USCRI: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

Gang Related Asylum Resources


Combating Gangs: Federal Agencies have Implemented a Central American Gang Strategy, but Could Strengthen Oversight and Measurement of Efforts
GAO,  April 2010
Guidance Note on Refugee Claims Relating to Victims of Organized Gangs
UNHCR, Geneva, March 2010 
Crime, Violence, and the Crisis in Guatemala: A Case Study in the Erosion of the State
Hal Brands, Strategic Studies Institute, May 2010 
Marked for Death: The Maras of Central America and those who Flee their Wrath
Jeffrey D. Corsetti, 20 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 407, 2005-2006 
No Place to Hide: Gang, State and Clandestine Violence in El Salvador
The International Human Rights Clinic Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School, February 2007 
Central American Gang-Related Asylum: A Resource Guide
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA),  May 2008

  • This resource guide attempts to offer attorneys, immigrant activists, policymakers and human rights workers the facts necessary to understand the complicated and nuanced phenomenon of gangs in Central America and gang-related asylum cases. Growing numbers of people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are seeking asylum in the United States due to gang-related persecution.
  • With this manual, WOLA draws on their expertise on gangs in Central America to offer the most current information available on gangs to assist advocates who represent people seeking asylum because they were victims of gang violence, were formerly involved with gangs and fear reprisal, or both.

Gangs in Central America 
Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, August 2, 2007

  • In recent years gang violence in Central America has been of concern to U.S. Congress because of its effects in the United States.
  • The anti-gang laws enforced by El Salvador or Honduras have not helped to reduce the number of violent crimes in these countries.
  • Examines legislation introduced to increase cooperation among U.S., Mexican, and Central American officials in the tracking of gang activity and in the handling of deported gang members.

Transnational Study on Youth Gangs
The Washington Office on Latin America, March 30, 2007 

  • A year-long study of Central American youth gangs provides a concise executive summary as well as country-specific reports.
  • While the nature of youth gangs varies from country to country, they are a serious threat to public security in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
  • In El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, government responses have focused heavily on repressive law enforcement strategies.  This strategy has been counter-productive. Gangs have grown more organized in response to hard-line police approaches, and public security has not improved.

Central American and Mexico Gang Assessment
USAID. April 2006.

  • Whereas gang activity used to be territorially confined to local neighborhoods, globalization, sophisticated communications, technologies, and travel patterns have facilitated the expansion of gang activity across neighborhoods, cities, and countries.
  • Factors driving gang activity include a lack of educational and economic opportunities, marginalized urban areas, intra-familial violence and family disintegration, easy access to drugs and firearms, overwhelmed and ineffective justices systems, and the "revolving door" along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Violence in the Central American Region: Towards an Integrated Framework for Violence Reduction
Overseas Development Institute, Working Paper 171, 2002

  • Background information about the origins of violence in Central America as a means to understand the current dynamics within the region.
  • The study analyzes the framework of violence in Central America to further develop potential approaches to violence reduction, doing so by designing strategies of co-operation within the countries of the region. 

Latin America Urban Violence as a Development Concern: Towards a Framework for Violence Reduction
World Development Journal, Vol. 34:89, 2006

  • A study of the categorization, origins, costs, consequences and policy approach to violence reduction with focal reviews on Guatemala and Colombia
  • Moser analyzes the effects of globalization and the spread of neo-liberalism as contributing factors to the increased social polarization which has pushed aside the “disconnected” towards violence and crime.
  • The author defines violence in multiple contexts, with this facilitating their deconstruction. She understands the underlying factors of violence to differ, and for this reason they must be studied individually. 

Change, Violence and Insecurity in Non-Conflict Situations
Overseas Development Institute, Working Paper 245, 2005

  • A world study of the changing livelihoods of those affected by violence fear and insecurity in post conflict regions.
  • Author analyzes resource inequality, the impact of migration, rapid urbanization, spatial organization and the transformation of state governance within the context of violence and insecurity.  

Youth Gangs in Central America
The Washington Office on Latin America, 2006 Report

Rethinking U.S. Involvement in Central America’s War on Gangs: The Case of El Salvador
Institute Policy Studies, 2006

  • U.S.initiated Operation Community Shield (OCS) in March 2004, as domestic anti-gang program to “deter, disrupt and dismantle gang operations,"since OCS launched its War on Gangs in 2004, 1,415 individuals have been arrested
  • Gang experts argue that the factors leading youth to join gangs are broken families, poor performance in school, social exclusion, lack of economic opportunities
  • President Francisco Flores initiated his Plan Mano Dura in June 2003; this law established mandatory minimum sentences for youth convicted of gang membership and made gang membership a crime punishable with 3-6 years of imprisonment; under the law, a gang member was defined as anyone who “uses tattoos, symbols, or colors, to identify themselves, [and] meets habitually”
  • Youth are hesitant to seek help in organizations that aid disaffected gang youth, fearing the police will target them
  • “Mano Dura policies were not designed to deter gang violence, improve citizen security, or to strengthen democracy; the policies were designed to win the 2004 presidential elections and to rebuild the states’ previously dismantled repressive apparatus in order to maintain social control and to keep the neo-liberal project afloat amidst growing resistance movements to the CAFTA, Plan Puebla Panama, and projects to privatize water and healthcare.” 

Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff at a Joint Press Conference on Community Shield
Department of Homeland Security, August 1, 2005  

  • Just 2 weeks after Operation Community Shield (OCS) started in March 2005, over 100 MS gang members were arrested
  • By August 2005, OCS had arrested members of over 80 different gangs
  • Of the 1,000 gang members arrested under OCS, almost all do not have legal status
  • Urgency to increase border control to keep deported gang members from coming back across the U.S. border

Ganging up on Communities, Putting Gang Crime in Context
Justice Policy Institute Policy Brief, Washington, DC.    

  • Studies show that children who are sentenced as adults are more likely to relapse than youth otherwise tried as juvenile offenders
  • “Gang Prevention and Effective Deterrence Act of 2005” (S. 155), “Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act of 2005” (H.R. 1279), and “Alien Gang Removal Act” (H.R. 2933) all acting to increase penalties on gang association, also increase transfer of youths to adult courts
  • David Cole states that H.R. 2933 “will empower the DHS to deport foreign nationals who have never committed any crimes whatsoever, and who have obeyed all of our laws, simply because DHS has determined that they are members of designated street gangs.”
  • Robert Shepherd states that S. 155  “flies in the face of what works with young people… the evidence shows that trying young people as adults exacerbates rather than lessons crime

Violence by Gang Members, 1993-2003
Crime Data Brief, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice. June 2005

  • On average, gang members committed 373,000 of 6.6 million violent crimes (1998-2003)
  • 1993-1996: in 9% of violent crimes, victims believed perpetrators were gang members
  • 1994: gang victimizations peaked at 1.1 million (5.2 per 1,000 persons older than 12 yrs.)\
  • 2003: gang victimization fell to 341,000 (1.4 per 1,000  persons older than 12 yrs.)

2005 National Gang Threat Assessment
National Alliance of Gang Investigators Association, Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2005

  • Hispanic gangs prey on vulnerable Hispanic immigrant communities, offering security and camaraderie to those isolated by language and cultural barriers
  • Estimated 11.7% of prison inmates affiliated with gangs nationwide (13.4% of state prisons, 15.6% of jails); prisons are used to recruit gang members and proliferate gang activity
    Hispanic/Latino members make up 49% of gangs in U.S. (2001 report), which had increased 2% since 1999
  • Deported gang members only extend the criminal network internationally, since they maintain ties to fellow members in U.S.
  • Crackdowns on gang activity in Central America might force members to US; “gang members are reportedly using the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to remain in the United States and avoid gang persecution in Central America.” 

North American Youth Gangs: Patterns and Remedies
Congressional Testimony, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Washington, DC., April 20 2005

  • US-based gangs that originated in 1960s, now connected to 130,000-300,000 members in Central America and Mexico
  • US has experienced a disproportionate increase in gang activity
  • 2004: 10,000 unaccompanied juveniles were caught crossing border
  • US Census Bureau estimates 10-12 million undocumented Hispanic aliens in U.S.
  • 1999: 47% of U.S. gangs members were Hispanic

Urban Violence and Insecurity: An Introductory Roadmap
Brookings Institute, Environment & Urbanization 16.2, 2004

  •  In post-conflict countries, the rural-urban disparity in violence is either less extreme or reversed
  • Severe violence concentrated in poor areas, while less violent, often property-related, crime is prevalent in the wealthier areas
  • Youth gangs are an example of what links violence to construction of social identity
  • Both poverty and inequality lead to crime and violence, but national level murder rates have suggested that inequality plays a larger role in crime escalation
  • “Politicization of crime” is new causal factor for urban violence, where private non-state groups challenge the role of state institutions in state governance, and thus perpetuate violent behavior in social and political systems

Sign-On Letter Advocating Reforms for Children Seeking Asylum 
Letter to Congress

  • Calls on DHS, ORR, and EOIR to take all steps necessary to ensure the well-being of vulnerable immigrant children
  • Refers to Edgar Chocoy's case, a child who was released to his home country after being denied his application for asylum and was then killed by a street gang in Guatemala

Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 
Robert Walker, Gangs Or Us, March 2004

  • Origin of the Mara Salvatrucha gang
  • Cliques and membership estimates
  • Outlines of specific countries and their relative gang situations

Neither War nor Peace
Children & Youth in Organized Armed Violence

  • International comparisons of children and youth in organized armed violence 

Voices from the field: Local Initiatives and New Research on Central American Youth Gang Violence
Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA,2005

  • Youth gangs have grown over last decade from 30,000 to 250,000 members in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala
  • Pinheiro suggests that the root causes of gang violence have been poverty and lack of education, housing, food, healthcare and broken homes; generally, the gang problem is a direct and indirect result of civil war
  • WHO report states that violence prevention programs are ineffective and costly; “A number of studies from the United States estimate that providing graduation incentives for high-risk youth and parent training for new parents are, respectively, between seven- and five-times more cost-effective in preventing violence than investing in increased legal enforcement and incarceration.”
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