– Executive Summary –

This thesis asks how effectively U.S. domestic and regional policies designed to counter the threat from transnational organized crime and gangs in the United States and the Northern Triangle achieve desired outcomes. The growth in size and influence of these groups over nearly three decades elicited a response from the U.S. government in 2011 known as the Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime (SCTOC).[1] Since implementation of the SCTOC, which relies heavily on a law enforcement response to the gangs, increasing homicide rates and the prevalence of other second-order effects associated with organized crime and gang violence––illegal mass migrations and the illicit drug trade––suggest that the damage to human security continues to grow despite U.S. strategic efforts.[2] Far from a new approach, the SCTOC applied long-standing law enforcement efforts unilaterally to solve a complex problem. Although law enforcement measures effectively solve law enforcement problems, long-term reductions in gang violence and activity stubbornly require a broader approach. The widening gap between policy objectives and performance outcomes indicates that U.S. strategic efforts fail because they are disconnected from the real problems.

This thesis also endeavors to identify the structural issues that contribute to the gang phenomenon and asks how well security programs and polices address them. Enforcement- only policies overlook the broader complex social problems that are risk factors for gang involvement. Extensive gang research shows that the gang problem is the interaction of many related socioeconomic and institutional factors that cannot be easily reduced or eliminated by short-term solutions alone. Many factors, such as exposure to violence and insecurity, social disorganization, problematic families, economic exclusion, lack of educational opportunities, and the search for significance, have been proven powerful drivers of criminal gang activity.[3] Therefore, suppression and enforcement options, although effective in addressing immediate concerns of physical security, are incomplete solutions on their own. On the other hand, comprehensive solutions—those that include all three elements of prevention, intervention, and enforcement—are more effective in the long-run because they account for the multi-dimensional aspects of the gang problem.[4] The research indicates that both Canadian and U.S. prevention efforts have proven successful because they address these structural issues.

To outline effective policies, the research first examines the current body of research in criminology to determine what works in gang prevention. Second, it examines three documents that frame U.S. anti-gang policy—the SCTOC, the Strategy to Combat the Threat from Criminal Gangs in Central America and Mexico (Strategy), and the Mérida Initiative—and analyzes how well they address gang violence from the law enforcement perspective. Then, for comparison, the study investigates Canadian gang violence–reduction policies and programs, examining which aspects have successfully addressed the underlying drivers of gang violence and which ones have not. Finally, this thesis concludes with a set of policy recommendations based on the findings that aim to strengthen and augment current U.S. policy against gang violence.

The findings of this thesis suggest that the U.S. strategy counters the threat from transnational organized crime (TOC) and gangs principally through deterrence and enforcement methods. Framing this approach, the SCTOC seeks to engage the threat by implementing criminal justice reform legislation and enhanced legal penalties against gang activity. Thus, targeting leadership structures and the illicit activities of the gangs emerges as a top priority in U.S. domestic policy. Introduced as a new approach to the threat in 2011, the law enforcement solution in the SCTOC represents a de facto policy approach that does not fully engage the problem because it fails to address the root causes.[5]

Likewise, the Strategy and Mérida Initiative serve as guiding policy documents that implement similar enforcement strategy. Together, these documents shape strategic efforts in a larger U.S. anti-gang endeavor in the region, packaged and exported to neighboring countries—with heavy reliance on law enforcement solutions. The effectiveness of this approach is measured by the number of gang leader and gang-related arrests effected, conviction rates, gang-related incidents and homicides, and information sharing.[6] In short, the U.S. strategic blueprint in the region is a one-dimensional approach to the gang phenomenon that largely reflects its domestic efforts.

By contrast, the Canadian law enforcement approach to the gang problem seeks to address underlying causes of family disintegration, economic exclusion, and lack of education through highly individualized and coordinated community support services to both gang-involved youth and their families. This wraparound approach may provide some keys for success in U.S. endeavors. Comprehensive approaches, while not new, are supported in the literature on crime prevention and warrant consideration.

This thesis proposes that current U.S. policy can be enhanced by taking a more comprehensive approach that effectively balances elements of prevention, intervention, and enforcement. This thesis recommends the following. First, fund the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018, which supports local community prevention efforts that address the drivers of gang violence and offers youth alternatives to criminal choices through enhanced educational and economic opportunities.[7] Moreover, it proposes rebalancing Mérida Initiative funding so that the United States Agency for International Development’s prevention efforts in the region are equally represented in a comprehensive approach with the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL)’s enforcement-oriented campaigns. Second, establish a community coalition council within the Office of Justice Programs with the goal of providing federal aid and assistance to local experts and authorities to support prevention programs that fit the scope and scale of the problem locally. Third, evaluate the effectiveness of the Treasury’s TOC designation on Mara Salvatrucha—more commonly known as MS-13—to reduce gang violence vis-à-vis the effectiveness of reducing violence through funding of intervention and desistence programs only made possible by its removal. Fourth, support complementary programs that work on one end of the spectrum to prevent gang recruitment and activity and, on the other, to rehabilitate former members back into society.


[1] Barack Obama, Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Addressing Converging Threats to National Security (Washington, DC: White House, 2011), 3, https://permanent.access.gpo.gov/‌gpo10506/2011-strategy-combat-transnational-organized-crime.pdf.

[2] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Global Study on Homicide: Executive Summary (Vienna: United Nations, 2019), 18, https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/gsh/Booklet1.pdf; Peter J. Meyer, Central American Migration: Root Causes and U.S. Policy, CRS Report No. IF11151 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2021), https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/‌IF11151.pdf; Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification Foreign Operations: Appendix 2 (Washington, DC: Department of State, 2020), 37, https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/‌documents/1881/FY-2020-CBJ-State-and-USAID-Appendix-2.pdf.

[3] José Miguel Cruz et al., The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador (Miami: Florida International University, 2017), 65, https://lacc.fiu.edu/research/the-new-face-of-street-gangs_final-report_eng.pdf.

[4] James C. Howell, “What Works with Gangs,” Criminology & Public Policy 17, no. 4 (2018): 993, https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12398.

[5] Obama, Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, 1.

[6] Eileen Larence, Combating Gangs: Federal Agencies Have Implemented a Central American Gang Strategy, but Could Strengthen Oversight and Measurement of Efforts, GAO-10-395 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2010), 20, https://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10395.pdf.

[7] Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115–385, 132 Stat. 5123.

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