Key Findings

Similarities between Prison Gangs in the United States and Latin America

1. Reasons for Expansion

Prison gangs from all four regions under examination were created as a form of self-protection, either from other inmate groups or from poor conditions and abuse by guards.  Once established, their reasons for expanding inside detention centers continued to focus on defensive measures; even offensive attacks against other inmates or guards are justified as defending the gang’s control over territory, people, or illegal commodities trades.  Recruiting other inmates strengthens the group physically, psychologically, and sometimes monetarily.

Once prison gangs establish operations outside prison walls, however, the profit motive becomes more important for expansion than self-protection.  Gangs may use their profits to increase prison activities, but greed often overshadows such intentions.  The gangs grow more violent as they evolve into arms and drug trafficking organizations because: (1) brutal reputations reinforce gang power on the “outside” (as opposed to reputations as protectors on the “inside”); (2) competition from other, often transnational, trafficking organizations increases; and (3) the expansion of power inside or outside detention facilities sparks rival factions and gang warfare that spreads from the prison system to the outside or vice versa.

States authorities must comprehend the differing reasons for gang expansion inside and outside prison if they are to effectively combat these growing prison organizations. Different anti-gang programs may be needed to address inmate and non-inmate gang members.

2. Gang Cooperation as a Response to State Activity

Prison gangs in the United States and Latin America have proven themselves to be remarkably adaptive to state actions against them.  In Rio de Janeiro, for example, prison-based gangs have battled each other for control of the city’s favelas for decades; yet, in response to Rio’s pre-Olympics/World Cup crackdown on drug dealers, several of the groups—such as Comando Vermelho and Amigos dos Amigos—have called truces in order to battle their common enemy together.

In the short-term, if the state attempts to eradicate one gang at a time, it may be more likely to achieve its goals than if it attacks all at once.  Gangs are less likely to interfere with state actions if they are seen as eliminating rivals.  In the long-term, however, a one-at-a-time approach may serve to strengthen the prison gangs that are addressed last by eliminating their competition, making complete eradication more difficult.  At the very least, gang cooperation in the face of state oppression provides law enforcement with a single enemy on which to concentrate its resources.

3. Prisons as Bases Strengthen Trafficking Organizations on the “Outside”

In the 2010 Small Arms Survey, Benjamin Lessing notes that the strongest law enforcement initiatives give prison gangs greater control over their non-inmate members.  While this seems counter-intuitive, gangs in the United States and Latin America prove the point.  Law enforcement officials in the United States, Mexico, Central America, and Brazil have the legislative authority and practical capability to arrest gang members for a variety of offences. Yet, the higher likelihood of a prison sentence means that gang members increasingly expect to face their leaders in jail, and thus to receive punishment for disobedience while they were on the streets.

This finding suggests the importance of interrupting communications between inmates and non-imprisoned gang members.  Often, a gang’s most powerful leaders are imprisoned but not sufficiently isolated, undermining the effect of efficient policing.

4. Recruitment via the Prison Establishment

Most law enforcement officials recognize the role of prisons as breeding grounds for gang membership.  Non-affiliated prisoners often join gangs after being arrested as a form of protection from other inmates.  In such cases, the reason prison gangs often form in the first place (self-defense) is the same incentive that new inmates have to lessen the threats that those gangs present.  The cyclical nature of recruitment implies the need for stricter separation of the inmate population or better prevention of inmate-on-inmate violence.

5. Decentralization

While all of the observed prison gangs have a centralized command structure within their own organization, the criminal networks in which they operate are more decentralized in nature.  These decentralized networks include smaller street gangs, drug traffickers, other prison gangs, and any other unlawful group that wishes to cooperate with the prison gangs for monetary benefit.  An advantage of these types of networks is that the disparate groups which comprise them draw less scrutiny from law enforcement, enabling the wider illicit activities of the prison gang in command to go unnoticed and unabated.  Should law enforcement officials decide to crack down on one part of the network, the greater whole will survive to continue to funnel money and weapons to the gang in charge.

6. Communication with External Supporters

The purpose of prison systems is to lock away criminals as punishment for their misdeeds against society, yet all of the observed prison gangs have the ability to communicate with members on the “outside.”  Communication is often enabled through family and friends who carry messages out of the corrections facilities after a scheduled visit.  When personal connections on the outside are unavailable, bribing or coercing prison guards to act as intermediaries often suffices.  Prisoners have a tendency to acquire female supporters through written letters and, in the case of the U.S.’s TRULINCS program, email correspondence to invoke sympathy for their plight.  These sympathizers are then willing to smuggle contraband into prisons, including mobile communication devices hidden in the soles of their shoes.  Usually, women act in support roles for prison gangs, with the exception of the Nazi Low Riders.  Wives and girlfriends of incarcerated NLR members actually run the gang’s drug business on the outside and sometimes commit violent crimes on their behalf.

7. Involvement in the Drug Trade

Prison gangs, much like street gangs, are heavily involved in drug trafficking as a primary source of income.  All of the observed prison gangs engage in some aspect of the drug trade including trafficking, wholesale supply, or retail sale.  In all cases, gangs had to dramatically increase membership to meet the demands of drug trafficking operations, the majority of which are transnational in nature.  The common drugs involved in all four regions are marijuana, heroin, and cocaine.  Involvement in the drug trade has proved to be very lucrative for all prison gangs, bringing in large sums of cash that are used to purchase firearms, strengthen membership, and fund more operations.

8. Brutality

Common among all prison gangs is the use of brutality as a premier tool with which to accomplish ends.  All of these prison gangs have distinguished reputations for violence and ruthlessness, both inside prison and outside in the streets, and all are feared among other inmates.  Prison gangs only accept the most violent inmates into their respective ranks because intimidation in prison is the primary goal of any gang and the only way to ensure survival.  In all cases, these prison gangs utilize the murder of other inmates and gang members to earn respect and build an image that instills fear in possible enemies.  Across all four regions, prison gangs display brutality that attracts a great amount of attention from law enforcement, who often develop a strong fear of prison gangs.

9. Dispersion of Members by Authorities

In all of the cases we have studied, authorities have attempted to break up prison gangs by dispersing key members to separate facilities.  This approach, however, has not had the intended effect of crippling prison gangs and has, on the contrary, proved counterproductive in all four regions.  As leaders are separated from their gangs, they are moved to other facilities providing new opportunities to spread their gang’s ideology to a new population and recruit even more members.  As a result, prison gangs have rapidly expanded into new territories, opening up new chapters and creating even more widespread instability for the state.  In most cases, dispersion of gang members, including deportation, has transformed gangs like MS-13 and other Latino prison gangs from national to transnational threats.

10. Lack of Rehabilitation Programs Inside Prisons

All of the prison gangs in the United States and Latin America lacked rehabilitation programs aimed at combating the root causes of gang membership and changing gang behavior.  This is partly caused by the insecure prison environment that creates the need for protection within prison walls and the corruption of prison officials who may benefit from the gangs’ illegal activities.  In U. S. prisons, rehabilitation programs include substance abuse and mental health programs, educational programs, and vocational training.  In South America, there are no prison rehabilitation programs and many inmates reported lack of work or other constructive activities in prison.  In Mexico and Central America, prisons lack rehabilitation programs but do provide some religious programs for gang members.

11. Release from Prison Back into Previous Environments

In all the countries we have studied, the location of prisoners after they are released is an area that all the prisons systems have neglected.  In fact, all of the countries’ prison systems lack an effective mechanism that could potentially remove gang member from their previous environment. The lack of such a capability is problematic because these environments may foster the previous gang life style and lead the gang member back to prison.

12. Unemployment Serving as a Mechanism Pushing Gang Members Back into Previous Gang Behavior

Unemployment among recently released inmates is widespread throughout all the countries we studied.  Gang members leave prison without any resources and return to criminal activity as a means of income.  Many gang members in these countries make connections in prison that allow them to acquire new criminal knowledge and venture into new criminal enterprises.  In the United States, there are outside organizations that will help the prisoners find employment.  These programs may provide some incentive for the gang members to cease their gang activity; however, program success has been limited since the income provided from employment is substantially less than the income gained from criminal activity.

13. Gang Codes Keep Inmates Involved in Gangs Outside the Prison System

All of the prison gangs in the United States and Latin America operate under codes which outline rules gang members must follow under threat of punishment.  In the prison system, the protection and benefits that flow from the gang relationship provide incentives for gang members to follow these rules.  Gang codes also effectively keep gang members loyal to prison gangs after they are released, since the high rate of recidivism creates the possibility that members will end up back in prison system.

Differences

1. National Approaches to Reform

Despite the similar patterns witnessed in the operations of U.S. and Latin American prison gangs, states have taken drastically different approaches in attempting to solve their inmate-related problems.  In the United States and Brazil, officials have discussed reducing prison sentences.  In Central America, a potential law enforcement reform includes the reduction of “hard hand” arrests, whereby people are arrested because of their gang tattoos, without having committed a crime.  Brazil has also considered adding more education programs for inmates.

On the one hand, the different tactics supply law enforcement communities with a wider pool of experiments from which to learn.  Different countries often require culture- and environment-sensitive reform programs to address the specific problems relevant to their prison systems.  On the other hand, the similarities found in the evolution of prison gangs suggest that international prison systems may share some of the same failures.  Rather than working independently, officials from different countries would learn more by sharing data on prison gangs’ exploitations of varying detention systems.

2. Transnational Affiliations

International affiliations vary by gang and by region.  While MS-13 has California/U.S. connections and has been known to work with Colombian traffickers, details of such activities are imprecise.  Similarly, Brazilian prison-based gangs receive drug shipments through Suriname and Paraguay, have worked in Peru and Bolivia, and trade arms for drugs with Colombia’s FARC.  Nonetheless, the relationships between organizations from different countries are rarely clearly delineated and often only anecdotal.

By contrast, U.S./Mexico border-region gangs are transnational in nature but do not necessarily combine operations with other transnational organizations.  U.S. prison gangs primarily work within their own country.

Therefore, when prison-based gangs become large enough to participate in transnational operations, they often do so sporadically and opportunistically.  Because multi-national law enforcement presents logistical and political challenges, police officials have strong incentives to address transnational gang relationships when developing anti-gang operations.  Despite their similarities, prison gangs still operate as autonomous entities, often with independent goals.

3. Treatment of Prisoners

Prisoner abuse is common around the world.  In Central and South America, in particular, prisoner neglect and mistreatment is common practice.  Stories of abuse from behind prison walls are often met with feelings of apathy from general publics and in the absence of public outcries which might otherwise constrain their actions, prison guards outside the United States continue to mistreat prisoners, perpetuating prisoner grievances against state authority.

4. Differences in Power and Control in Prison Systems

Perceptions of de facto power and control in U.S. and Latin American prison systems vary.  In the U.S.-Mexico region, corrections officials continue to have effective control over prisons where no single gang dominates the prison population.  Differences in race and ideology divide the major strategic threat groups in the United States, preventing gangs from working together except in mutually profitable circumstances.  In all other cases, prison gangs in this region are more likely to engage in violent competition than cooperation.  Moreover, the comparatively low levels of prisoner abuse in the United States removes a potentially uniting political cause around which these gangs might otherwise coalesce.

In stark contrast, south of the U.S.-Mexico border region, prisoners often run their own prisons. Substandard living conditions, overcrowding, lack of basic amenities, and unrestrained prisoner abuse within Brazilian prisons cause inmates to pledge allegiance to gangs, such as the CV and PCC, in the hope these organizations will improve prison conditions.  Consequently, prisoners are more willing to participate in gang-orchestrated prison riots in protest of government treatment.  Poor conditions in the slums increase gang support among local populations as well, enhancing gang influence and social and economic control outside prison.  These bases of support enable gangs to disrupt cities from within penal facilities, in some cases contesting the sovereignty of the state.

In Central America, prisons have become finishing schools for criminal gangs, facilitating the recruit of new members from the inmate populations and the continued direction of operations from the inside the penal system.  In some Central American countries, such as Guatemala, gangs dominate whole cell blocks and possess de facto control over entire prisons with prison guards effectively excluded from such areas.

5. Reasons for Formation

The rationale underlying gang formation differs significantly across prison gangs in the four regions we have studied.  The majority of prison gangs formed as a means of protection from other predatory gangs, poor prison conditions, or abuse by prison authorities.  Although the specific reasons for individual group formations vary, all of the gangs eventually transformed into for-profit criminal organizations.

6. Members with Military Experience

A regional division exists in the distribution of prison gangs that have members with military experience and those that do not.  All of the observed prison gangs located in the United States and Mexico possess members who have previously served in the armed forces of their respective countries prior to entry into gang life.  The prison gangs in Central America and Brazil lack members with similar military experience.  Membership with formal military training is a major strength for prison gangs, enhancing group capacity for armed violence and self-defense.

7. Ability to Operate Without Interference from State Authorities

One of the most important differences among the various regions is the ability of prison gangs within certain states to act outside the control of the state and without interference from authorities.  Prison gangs in the United States have the disadvantage of operating in an environment of strong state control, where criminal activities must avoid detection.  In Mexico, Brazil, and throughout Central America, significantly weaker states typically lack the capacity to successfully combat the operations of prison gangs, especially in major cities.  These gangs are thus able to operate outside the control of states, often conducting criminal activities in an overt and public manner.  Gang operations in these countries are facilitated by widespread public corruption.

8. Separation of Different Gang Members in Central American Prisons

Central American prisons are unique among the penal systems described here in their inability to separate rival gang members.  In nearly all instances, this incapacity results from a lack of state resources.  While some Central American prisons are fully controlled by one gang,  many facilities are inhabited by two or more rival groups.  Where removal to separate facilities has not been an option, some prison authorities have attempted to separate the rival gangs by floor or cell.  In general, this system has been highly ineffective.  Particularly when rival gang members have been incorrectly placed in the same cells or on the same floors, prison riots have repeatedly resulted.  In Guatemala, for example, MS-13 members staged simultaneous attacks against M-18 members at seven different prisons using grenades, guns, and knives.  In the chronically underfunded and overcrowded Honduran penal system, another gang riot left thirteen inmates dead and thirty-eight injured.

9. Forced Recruitment

In Central America, recruitment of new members is critical to maintaining and increasing power for both MS-13 and MS-18 members.  Although recruitment can be voluntary, many gangs rely heavily on forced recruitment.  This Central American practice contrast sharply with the voluntary recruitment process among groups in the United States, Brazil, and Mexico.

Larger Implications: Why the Similarities and Differences Matter

1. Potential for More Inter-Gang Alliances and Operation Spillover

As the gangs under scrutiny continue to expand beyond prison walls, become more violent, and partner with one another to combat law enforcement initiatives, the possibility of increased cooperation with other criminal organizations exists.  Expanded operations lead to an expanded group of associates.  If those relationships are transnational in nature, gangs can exploit differences in national laws and police surveillance for their own advantage.  Each group’s familiarity with the prison systems of their own nation places them in an advantageous position to compare experiences.  Even when cooperation is limited to other domestic groups, prison-based gangs will benefit from exposure to additional illegal activities and trades with which their new partners are more familiar.

2. Prison Systems and Regulations Require Reform to Counter Gang Expansion

As the similarities above demonstrate, prison gangs perpetuate themselves through flaws in prison systems, benefiting from protocols with double-edge effects.  The procedure of sorting gang members away from general populations reinforces central hierarchy and control as gang populations become more concentrated, and policies meant to rehabilitate and address the needs of prisoners—family visits, religious worship, education programs, etc.—often facilitate illicit activities, for example, through the use of visitors to smuggle contraband into prisons and direct criminal actions outside.  In essence, prisons have become hubs for criminal enterprise where gangs are able to direct their for-profit operations and recruit new members to increase their power within the system.

Reform is essential both to stifle the growth of existing security threat groups and to prevent the emergence of new, younger gangs that may take the same evolutionary path of the older groups, eventually eclipsing their predecessors to seize dominance in national and transnational criminal networks.  As the Nazi Low Riders in the United States have shown, new gangs are regularly as violent and disruptive to society as the ones that preceded them, and with the concurrent evolution of modern technology and communication, they have the opportunity to become more dangerous to the state.

3. Dual Approach in Combating Prison Gangs

Authorities involved in law enforcement have been relatively successful in seeking out and arresting prison gang members in all four regions.  Gang task forces and numerous racketeering laws have been established in many regions to crack down on gang members in particular.  Once these individuals are incarcerated, however, efforts to combat gang activity are largely ended.  The analysis presented here has highlighted the need for a dual approach that not only emphasizes eliminating gangs among society at large but also stresses the need to counter gang influence inside prisons where such groups currently flourish.  Authorities must closely monitor incarcerated gang members while they are in prison and continue to expand law enforcement gang intelligence.  Few additional options exist to counter the criminal motives of gang members after incarceration.  Prison officials should focus efforts on the institution of preventative programs aimed at deterring non-gang-affiliated inmates from joining prison gangs.

4. Deportation as a Catalyst for Gang Formation in Mexico and Central America

The United States began deporting immigrants convicted of criminal activity to their countries of origin after the passage of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996.  The IIRIRA increased removals by expanding categories of deportation, restricting the ability to appeal deportation, and increasing the range of criminal offenses triggering deportation.  The U.S. government asserts that the deportation campaign is designed to target immigrants who have committed serious violent crimes; however, most removals to date have been noncriminal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.[1]  In 2008, 358,886 noncitizens were removed from the United States.  Of these, almost 69% (246,851) originated from Mexico, 29% of whom were criminals, and nearly 22% (78,726) were from Central America, 78% of whom were criminals.[2]  This mass deportation of criminals to both Central America and Mexico combined with the failure to notify national authorities of criminal backgrounds not only leaves these governments unprepared, but also places gang members largely unfamiliar with these foreign countries in a position to further identify with their gang and expand its organization.  Current U.S. deportation policies should be revised in cooperation with governments from Mexico and Central America. Reforming existing oversights will benefit affected destination countries while decreasing the likelihood of the return of criminal immigrants to the United States.

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[1] Hagan, Jaqueline, Brianna Castro, and Nestor Rodriguez. “The effects of U.S. Deportation Policies on Immigrant Families and Communities: Cross-border perspectives,” North Carolina Law Review 88 (2010): 1809. http://www.nclawreview.org/documents/88/5/hagan.pdf

[2] Ibid.

Image Source:

Overcrowded Cell: R. Renee Yaworsky. “Poor Conditions Lead to Third Prison Riot in One Week.” Peace and Collaborative Development Network. Accessed 15 November 2010. http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/photo/poor-conditions-lead-to-third?context=latest.