Gangs, Youth, and Drugs--Breaking the Cycle of Violence and Crime

William R. Brownfield
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Remarks at the Institute of the Americas
San Diego, CA
October 1, 2012

Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to tell a story. Once upon a time, there were seven countries located in a long isthmus between two large continents. And not long ago – let’s say the 1970s – most of those seven countries entered a time of tremendous violence and civil conflict. Historians will debate for decades the cause of and blame for the violence, but there is no debate that the 1970s and 80s generated tremendous pressure in Central America, and particularly the northern trio of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to flee to safety. Hundreds of thousands did so. Many came to the United States for safety and a better life for their families.

As is usually the case in large migrant movements, the overwhelming majority were fine people who worked hard, educated their children, supported their families, and became leaders in their communities. Some did not. They did not integrate into the larger communities. They did not adapt to the new culture and system. They organized themselves into groups outside their traditional communities, and exploited their own communities through organized criminal activity. By the 1980s, they had organized in southern California into two large groupings – Calle 18 or 18th Street, and Mara Salvatrucha-13. Today, the FBI estimates there are more than 7,000 18th Street members and 5,000 MS-13 members in the Los Angeles area alone. And you will find members in every major city in the United States.

Is this an unusual phenomenon in U.S. history? Not really. In the second half of the 19th Century, major cities on the East Coast confronted organized crime tied to the Irish immigrant communities. By the turn of the Century, New York complained of a Jewish mafia grown from Eastern European migrants. And by the 1920s, most large cities confronted some version of the Italian mafia. Nor are gangs today unique to the Central American communities. When I grew up in the 1970s, I was warned not to mess with the Hell’s Angels or Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers, and they still exist today. The mafia has certainly not disappeared. But give 18th Street and MS-13 credit – they have surged into the lead.

The story continues, and it gets worse. Here in the United States, we deport foreigners who commit violent crimes, after they serve their sentences. I do not apologize for this. The American people never agreed to absorb the criminal population of the rest of the world. We have enough of our own, thank you very much. But as we deported gang members back to the northern triangle of Central America in the 1990s and first decade of this century, and without meaning or even realizing it, we sent seasoned criminals back to weak, vulnerable societies. Central America emerged from its nightmare only in the 1990s. They emerged with determination not to return to those dark days, but also with weakened legal, judicial, law enforcement, and corrections institutions. Into these vulnerable communities thousands of criminals seasoned by gang activities in the U.S. were inserted. Not surprisingly, they found the same security, status, and wealth in gang structures that had worked for them in the North. We estimate as many as 85,000 18th Street and MS-13 members today in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They maintained their connections in the United States and throughout Central America. And the more entrepreneurial among them established connections with the more sophisticated drug trafficking cartels headquartered in that large country located between Central America and the United States – Mexico.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings me finally to my topic of today: “Youth, Gangs, and Drugs – Breaking the Cycle of Violence and Crime.”

We know the problem. Tens of thousands of disaffected, under-educated, and poorly prepared youth, seeing little hope for a future in their traditional communities, band together in criminal organizations. They consume the product of the illicit drug industry. They facilitate the logistics and transportation for the trafficking industry in Central America and Mexico and, in the United States, they are a primary distributor and retailer of the finished product. We also know the outlines for the solution to the problem. Thousands of youth in the U.S. and Central America do not join gangs because of a genetic predisposition to be criminals. They join because they see the gang structure offering the best options for life at their age, facilitated by a substantial amount of peer pressure. History teaches that to break them out of the gang structure, they must be convinced of the negative consequences for remaining in the gang, and positive benefits for staying out. The carrot and the stick.

I am the Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement, sometimes referred to as the Drugs and Thugs bureau. I am normally associated with the hard side, the security side of international drug abuse. So let me begin with the stick. In 2008, at the same time the U.S. government announced the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative, we also announced an initiative for Central America. In 2010, this initiative matured into the Central America Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI. CARSI was and is paired with Merida because we realized that we cannot address the security and law enforcement challenge along the U.S.-Mexico border without also addressing Central America. And we cannot address the security, crime, drugs and violence crises in Central America without addressing youth and gangs.

Under FBI management, we support programs in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to address directly the criminal gangs. The program involves training and equipping police to perform anti-gang law enforcement. But we also share intelligence and data bases. Remember, 18th Street and MS-13 have a large presence in both Central America and the United States. Personnel move back and forth. They communicate and coordinate. A phone call from a prison in El Salvador can be linked to a hit ordered in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, or even San Diego. But every time they move, communicate, or coordinate, they are vulnerable. This, ladies and gentlemen, is law enforcement, pure and simple.

We also support policing at the community level, because a better policed community is less attractive to organized gangs. In each country of the Northern Triangle, we support a model precinct program. In the most vulnerable and violent urban communities, we provide equipment, vehicles, training, communications, and social and economic programs for the community. In places like Mixco in Guatemala City and Lourdes in El Salvador, we have seen crime rates drop dramatically. The model precinct program does not attack the gangs directly; it takes away the space where they can operate.

We work with the three governments of northern Central America to control arms flows. A criminal gang is bad; a criminal gang armed with automatic weapons is much worse. We realize that many weapons flow into Central America and Mexico from the U.S. We also realize that the American people have been wrestling with the application of the Second Amendment for more than two centuries. But we have laws on the licensing and export of firearms that we can enforce. And by providing training and systems that help law enforcement track and identifying data, we help law enforcement control the flow of sophisticated weapons to violent gangs.

CARSI’s two principle targets are violence and drugs. Gangs are tied to both. And while not all gangs are drug traffickers, and not all drug trafficking is done by gangs, they are connected. CARSI is very aggressive in attacking the flow of drugs through Central America. We have supported, trained, and equipped specialized antidrug units throughout the isthmus. We have provided antidrug aviation capability to Guatemala, and hope to provide the same to Honduras. We are working intensely in the Caribbean and Pacific to shut down maritime trafficking routes. We have strengthened laws and cooperation to attack illicit finance and money laundering. We are helping countries seize criminal assets and use them against such organizations. We are building cases and taking down the leadership of Central American drug trafficking organizations. Criminal gangs in Central America looking to make money from drug trafficking are finding plenty of stick and not much carrot.

Finally, we are working the often overlooked elements of law enforcement – prosecution, courts, and corrections. Efficient police coupled with inefficient rule of law and corrections systems do not solve the gang problem; they merely recycle it. Under CARSI, we work with the judicial systems of most Central American countries to review and upgrade criminal codes to reflect the 21st Century realities of gangs and drugs. We cooperate in efforts to upgrade and improve detention facilities to meet international human rights standards, but also to ensure that prisons do not become extensions of gang headquarters. The International Law Enforcement Academy in San Salvador provides state-of-the-art instruction and training to police, prosecutors and investigators on responding to criminal gangs and drug traffickers.

But breaking the cycle of youth, drugs, gangs and violence requires more than just the sanctions of aggressive anti-gang policing, better community policing, fewer firearms, effective counternarcotics, and improved rule of law. Law enforcement sanctions are an essential element to breaking the cycle. But it is not the only element. There must be an alternative offered to the gang member, or he will not leave the gang.

Part of the solution is education, prevention, and training. Youth with a basic education and an employable skill are not likely to join gangs. They do not need to join. They have better options outside the gang. In the past two years, we have worked with police in Central America to train over 12,000 students through the Gang Resistance Education and Training, or GREAT, program. We are on pace to double that number this year. USAID is an essential part of our CARSI strategy, and wherever my bureau establishes a model precinct program, USAID establishes a community development program. I have visited them in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. After visiting the renovated police station, I visit the church, community center, or job training site where former or potential gang members are offered a better future. Local leadership is essential. Family participation is essential. Police support is essential. If the gang member does not see a job waiting at the end of the community program, he will return to the gang. Unemployment is the life blood of the organized criminal gang.

Another part of the gang solution is rehabilitation for those coming out of the gang structure. Before they can be educated or trained, they must learn how to function as productive humans again. For the drug users, and this includes most gang members, rehabilitation starts with a clinical, medical process to wean them off their drugs. For many, this process starts in prison. The prison, in fact, may be the first place where the community and society have access to the gang member, and the opportunity to engage with the youth outside the gang structure. Of course prison is not a resort hotel. But it must serve a larger function than simply exacting society’s vengeance for crimes committed in the past; a rehabilitated gang member is less likely to commit the same crimes in the future.

Finally, a public information campaign has to be part of the carrot for the criminal gang member. Public information is not just a bunch of posters hanging from telephone poles. To be effective, gang members must participate in the effort. They know what appeals to the youth gangs; they know how to reach them. Their participation becomes part of their rehabilitation and reentry into society. One reformed and successful former gang member is worth hundreds of outsiders in reaching and connecting with gangs.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am, obviously, not nearly as old as Ambassador Shapiro, but I have recently crossed the threshold into my 60’s. I am now old enough to remember fondly many of the lessons that my parents tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me 40 years ago. Youth will resist and rebel. That is what youth is all about; that is how we learn and mature. But the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. And far too many of them are embedded in gangs in North and Central America. Our communities can isolate, bypass and quarantine them. But if we do so, we are failing as a society. For a society that cannot provide for its youth is a society guaranteed to fail. There is a way to break the cycle of violence between youth, gangs and drugs. It takes years, but it took years for our societies to get into this situation. It takes clear and effective law enforcement sanctions, because permitting criminal activity without consequences is an open invitation for more crime. It takes education, training, and employment, because a society that cannot provide a hopeful future for its youth is a failed society.

I am an optimist. I believe we are on the right track. I believe this conference, its discussions and lessons learned, will move us further in the right direction. I look forward to the day when 18th Street is once again a route to bypass the White House on your way to the Mall in Washington, and MS-13 is the winning square on a giant bingo board.

Thank you very much, and I look forward to your questions.