American-Born Gangs Helping Drive Immigrant Crisis at U.S. Border

Central America's spiraling violence has a Los Angeles connection.

Mothers and children from Honduras prepare to get into a U.S. Customs and Border Protection truck after crossing the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas. Gang violence in Honduras is a major driver of the surge in immigration along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Kelvin Arita has made the long, overland journey from Honduras to the United States twice in recent years, and twice has been sent home by U.S. authorities.

On both trips he saw more horrors than he cares to remember: Young kids maimed by trains they had hoped would take them through Mexico. Resentful Mexican laborers pelting Honduran girls with stones. Lonely nights walking through the desert, knowing that robbers could pop up at any time.

Even so, the 25-year-old farmer says he would risk the journey again without much hesitation.

"The gangs here threaten us," Arita says by phone from the pueblo where he lives, near the town of San Pedro Sula in northwest Honduras. "They come and tell us that they're going to kill us. If I go to the U.S. I may get killed on the way, but if I stay here I'll also get killed."

That type of violence—driven in Honduras and El Salvador by drug gangs that force children to work for them or risk being killed—has helped to fuel the dramatic surge in Central American migrants to the U.S. border, where many remain in detention centers.

More than 57,000 have come since January, many of them minors traveling alone. This year has seen a 117 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied children under age 12 caught at the U.S.-Mexico border, compared with last year, according to data released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

Beyond violence, growing Central American problems such as poverty, unemployment, and drought are playing a role in the surging immigration numbers. Also a factor is the perception among many migrants that U.S. immigration laws will allow them to remain in the United States if the migrants can just get to the border.

But one aspect of the Central American violence that's feeding the border crisis has been largely overlooked: its roots in the gang culture of Los Angeles. Many of the gangs that are destabilizing much of Central America are American-born.

The history of Central American gang violence dates to the 1980s, when civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua sent thousands of people north, in search of refuge. Some of those immigrants found their way into gangs in Los Angeles that wound up seeding drug-related violence back home, often after their members were deported by the United States, analysts say.

"These gangs are part of the cultural fabric of the U.S., not Central America," says John Sullivan, a gang specialist with the Los Angeles County sheriff's department. "We deport them, and they're bigger and badder than any gangs there, and they dominate. And now we have areas [in Central America] that are widely destabilized, with a high degree of violence."

That violence has helped to create waves of refugees, many of them children, who have arrived at the U.S. border. The crisis has provoked urgent calls for the White House and Congress to respond to the swelling ranks of children filling detention centers along the southwestern border. The situation has led to finger-pointing among U.S. politicians as well as debates in many American communities over the potential impact of young immigrants on schools and a range of social service programs.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican and possible candidate for president in 2016 who has been particularly critical of Democratic President Barack Obama on the immigration problem, announced this week that he will send up to a thousand National Guard soldiers to the U.S.-Mexico border.

MS13 gang members gesture inside a so-called gang cage in a police station in San Salvador, El Salvador. The MS13 gang has roots in Los Angeles.

South to North and Back Again

The border crisis is partly a legacy of the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Thousands of the Salvadorans and Nicaraguans who fled their countries at the time landed in Los Angeles, where they found relatives and a Latino culture that felt like home. But their arrival also fueled new tensions in Los Angeles's youth culture, historians and gang experts say. Some Mexican-American and African-American gangs that were established in Los Angeles targeted newly arrived Central Americans.

The immigrants from Central America responded by forming their own gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, to protect themselves. The Maras grew to be a presence in prisons and on the streets of Los Angeles, parts of Maryland, North Carolina, and elsewhere.

By the 1990s, federal prosecutors were pushing to deport tens of thousands of immigrants with criminal records, an effort that hit the Maras hard. Gang members were targeted by new laws and sent back to their home countries, including Honduras. Back in Central America, the young men trained in gang warfare began to reconstruct the world they knew in Los Angeles and other American cities.

"They were like kids in a candy shop," says Juan Sheehan, of Catholic Relief Services in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. "They came back to Central America, and suddenly [they had] control of the whole country. The police don't know anything about these gangs." Suddenly, it wasn't just a gang problem anymore—it was organized crime.

In the meantime, the Maras had split into factions, with one group, the MS13—the 13 stands for the letter M, the 13th letter of the alphabet—fighting brutally against MS18, or the 18th Street gang, as it was known in Los Angeles. That rivalry, too, was exported and sharpened back home in Central America.

The government of El Salvador tried for a time to broker a ceasefire between the two factions, but the effort collapsed in 2012. As fighting intensified, several cities in Honduras and El Salvador became—and remain—among the deadliest places in the world.

According to the Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, a Mexican think tank that tracks international homicide rates, San Pedro Sula in Honduras had the world's highest per capita murder rate in 2012, with 169 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, roughly 35 times the American average. Other cities in the area have similar homicide rates.

Cartel Connections

The explosion of Mexico's drug war in the mid-2000s exacerbated Central America's gang violence dramatically, setting the stage for the current crisis.

According to figures compiled by the Joint Interagency Task Force South, a U.S. military command focused on drug trafficking, the bulk of suspected drug flights bound for Mexico from Venezuela and Colombia shifted from the Caribbean to Central America—mostly Honduras—from 2005 to 2007. Honduras, with its weak drug laws, rampant corruption, and convenient location, proved an ideal transit point for traffickers.

Of 178 suspected drug flights to and from South America in 2007, for example, 132 were coming and going from the Caribbean. By 2011, only about 20 suspected drug flights were using the Caribbean as a waypoint. The rest of the traffic was arriving from or departing to Honduras.

Two big Mexican drug organizations, the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas—comprising former paramilitary soldiers who went rogue and became traffickers—began using Honduras as a waypoint.

Central American migrants use trash bags and cardboard to shield themselves from rain as they wait atop a stuck freight train in Chiapas state, Mexico.

"It's the drug trafficking that has sort of spawned this wave of violence," says Kurt van Beek, a longtime observer of Honduras who runs a program in Tegucigalpa that works to help kids escape the cycle of violence. "The gangs are foot soldiers of drug traffickers here."

The presence of the Maras on the ground in Honduras means that the Mexican cartels have a ready supply of knowledgeable locals to do their dirty work. "A lot of the violence, the big nasty stuff, when eight people are killed, or ten people are slaughtered in a car at an airport—these are bands of traffickers fighting amongst themselves about who is going to be the Zetas franchisee or the Sinaloa franchisee," says van Beek.

"Short and Brutal" Lives

The reasons behind the massive influx north are many, but one constant in Honduras is that young people are forced to choose sides once they reach adolescence. The cartels need local support from the gangs, and the gangs need foot soldiers.

Pressure on families is enormous. "These kids know that once they're in, their life span is short and brutal," says Sheehan. "So they're resisting, and the gangs are looking at this as a threat and wiping them out."

A grandmother and grandson walk by MS18 insignia in San Salvador. The group is archrivals with MS13, though they grew out of the same L.A.-based gang.

Van Beek described one young man who recently joined the Honduran military to escape the pull of the gangs. A younger sibling, now 15, has come of age and the parents don't know what to do to save him. A trip north might be the best way out.

Kelvin Arita feels the call of the north virtually every day: "You walk around with total fear."

There were always problems here, but things have gotten worse in the last year and a half, he says. The police aren't any help, Arita says: "They don't do anything. Not here. In the U.S. they respect the law, but not here in Honduras."

Arita would like nothing more than to stay and make a living farming in the town where he grew up. But, he says, if the brutal violence around him continues, he may start looking north once more.