Gangs of Central America

TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 15, 2009) – If director Martin Scorsese were to make a modern day film about gangs to follow his classic “Gangs of New York,” he might want to turn to Central America for inspiration. The content would differ in some respects, but there are plenty of similarities – desperate people struggling to survive in hostile environments, involved in plenty of violent conflict. 


As today’s gang stories unfold on the streets and in the headlines, observers and social scientists are offering greater understanding, better informed analysis and more credible advice than was available in the 1800’s and in recent years.  Some of the most up-to-date information on this subject will be available when the University of South Florida’s Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC) presents a community forum on the “Gangs of Central America” Jan. 28 at 5 p.m. The guest speakers are Kylla Hanson,  author of My Life Crazy: A Gringa’s Life With the Salvadoran Gangs, a  memoir of her experience working with Salvadoran gangs in the 1990’s and José Miguel Cruz, from Vanderbilt University and the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in San Salvador, an expert on Salvadoran gangs and other illegal armed groups in Central America. 


“The two biggest and most brutal of the gangs, MS 13 and M 18 started in Los Angeles, spread to Central America and are now sending gang members back into the U.S.,” said Harry Vanden, a professor in the Department of Government and International Relations and the primary organizer of the forum. “There are gang members from Central America starting local branches in many parts of the U.S. The FBI has a taskforce and the U.S. military is following gang growth in Central America because of the security threat posed. This forum is not only for academics, professors and students. It will be useful to all levels of law enforcement, educators, social workers, community activists, health care professionals, and policy-makers – all those who need to go behind the headlines and media sensationalism to understand just how violent these gangs can be.”

Now a high school teacher in Tulsa, Okla., Hanson has a unique perspective on the problems of gangs – after becoming a friend and confidante. A former student of ISLAC Director Rachel May then working as a missionary, Hanson expected simply to teach English after graduating from the University of Washington, Tacoma, but found herself in the middle of a community caught up in gang culture. She came to know the streets and alleyways of El Salvador ruled by the city’s two most powerful gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and their rival the Dieciocho (18th Street Gang) by accident. She started bringing coffee to the local bus drivers and ended up becoming a part of their lives.       


"I knew the gang members as my neighbors, friends, team mates and opponents on the basketball court, my greatest heartaches and my deepest passion, …they began to call on me when they were sick, hurt, in jail or needing a friend who wasn't a homeboy.” Hanson said. “Whether eating lunch with them in their homes, sharing a late night Fanta with them as we talked on the streets and in the parks, visiting them in jail, helping to wrap their wounds after an attack, yelling at the futility of the life they had chosen, or crying with them when a mutual friend died, I always saw them as people first, sometimes forgetting altogether that they had dedicated themselves to the gang life and the numbers tattooed all over them. In them I saw hurting people, defiant and angry, but crying out to be heard."


Cruz, a certified social psychologist, is the author of Street Gangs in Central America and an expert on youth gangs in El Salvador. He founded the Central American Coalition for Youth Violence Prevention  and has served as a consultant to the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Kellogg Foundation, and the United Nations Development Program on the topic of Central American violence. Cruz challenges popular beliefs about the reasons for gang activity, stating that poverty, civil wars and deportations don’t carry as much weight as people expect.

"Social factors, such as marginalization and exclusion, are important risk variables,” Cruz said. “But in the case of Central American gangs, political factors and the implementation of zero tolerance ("mano dura") policies with little or no oversight have played a more significant role in pushing gangs to become more organized and violent groups."   

He will discuss how Central American street gangs have evolved from corner-style youth groups to protection racket organizations as a result of many factors, especially, what he characterizes as “miscarried state policies.”

This event takes place in the USF Tampa Library’s Grace Allen Room and is free and open to the public. For more information please contact ISLAC at (813) 974-3547 or by e-mail:


The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.