis of evidence.

In conclusion, gangs are a phenomena in their various forms that will not vanish in the near future. In addition, their presence indicates that the creation of youths groups and providing alternative, non-violent social structures can be an important intervention in addressing this problem. Alternative approaches provide measures to address the roots of gang development, including increasing numbers of non-worker or college adolescents, minimum standards of physical and mental health coverage, and rising rates of domestic violence. Increasing the numbers of police officers alone will not impact Latin America’s gang forming system and will obviously not limit the excessive use of terrorism in many of its major urban areas.

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Gang Culture Elements In Latin America. (2021, September 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 10, 2023, from
“Gang Culture Elements In Latin America.” Edubirdie, 09 Sept. 2021,
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Gang Culture Elements In Latin America [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 09 [cited 2023 Jun 10]. Available from:
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