A study of Latino gangs in the Washington, D.C., area and five Central American nations debunks the popular belief that the gangs are engaged in a systematic, organized effort to spread their influence, the Washington Post reports. Although the gangs have significant membership, the study said their crimes are largely limited to petty theft and neighborhood extortion rather than some of those traditionally associated with organized crime — drug trafficking, prostitution, human smuggling and arms sales.
The report, conducted by Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and the nonprofit advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, comes as U.S. and Central American authorities are coordinating intelligence in the belief that the gangs have a networked structure. “Yet this idea that gangs are like an infection spreading from country to country through a process where the leaders send out missionaries to colonize new areas is fundamentally untrue,” said Geoff Thale, one of the study authors. Interviews with 316 gang members in a Salvadoran prison found that although a little more than half said they knew fellow gang members in North America, the vast majority said they had no contact with them, and few had traveled to the U.S. or Mexico.