A Human Security Crisis Close to Home: Potential for Failure in US Economic Statecraft in Central America

By Sarah Fiske

Source: Wikimedia Commons/Cacahuate

As a Patterson School student, I’ve been filling myself up on all kinds of news throughout the year – I read The Economist cover to cover every week, the New York Times, always knew the top articles on Reuters, the BBC and, at different times, the top news in Zimbabwe, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and El Salvador.  All the sudden summer vacation came, and I took a news vacation too. For ten days, I only caught part of Good Morning America while eating breakfast visiting my folks. There were three things that struck me about this. First, I felt like I hadn’t missed anything when I went back to at least half of my school year news consumption. I initially felt like I had missed so much – the world had continued and I had missed it! Then, as I kept reading I realized I hadn’t missed much – at least not with respect to people, countries and international actors. Weather was a different story, but although we have been caught off guard by events before, such as the seemingly unpredictable rise of ISIS, 20/20 hindsight reveals they were not random occurrences. The third observation that struck me during this time is how the small amount of news media I watched missed a lot. It did a sufficient job of overviewing current events that caused notable splashes in the U.S. It covered interesting stories and was easy to watch. In general, the news was enjoyable, but there was a lot of missing information.

Even during my semester in school, when I had to consume massive amounts of news, there was always something that caught me by surprise or something missing. The fact is that with over 7 billion people and around 194 countries (depending on who is counting) and over 6000 languages the world is just too big to keep up with; it is no surprise that big changes, problems or events seem to sneak up on us regularly. Here, in this little blog post, I want to share with you a “little” piece of news that I think is of critical importance, and for many will be one of those sneaky surprises one day: gangs and international criminal networks in Central America – and the massive humanitarian crisis that it creates. This is a problem today, but something that is mostly overlooked. In the following post I will talk about the current problem, the origin of the problem, and briefly address what is being done to address it.

Out of the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992 an international crisis that has impacted hundreds of thousands of lives to this day was born. A small El Salvadoran gang, called Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13), and other small Central American gangs were involved in looting and violence. The city of Los Angeles, the state of California, and the US federal government responded quickly to this gang problem hoping to nip it in the bud; gangs were not new to LA and consequences of the problem growing out of control were in the collective memory of law enforcement. LA police force came down hard on violence and gang members were jailed. In 1994, a three strikes policy increased jail time for three time felons, and in 1996 the “get tough” approach to immigration made it so immigrants were deported from the country for prison sentences over one year, and foreign born American citizens were liable to lose citizenship after serving sentences for certain crimes and were deported after jail time. At the same time, the list of deportation warranting offences grew; petty crime, drunk driving and weapon possession were among the additions to the deportable crime list for offenses that didn’t meet the one year jail time requirement.

Like hospitals can also serve to spread disease, especially when they are overrun with a contagious epidemic, jails also become the breeding grounds for criminal indoctrination and gang inductions. Violent gang members serving time in jail awaiting deportation rubbed shoulders with immigrants who wound up in jail for nonviolent crimes and lesser offences, many of whom had few options to live within the boundaries of the law (especially after being arrested) and who felt frustrated and victimized by the legal system. It was in these Los Angeles prisons that small criminal groups grew into organized gangs. Many gang members who had arrived in the US as children were deported back to countries where they had few ties, lacked language skills, and no opportunities. They turned back to what they knew: a life of crime. In fact, in El Salvador crack cocaine arrests increased over thirty fold, from single digits in 1995 to nearly 300 in 1999.  Between 2000 and 2004, over 20,000 immigrants were deported and, since US law prohibited sharing the background information on deportees with their countries of origin, Central American recipient countries, mostly El Salvador and Honduras, did not know what they were getting into. (Arana, 2005) Before long, homicide rates were rising quickly and Central America was on its way to being the most dangerous region in the world.

Sarah's 3 country graph
Source: UNODC/Sarah Fiske

Meanwhile, in the United States, problems of gang recruitment continued. Gang members who were not deported recruited young immigrants and the numbers of gang members in the US and in Central America grew. Violence expanded, and has become a transnational problem. The homicide rate (see chart on right) (UNODC data) increase is only one measure and it gives a partial picture of what is happening. In El Salvador, for example, the homicide rate is nowhere near where it was during the end of its civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s, however it is rising again. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) data ends in 2012, in the middle of a gang truce which was effective at producing a 40% drop in the homicide rate, but reports suggest that number is once again on the rise with a US State Department report citing the rate back over 43, and media outlets reporting a rise again in numbers. In addition to homicides, there are major concerns over extortion, robbery, kidnapping, assaults, and the general use of threats to control people have increased in some cases. (Arnson, 2014) There are neighborhoods and even small towns that are de facto controlled by gangs and other criminal organizations including drug trafficking organizations. (Arana, 2005)  And, although this report deals primarily with gang violence, it is important to remember that these problems exist in addition to, and sometimes in tandem with, drug trafficking and cartel violence that is worst in Mexico, but also affects many Central American cities that are ports on the shipping route.

The raw numbers alone are sufficient to indicate the incredible relevance and gravity of the situation. The history provides a compelling argument that the US has a moral imperative to respond to the nightmarish situation that its policy played a key role in creating. But, there is another crisis resulting from the gang violence that compounds the moral imperative to action and adds a strategic component to the importance of a US response. The number of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala increased over five fold from 2011 to 2013. Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have also had similar surges in asylum seekers and child migrants. (UNHCR, 2013) The UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) performed a careful study interviewing children who had crossed the border from these countries and found 72% of El Salvadorians, 38% of Guatemalans, and 57% of Hondurans qualified for international protection. The implications of this are strategic as well as moral.  52,000 plus children who entered the US alone in 2014, up from under 16,000 in 2011. The US does not have the infrastructure to deal with this influx of immigrants and refugees.  While some of the influx is due to rumors that the US is relaxing its policy on immigration, especially towards children, a significant portion – the majority, according to the UNHCR – is because of violence at home. (The Economist, 2014)


As this is a problem largely created by the U.S. and is becoming a looming problem for the U.S., I am going to focus on what the U.S.’ response has been and how it can improve. One of the major goals with respect to this problem for the US is to solve it without major involvement, especially with the military. In1995 President Clinton issued Executive Order 12978, “Blocking Assets and Prohibiting Transactions with Significant Narcotics Traffickers,” to deal with the narcotrafficking problem in Columbia. Six months later, a similar bill was signed to prohibit a US person from supporting a terrorist organization. This was the beginning of the US using economic tools against a variety of non-state actors as a comprehensive approach to challenges. This response falls into the category of “economic statecraft,” which traditionally has been considered to be the use of sanctions and carrots in relations with states to generate action, but is beginning to shift into a more nuanced role which can involve non-state organizations and targeted financial sanctions designed to bring down key people in organizations. The United States Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the US Treasury division in charge of managing all sanctions related to national security took on a new role in enforcing new targeted sanctions against non-state actors, smart sanctions against specific people that were becoming more popular, as well as comprehensive sanctions against regimes and states. This time period marked a shift in several ways in economic statecraft (and sanctions in particular) towards a more precise instrument of foreign policy.

For over a decade, the official uses of sanctions against non-state actors stayed in the category of terrorism and narcotrafficking. Sanctions were considered a part of a strategic response to problems of national security, but were not on their own a foundational tenet of national security policy. In fact, sanctions were not mentioned at all in the president’s national security policy address until 2010, when sanctions were mentioned only once as a side note. In 2015, President Obama mentioned sanctions nine times as a critical component of targeted national security policy.(Drezner, 2015) A large portion of sanctions as national security are targeted “smart” sanctions against specific persons, commodities, or sectors. In fact, sanctions and restrictions on individuals and specific business entities are growing much faster than traditional embargos on states. (Park, 2014) In 2011 the Obama administration recognized the scope of the Central American gang problem and in Executive Order 13581, declared a national emergency to deal with the immense threat that the Central American gangs posed to security, foreign policy and the economy. (US Treasury) In 2012, the Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 gangs were listed as Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) and the US would begin targeted financial sanctions on leaders and ensure that no US national or business could interact economically with these organizations.

Gang leaders were listed as specially designated nationals (SDNs), an OFAC published list of persons and entities associated with targets of US sanctions. This comprehensive list includes persons who are associated with embargoed states, members of drug cartels that are blacklisted under narcotrafficking sanctions, terrorist groups, and gangs and other groups with the new TCO designation. In 2013 seven leaders of MS-13 and Calle-18 were blacklisted and subject to assets freezes, and any business associates were fined $250,000 to one million and could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. The director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, gave insight into the goal of these sanctions saying, “Today’s designation of six MS-13 leaders is the result of Homeland Security Investigation’s National Gang Unit and OFAC’s joint partnership to further strike at the financial heart of one of the most dangerous transnational criminal gangs in the world today.” (US Treasury, 2013) In April 2015 the AFOC added three more MS-13 leaders to the list.

The question, however, is whether or not this is an effective response to the problem. I believe this question has been answered for us already. The US has on several occasions deployed military forces to help with the cartel battle and drug trafficking in the region, but the hope of the targeted sanctions was to avoid an increase in military engagement but, as recently as the end of April, more marines were deployed to the northern triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to help combat violence related to drug trafficking and gangs.

Source: La Pagina

Ultimately, there are three reasons I do not be: La Paginaelieve the current US economic and financial sanctions response is sufficient to stop the growing danger of increased transnational criminal behavior and gangs. First, sanctions fail in implementation. The US has not shown a commitment to systematically enforcing rules against these groups, and very few of the 50,000 plus members have wound up on SDN lists. This hurts efforts to hinder gang activity as well as anti-narcotrafficking efforts. As mentioned earlier, drug cartels and gangs are beginning to work together more, and financial pressure on the cartels but not on gangs will push the cartels to continue networking with these organizations as alternative suppliers to financial markets. Better enforcement would help the stagnating effect of sanctions on narcotraffickers as well as begin to pressure MS-13 and other gangs.

A second reason for sanctions’ failure is a poor understanding or recognition of the gang situation. While gangs have become increasingly intertwined with cartels for aforementioned reasons, every day members of these gangs are not involved for financial reasons. Squeezing leaders financially may put some pressure on the gang from the top, but the groups are not hierarchically organized and the majority of the members who are causing problems are not impacted by financial stress. To put it simply, the sanctions are very low cost to the target in this way. If sanctions are to make a difference, they need to be a small part of a multifaceted program designed to provide options for gang members outside of gang life.

Lastly, the sanctions do nothing to stop the growing problem of gang recruitment that has nothing to do with the top gang leaders. They do not address the problems in the U.S. that have created and continue to contribute to the problem, and with the increasing cooperation between gangs and cartels, the sanctions neglect to recognize the obvious problem of high demand for drugs in the US that is not going anywhere. Without addressing this problem, the providers are not going anywhere.

Unless the US works with Central American governments to form a more comprehensive and targeted response that addresses all aspects of the problem, this is an issue that will continue to grow. As I watch the news and see things like ISIS seem to crop up out of nowhere, I cannot help but wonder if in a few months or years we will be watching the news and will be “surprised” by the incredible violence problem in our country and neighboring countries. So, as always in my blog posts, I want to leave you with a few questions.

Is the way we deal with news as a whole a problem? Is this something that affects Washington as much as the average citizen? Do current big news stories demand too much attention and prevent us from being prepared for what’s coming?

With respect to the gang/cartel situation, can we prevent a big breaking news story one day by taking appropriate actions now?

Lastly, what else is out there that we are missing? What other potentially problematic situations are out there that we don’t know about yet?

I hope you learned something new from this post, but more importantly, I hope you can think of your own stories like this – or at least think critically about the state of affairs. Solving these problems takes a lot of perspectives, ideas and critical thinking – something we can do together.

expatt headshot (1)Sarah is a student at the Patterson School studying development. The right coach and hard work transformed her from a clumsy kid to a national champion and equipped her to continue to progress independently. She hopes to help individuals and communities to maximize their strengths and potential in the development field and continually leave her job to local community members well equipped to do the work on their own.


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