Indiana State University Newsroom

Central American gangs concern for U.S. police

February 23, 2006

Three states, two nations represented at ISU conference

Federal, state and local law enforcement and correctional officials from Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky came to Indiana State University Wednesday to assess the influence of Central American gangs in the United States.

Such gangs originated in Los Angeles during the 1980s when civil war in El Salvador prompted many Salvadorans to migrate to the United States. With the end of the civil war in 1992, U.S. policy shifted and many gang members have since been deported to El Salvador and other Central American nations.

Deportees stay in their home country just long enough and commit just enough crimes to get the money to pay a human smuggler to take them back to the U.S., said Carlos Ponce, director of the Center for Criminology and Police Sciences of the National Civil Police of El Salvador.

"They make contacts in their local country and in every country they visit while they are traveling back illegally to the United States, so they have a criminal network - a transnational criminal network," said Ponce, who holds a master's degree in criminology from Indiana State.

Many experts consider one such gang, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, as similar to the Cosa Nostra, or Mafia, Ponce said.

Ponce has worked with Indiana State's criminology department on a system to track criminal networks and says the techniques developed with ISU have been useful. He is now working with the university on research aimed at solving more homicides in his country by keeping more detailed records of crimes.

El Salvador's homicide rate stands at 55 per 100,000 population, compared with a U.S. rate of 6 per 100,000.

It's something that could also help in this country, according to ISU researchers Philip Shon and Shannon Barton.

"The things that we are trying to learn from gang related homicides in El Salvador could be of direct use to law enforcement agencies in Indiana. We expect the various types of homicides and crime scene behaviors that we see in El Salvador might be reflected in homicides in the U.S.," said Shon, assistant professor of criminology.

"We are creating a new data collection instrument so that we can look at various characteristics of homicides and give them an avenue to help predict homicides," said Barton, also an assistant professor of criminology at Indiana State. The research has the potential to help solves in Indiana, as well, Barton said.

"If we are able to go into Indiana communities, the information that will be collected will not only help solve current cases but also potentially open cold case files and provide recommendations about how law enforcement may be able to divert resources to better solve both current cases and old cases that have not been resolved."

Using funds from the Lilly Endowment, the university awarded Shon and Barton a "Promising Scholars" grant to finance their research. The Promising Scholars program recognizes faculty members who have not attained the rank of professor but demonstrate a commitment to meaningful research that has the potential to benefit the state and nation.

Experts say Central American gangs operate in almost every U.S. state, including Indiana and police, school officials and parents need to be vigilant for any and all signs of potential gang activity and take so-called gang "wannabes" seriously.

"If a person walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, they're a duck," said Detective Sgt. Leo George of the Marion County Sheriff's Department. "I have found that individuals who are wannabes are perhaps more dangerous because they have something to prove where your true hard core gang member if he comes to a new area he wants to keep a low profile so he can conduct his business because once again it's non-traditional organized crime."

International cooperation between law enforcement agencies holds the key to eradicating the problem, said Ponce.

"The FBI has set up an office in El Salvador so we can coordinate and exchange information about these guys so we can be more effective in our law enforcement strategies," he said, suggesting local police department in both countries should also strive for greater cooperation.

Cooperation in the fight against criminal gangs is evident in Indiana, said George, who serves on a federally-funded multi-agency street crime task force.

"We are out at the street level identifying gang members and responding to violent crimes in an effort to deter them before they even get off the ground," he said.

Contact: Shannon Barton, assistant professor, criminology, (812) 237-8332 or 

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or


Story Highlights

Federal, state and local law enforcement and correctional officials from Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky came to Indiana State University Wednesday to assess the influence of Central American gangs in the United States.

See Also:

ISU Performing Arts Series presents Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass

American student seeks dual citizenship along with a degree

“The Drowning Girls” opens Sept. 26

Faculty Gala Concert set for Sept. 12

Guest Chamber Orchestra to feature NY cellist Hannah Holman

13th annual Bat Festival set for Sept. 21