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Maras: the Chechens on our doorstep

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The crime scene itself was another story. The body was found on July 17, 2003, by a fisherman and his son. It was badly decomposed, lying contorted in the underbrush near a brier patch on the west bank... The age, sex and race of the victim were difficult to determine, but the body appeared to be that of a young woman. Her throat had been slashed so violently that her head was almost completely severed.

Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan you may assume, a victim of terrorism. No, it was Shenandoah County, Virginia, and the victim was a teenage Latina, age 17, a federal witness against a Salvadorian street gang, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

While US police departments have identified Latin gangs as a top crime problem, they have not identified them as a potential terrorist problem. Readers of my private list can attest that I called the threat of Muslim terrorism years before the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. I now make another forecast that the maras, Central American and Mexican gang members named after a species of aggressive swarming ants, are the Chechens on America's doorstep, only a step or so away from wreaking the same havoc within the US that the Chechens visit seemingly at will with equal ferocity within Russia and CIS.

Traditionally a function of immigration and labor-migration patterns, gangs "have been a fixture of urban life in the United States for more than 150 years, making their presence known in inner-city ghettos and poor immigrant neighborhoods ever since the Irish settled the Five Points district of New York."

If you live in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, you are already aware of the effects of some 70,000 to 100,000 gang members that saw neighborhoods "plundered by violent turf wars waged by volatile young men armed with machetes and homemade pipe guns" and has "spread like a scourge across Central America, Mexico and the United States, setting off a catastrophic crime wave that has turned dirt-poor neighborhoods into combat zones [eliciting] an equally virulent crackdown that has left thousands of gang members dead, in jail or [fleeing north to the US], moving with and preying on the waves of illegal migrants who travel to the United States."

These gangs are now well ensconced in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC, driving crime in those areas and now going rural as hillbangers where law enforcement is weak. Metropolitan Los Angeles "remains the world capital of street gangs, with an estimated 700 different cliques and more than 110,000 gang members," accounting for half of all homicides. The FBI believes MS-13 to be "active in 31 states in the United States, from Alaska to Oklahoma, the Carolinas to Colorado, [with] thousands of members in Honduras and El Salvador," engaged in drug trafficking, extortion, prostitution, and other criminal activities.

This is large scale, ruthlessly enforced, organized criminal enterprise that predates Hispanic immigrants in industries such as food-processing. Honduras and El Salvador call the maras "as big a threat to national security as terrorism is to the United States." I submit that only a subtle shift, either internally driven or externally paid, is required to move them directly into terrorism.

In While we're looking the other way -- tunnels? I've asked whether terrorists could, for a price, be permitted to smuggle weapons, components, and personnel into the US. If illicit drugs and aliens can be brought across, then terrorists or WMD components can also come across. I debate with colleagues as to whether drogistas would compromise a million dollar asset and its lifecycle revenue for a one-shot 'rental,' when terrorists could simply not identify themselves or their cargo and so pass through as one more illegal alien. The maras appear to sit as a extremely violent, less restrained middle band between those who are their clients and targets, and the upscale drug lords. I can see maras either being paid to make mischief or forming an alliance for criminal purposes. I see many parallels in their growth to the early growth of what became Chechen terrorism.

I do not expect the maras situation to improve as the law enforcement tools on offer mimic that of terrorism, covert and overt military force, without the programs that address the social and economic forces that create the draw to gangs. The problem is already so great in Central America that states are reviving conventional military strength and counterinsurgency strategies along with extralegal paramilitary and vigilante enforcement, while adopting zero-tolerance laws that bypass rules of due process. Mechanisms once directed at leftists and political dissidents are now directed at gang members.

The largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara 18, began in Los Angeles in the 1970s as support networks and social clubs for refugees and immigrants, turning into gangs, competitors, and then war whereupon the US deported them in mass to their home countries. While the US "immigration hammer" is now seen as having an effect against maras such as Mara Salvatrucha that are primarily led by foreign-born members (a US deportation is often used to justify a prison sentence), what will happen as US born members began to rise? The ability of the US to deport will be curtailed as will the gratis grounds for local incarceration. I see future native-born maras as being much more acclimatized to the US, more effective yet harder to excise. I see Central American states stepping up the number of desaparecidos and returning to old habits. If the transborder threat is sufficient, I can see the kinds of enemy combatant strictures being used against gang members.

Shuttling Between Nations, Latino Gangs Confound the Law
By Ginger Thompson
New York Times
September 26, 2004

Hillbangers
By Matthew Brzezinski
New York Times
August 15, 2004

Gordon Housworth



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