Many of El Salvador's prisons are gang controlled
Many of Central and South America’s prisons are gang controlled. Photo El Salvador’s prison from Insightcrime.org

(Q24N) Prison gangs in Central America and Brazil have evolved from small predatory groups to sophisticated criminal organizations with an ability to create mayhem that extends far beyond penitentiary walls or current prevention strategies, according to this study from the Brookings Institution.

Contemporary prison gangs present new and confounding challenges for states. They have gained the capacity to organize street level crime, radically alter patterns of criminal violence, and, in the extreme, hold gov­ernments hostage to debilitating, orchestrated violence and disruption.

Unlike traditional armed groups though, prison gangs cannot be directly neutralized through repressive force, since most of their leadership is al­ready incarcerated. Indeed, common hardline state responses like aggres­sive policing, anti gang sweeps, and enhanced sentencing can inadvertently swell prison gangs’ ranks and strengthen their ability to coordinate activity on the street.

Breaking up prison gang leadership has proved particularly counterproductive, often facilitating prison gangs’ propagation throughout state and national level prison systems. Alternative approaches like gang truces that exploit prison gangs’ capacity to organize and pacify criminal markets can be very effective at reducing violence. However, they are politically dicey and hence unstable, and ultimately leave the state partially dependent on prison gangs for the provision of order, both within and beyond the prison walls.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Indeed, there are three distinct problems for policy makers to grapple with. First, anti-gang crackdowns, which often raise incarceration rates, lengthen sentences, and worsen pris­on conditions, can actually help prison gangs establish authority outside prison, organize criminal markets, and orchestrate mass violence and pro­test. In many cases, prison gangs come to play a major role in providing order in peripheral communities, imposing codes of conduct that signifi­cantly reduce property crime and violence among residents.

Second, while there is evidence that these mass incarceration policies helped prison gangs establish their authority, both within prison and on the street, it is not clear that simply reducing incarceration rates or improving prison conditions would neutralize that authority. The social orders that prison gangs have built in Central America, Brazil, and even parts of the United States rest on real institutions of varying degrees of formality: from shared language and symbols to written constitutions, and even corporate and state like administrative structures. Like all institutions, these are likely to be “sticky,” i.e. resilient to turnover in members and leaders, and adaptable to changing local conditions.

Finally, it is not clear that rolling back, undermining, or neutralizing gang authority — even if it were possible — would produce positive outcomes. States were not good at providing order in prisons or peripheral areas be­fore sophisticated prison gangs arose, and there is little reason to believe that they can entirely supplant gang authority in the short or even medium term. Smashing the authority of prison gangs could lead to outbreaks of brutal infighting or a chaotic scramble for power.

As such, this paper recommends a containment approach that strikes a balance between hardline repression and accommodation. Policymakers should aim to: increasingly acknowledge gang presence and power, rather than deny or obfuscate it; set rules of the game that take advantage of gang leaders’ ability to pacify criminal markets while demarcating realms where the state can slowly supplant gangs; use repression more strategically to enforce these rules, creating incentives for gang leaders to avoid violence and anti social behavior; and put greater state, civil society, and interna­tional resources into recuperating state authority in non criminal areas where gangs currently hold sway.

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