Monday - Jun 17, 2019

Latin American gangs – whose story do you believe?

­by Raúl Damacio Tovares

Raúl Damacio TovaresRaúl Damacio Tovares

This is a story about Latin American gangs – but with a twist. It differs from the ones you’ve been reading in the newspapers and viewing on TV news.

Titled “Youth Gangs in Central America, Mexico and Washington, D.C.: A Transnational Examination,” it’s based on research conducted by the Center for Inter-American Studies and Programs at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.

Shared by the Washington Office on Latin America last month at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., it concludes that there is no international network of Latino gangs involved in drug trafficking or other types of crimes.

Its research team found that while youth gangs are a serious community problem both in the United States and in Latin America, the idea of an international cartel dealing in drugs, death and arms is more a figment of the imagination of newspaper and television reporters than a reflection of the actual gang situation.

Interviews with gang members, some of whom were in prison, in five Latin American countries and the Washington, D.C., area revealed that while some gang members in Latin America know someone living in the United States, actual involvement of young people from different countries in organized, criminal activities doesn’t exist.

The study, funded by the Ford Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation, brought together scholars from various Latin American countries. They included Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Colombia, as well as Washington, D.C., and Long Beach, Calif.

Community leaders, police officers and politicians were interviewed. They tended to see the gang problem as serious, but not to the extent reported by the news media. Local media have painted a picture of youth gangs in the “Northern Triangle” as a serious threat to public safety, even to national security.

In fact, these groups of mostly marginalized young men with little education and low-level work skills have few resources at their disposal.

That the news media have managed to fabricate an image of a nefarious, well-organized, wealthy and ruthless organization that casts its net over a multi-country geographic area is a testament to the power of the media and fear and gullibility of citizens.There is no doubt that some young men in particular neighborhoods are terrifying local residents. They shake down people for money, sell drugs, and are only too willing to use violence to get their way. However, most young Latinos, even most gang members, do nothing more than “hang out.” They know the consequences of breaking the law and understand crime doesn’t pay.The study finds, not surprisingly, that gang members tend to come from violent homes. They are either not doing well in school, have been expelled or have simply quit attending. They lack skills that allow them to get good-paying jobs.

While media reports can legitimize excessive police action, such action can lead to the strengthening of gang bonds. It can also lead young people who have never been in a gang to join one for support and protection.

A more effective model of the use of police methods is provided by the Gang Intervention Partnership in Washington, D.C., which in addition to policing, draws on schools, health and social service agencies and community leaders to intervene, to keep gangs from developing. When necessary, they repress gang activity with police action.Other successful programs are Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and Operation Ceasefire in Boston. Homeboy Industries, founded in 1988, encourages and helps gang members to find employment. Operation Ceasefire combines policing with arms control. Since it was founded, gang homicides dropped 70 percent, according to the report.The news media would do well to stop its sensational reporting. It just leads to fear and frustration, eventually to strong-arm police tactics and inflammatory political rhetoric.

Reporting on the reality of Latino gang activity, the young people involved in the gang lifestyle and the programs that achieve some success would do so much more for the community.(Raúl Damacio Tovares is the author of Manufacturing the Gang. He teaches in the communication program of Trinity University, Washington, D.C. and may be contacted at 2007