A new report from a Washington think tank examines the complex role of youth gangs in Mexico’s security challenges and offers recommendations to reduce their threat.

In a report from the Wilson Center (pdf) titled “Understanding and addressing youth in ‘gangs’ in Mexico,” Nathan Jones, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, investigates how street gangs have influenced Mexico’s broader security challenges, how their rise is reflective of a larger set of socioeconomic ills, and how the government may best combat their effects.

(Jones’ report was part of a series of working papers on civil engagement and public security in Mexico co-sponsored by the University of San Diego, including one co-authored by InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley. See other reports here.)

Youth gangs play an important role in the local security landscape, one that has been evolving and growing more vital in recent years. As Jones notes, the gangs are increasingly working with larger trafficking organizations, but using a distinct operational model.

“Youth gangs, sometimes referred to as street gangs, typically control local turf for extortion and drug distribution,” he writes. “They engage in less profitable criminal activities than larger, more sophisticated, organized crime groups that focus on drug and arms trafficking and are more geographically dispersed.”

While the affiliations between youth groups and larger groups like the Zetas are typically loose, there are some examples of a deeper association. For instance, near Mexico’s southern border, the notorious Central American maras, namely Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, have formed alliances with some of the more prominent trafficking organizations, in which the smaller groups fulfill specific roles. One prominent example is the combined efforts of the Zetas and the MS13 in managing the human trafficking routes used by Central American immigrants on their way to the US.

SEE ALSO: MS13’s ‘El Barney’: A Trend or An Isolated Case?

Closer to the northern border, it is not the maras, but rather gangs with a strong presence in US border regions that have often migrated south to work with the Mexican traffickers. For instance, thanks to the relationship between one gang leader and the Arellano Felix brothers, two California gangs — Barrio Logan and the Mexican Mafia — grew to take on a major role within the Tijuana Cartel’s structure. These two groups helped supplant the Tijuana group’s ranks amid an ongoing conflict with its rivals in the Sinaloa Cartel. 

A far more notorious example was El Paso’s Barrio Azteca gang, which played a major role in the Juarez chaos starting in 2008. As InSight Crime has reported, Barrio Azteca was initially introduced to the dispute as a cohort of foot soldiers allied with La Linea, the armed wing of the Juarez Cartel. However, as the fighting raged on for years, and as the organizations fighting grew weaker, Barrio Azteca grew to be a key protagonist in its own right, as well as a significant driver of violence.

As the case of Barrio Azteca in particular demonstrates, the growing importance of street gangs in Mexican organized crime is linked to a vicious cycle of violent conflicts: the street gangs are sources of manpower and revenue to help larger groups carry on a protracted war. Yet once they are involved, they become drivers of violence in their own right, making the war that precipitated their involvement even harder to resolve. Therefore, while most youth gangs maintain a significant distance from the larger DTOs, the involvement of larger street gangs in cartel conflicts becomes self-sustaining.

In the vast majority of cases, Mexican street gangs have a much looser connection to the more notorious groups, but even so, they present an obstacle to a safer Mexico. Jones ties the persistent existence of thousands of such groups to a handful of socioeconomic ills endemic in Mexico, especially poverty and the explosion of idle young people dubbed the “ni-nis” (loosely translated as “neither working nor studying”). 

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

A number of programs have shown some success in weakening the appeal of gangs. Typically, these channel efforts from the private sector, the government, and non-governmental organizations in order to address the broader social and economic problems. Jones highlights attempts from all realms of society to negotiate gang truces and create safe spaces as particularly promising, and he also calls for greater efforts to survey and study youth gangs.

Some of the most effective gang programs have come under the umbrella of a larger security plan, namely Todos Somos Juarez, which featured a pair of programs targeting local gangs — Entra21 and Youth Work: Mexico — that aimed to endow locals with marketable job skills and to give them an alternative to gang life. 

While such programs do not, strictly speaking, fall under the realm of security policy, there is an important lesson in the role of the gangs in Juarez: the city turned into Mexico’s most violent thanks in large part to the introduction into the Juarez-Sinaloa dispute of thousands of local gang members, and it turned into Mexico’s biggest success story only after the government began to address the root causes of street gangs’ allure. This does not necessarily mean that a similar approach to gangs would have the same results in other violent areas, and Barrio Azteca’s activities represented just one ingredient in the Juarez chaos, but it would be short sighted not to apply Juarez’s lessons elsewhere. 

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