U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and several of his Central American counterparts are exploring strategies to combat criminal gangs during his visit to El Salvador.
The trip coincides with attempts by the White House to crack down on undocumented Central American youth in the United States whom the Trump administration has attempted to associate with the criminal organization Mara Salvatrucha, widely known as MS-13, as a pretext for stepped-up immigration enforcement measures.
Violent crime and social instability in Central America is one of the main reasons why people leave the region, often moving northward through Mexico to the United States on a treacherous journey that frequently claims migrants' lives.
Sessions will meet with the attorneys general of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador on Friday.
El Salvador charged 593 gang members ahead of Sessions' talks, including many members of MS-13, the Justice Department said.
His visit is timed to correspond with an appearance by the U.S. President Donald Trump in New York's suburban Long Island on Friday, a community that has experienced violent incidents involving MS-13.
Trump will be drumming up support for his attempts to convince the U.S. Congress to allocate more money for immigration agents and judges, according to officials.
Trump has long targeted Central American migrants and refugees with critical rhetoric, typically citing MS-13 as a pretext for deporting undocumented minors from the region.
“They come from Central America (and) they’re tougher than any people you’ve ever met,” he said in a December 2016 TIME Magazine interview. “They’re killing and raping everybody out there … they’re illegal, and they are finished.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE, has also announced a major series of raids on undocumented teenagers suspected of associating with gangs, a sharp departure from previous policies targeting minors for deportation if they were convicted of a crime.
According to the most recent Justice Department figures, 60,000 MS-13 members are present in the United States alone.
However, criteria used to identify gang associates by law enforcement agencies have come under fire as inaccurate and unconstitutional. ICE officials said in a statement that a person can be identified as a gang member if they meet two or more specifications, including having gang tattoos, frequenting an area notorious for gangs and wearing gang clothing.
“ICE raids targeting gang members are nothing more than a continued hyper-criminalization and militarization of poor working class communities – especially migrant communities,” community organizer Francisco Romero told teleSUR. Romero, a member of Union del Barrio Los Angeles, has previously fought against police crackdowns and injunctions aimed at alleged “gang associates.”
“In California alone, there are over 150,000 people listed on the CalGang data base,” Romero explained. “Of those, nearly 100,000 are Latinos, primarily Mexican and Central American.”
“The criteria used to identify and list somebody into this gang database is very broad, ranging from 'self-admission' to clothing, tattoos, associating or corresponding with other 'known gang members,' and being identified as a gang member by a 'reliable source,'” he continued. “Of these criteria, self-admission has been one of the most damaging, because many who are now labeled gang members were forced to accept 'gang terms' to get any plea-bargain proposed by prosecutors.”
El Salvador’s War on Terror
The United States has yet to fully acknowledge its role in the proliferation of organized crime in Central America, which is rooted in its counter-insurgency campaigns against left-wing forces and popular movements in the region.
The people of El Salvador experienced major violence for a decade as Washington backed a right-wing military government that committed atrocities against civilians suspected of supporting or sympathizing with the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. The bloody civil war pushed Salvadoreans to escape to the United States.
In the 1980s, groups of migrant youth in Los Angeles' Pico Union District formed Mara Salvatrucha to protect themselves from rival gangs. Gangs in L.A. such as the Bloods and Crips were blossoming at the time due to the massive influx of cocaine onto the city's streets.
The Los Angeles Police Department eventually launched Operation Hammer, a major crackdown on gangs in the region, whose members and associates soon filled California's prisons.
The Clinton administration subsequently deported over 20,000 imprisoned and undocumented gang members to El Salvador, leading to major warfare between MS-13 and another U.S.-born gang, Barrio 18. Violence in the country skyrocketed as the groups fought each other for control of criminal activities such as drug trafficking in El Salvador.
Analysts and human rights groups have criticized plans to stem regional violence through security measures alone, claiming that such moves will only lead to increased human rights abuses and fail to address the socio-economic roots of the problem.