Small Wars Journal

Street Gangs in Central America

Street Gangs in Central America: Combating Them With Intelligence Fusion Centers by Thomas Bruneau, E-International Relations

Street gangs – pandillas in Spanish – are a major security challenge in the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.[1] They are also considered a threat in many US cities, with particular focus on the Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13. Domestic party politics in the three countries have resulted in the reliance of heavy hand (mano dura) responses to the gangs, which have mainly served to exacerbate the problem.  The anomalous situation of Nicaragua, which has a lower level of per capita income and socio-economic development than its three neighbors to the North, but a much less serious gang problem, should attract the attention of serious researchers. The case of Nicaragua, and the more recent experience of the Government of El Salvador brokering a truce between the main gangs, suggests the importance of political variables, and specifically the extent and coherence of the security sector as an aspect of state presence.

Drawing on the experience in the U.S. with intelligence fusion centers, I suggest that some of the main lessons learned – the co-location of several elements of the security sector, the emphasis on implementation of the intelligence cycle, and the application of information technology (IT), can be usefully applied to assist these countries in combating the pandillas. Recent and dramatically increased foreign funding is heavily focused on prevention and rehabilitation of gang members, and minimally on combating the gangs directly. While there is a huge amount of unclassified primary and secondary literature on the U.S. experience with intelligence fusion centers, there is minimal general awareness of what they are and what they do. There is virtually no awareness at all in Central America where the pandillas are a major threat…

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Categories: El Centro