Immigration and Criminal Gangs

USF and visiting scholars will explore issues related to juvenile gangs known as maras in Central America.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (March 25, 2013) – The relationship between immigrants and criminal gangs will be explored during a discussion Thursday at the University of South Florida titled, “Migration and Criminal Organizations: Transnational Challenges for Central America in the Twenty-First Century.”


Free and open to the public, the exploration of this dilemma takes place Thursday, March 28 from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the Patel Center for Global Solutions, Room 136/138. A reception and an informal discussion will follow. 


“We are urging as many people as possible to learn more about an issue that has implications throughout the Americas,” said Rachel May, director of the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC), one of the event’s sponsors along with the Status of Latinos Committee (SOL) and the Department of Government and International Affairs


There will be three presentations: Isabel Rosales, a doctoral candidate from the University of Hamburg and a visiting fellow at UF will provide some background in her talk, “’Bienvenido a Casa’: Transnational Migration and Sending States in Central America; Guatemalan scholar Otto Argueta, from the University of Hamburg’s German Institute of Global and Area Studies’ Institute of Latin American Studies and also a visiting fellow at UF, will cover the “Political-criminal Nexus in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua”; and USF Professor Harry Vanden, an expert on Latin America and democratization in Government and International Affairs, will speak on “Ungoverned Spaces in Latin America: Mara Turf in Central America.”


Moderating the discussion will be two USF faculty members who are experts on globalization and immigration, Government and International Affairs Professor Michael Solomon and Assistant Professor Angela Stuesse from the Department of Anthropology.


"In many parts of the United States immigrants from Central America tend to be somewhat invisible, overshadowed by popular misconceptions that all Latin American migrants are 'Mexican,'” noted Stuesse. “In other areas, however, they are crucial actors, both in immigrant communities and in the struggle for immigrant rights.  Throughout our country, Central Americans are having a tremendous impact."


It was reported in 2011 that 2.9 million immigrants from Central America call the United States home.  From Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, their numbers have grown dramatically in the past four decades. 


Most come from El Salvador and Guatemala, roughly two-thirds of the nearly three million and most of them reside in California, Texas and Florida.


A variety of factors force them to leave home, among them violence in large part due to the spread of Mexican drug cartels. What they face when they leave home is possible kidnapping, forced labor if they manage to survive death in the course of crossing the hostile terrain between their homes, through Mexico and arrival on this side of the border. Many are captured. In recent years they have formed a slight majority of those apprehended in South Texas, representing what is believed to be a new trend, according to border patrols.


Once safely in the U.S., immigrants from Central America are concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs among the estimated 14 million – legal and undocumented – from Mexico and the northern triangle of Central America, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.


While they play quite an important role in the U.S. economy as well as within their own communities, as do all immigrants, they are the subjects of contentious debates on immigration policy.


Complicating the various issues raised by immigration is criminality. Gangs in Central America are known as maras – their members mareros.  They have grown out of the chaos of the violent civil wars and expanded to the extent where they are challenging civil authority in various towns and cities.


“Many learned their tactics while living in the United States and introduced them to Central America after being deported,” notes Vanden.  “Though the members are largely young, they are considered a major threat to national security – in Central America and potentially, the United States – because of their numbers, their audacious brutality and because they are aligning with narcotics cartels and challenging the sovereignty of the government in the areas they control.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.