Globalization and The Rise of Transnational Gangs


Street gangs are prevalent throughout regions all over the world. The young, violent groups form as a result of bias, racism, poverty, and class distinction (Al Valdez iv). Gang membership becomes a way to survive or find belonging for teens that lose their families, lose their identities, have no home, or feel displaced. The functions of these local street gangs have evolved due to politicization and globalization. Their purposes have changed from protecting themselves and their homes to expanding geographically in order to distribute drugs to gain economic power. Throughout the age of globalization, they have grown in sophistication in their leadership structures and have even obtained connections with local government officials in especially corrupt regions. To keep up with the demands in the drug market, they go across borders and gain substantial international influence and financial acquisition (Al Valdez 422). This is how the concept of transnational gangs came about.

Transnational gangs are any criminal organization with the intent of supplying drug trafficking operations and that are criminally active and operational in more than one country (Franco). Other gangs around the world are being inspired by these powerful gangs with connections in multiple countries. I predict that there could be a movement towards gang expansion and development if the problem is not examined now. Current transnational gang operations and activities need to be studied now in order to prevent others from rising to power. The United States government is responsible for labeling MS-13 as the first, and only, street gang to be considered a transnational criminal organization (Morse). This is why I selected MS-13 for the subject of my case study on how globalization has impacted transnational gangs and their recruitment of vulnerable populations. Today, they are mainly active through the United States, Mexico, and the Northern Triangle.

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras make up the region that became known as the Northern Triangle after civil wars raged throughout the region in the 1980s. The self-destructive battles made these countries infamous for corrupted government systems, drug trade, detrimental exploitation of youth, and other horrific violence. Most notably, is the violence caused by the Sinaloa Cartel, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), and Barrio 18 gangs. They leave many families with no other option but to flee their homes. Gang activity is the main contributor to the migrant crisis occurring in the region as thousands of citizens flee to the United States-Mexican border on a daily basis (Lakhani). These countries have been called the world’s most dangerous region for much of the last decade. It was only in recent years that their homicide rate was surpassed by the areas of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (Renwick).

MS-13 is arguably the world’s most notorious street gang. The gang is infamous for its crime network, secret sign language, tattoo covered bodies, merciless acts of revenge and random cruelty. My research addresses the following questions: What is the history of MS-13 and how did they come to be and rise to power so rapidly? What ultimately makes teens join MS-13? How has globalization impacted the youth in the United States? How has globalization impacted the youth in Central America? How did westernization contribute to the spread of gang lifestyles? What is the impact of the media on youth populations? What is the impact of the media on gang activity? My paper will be divided into four sections; Poverty, Westernization, Technology, and Media. Through exploration of the history of the region, an examination into the West’s involvement with the poverty in the region, and my studies on the effects of global technological expansion, I content that globalization has led to the rise of Mara Salvatrucha in the Northern Triangle and the United States. They came to power through the increase of poverty in the Global South, westernization in the Northern Triangle, the manipulation of vulnerable youth populations who lose touch with their identities by the means of the media, and rapid advancements in communication technology.


Current news outlets, scholarly articles, personal narratives, books, and government released sources were all necessary in providing me with the information needed to answer my research questions. The Washington Post, The Guardian, and CNN provided me with updates on current events surrounding the topic and encouraged me to pursue my research for its pressing significance. In the last three months, there have been seven murders in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County by members of the gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). The displacement of people from the Northern Triangle to the United States has been increasing in the last several years and is considered by some to be a migrant crisis (Lakhani). Until about two years ago, the gang went through years of relative quiet. Since leaders in El Salvador are facing a crackdown by police in their own country, they began sending members to Metro Washington, with orders to increase the gang’s power, make money, and send the money back to Central America (Morse). As gang recruitment increases inside Fairfax County Public Schools, assaults and other violent acts also increase (Olivo).

Throughout my research I used Defining Globalisation, The Rise of the Network Society, and The No-Nonsense Guide to International Development as texts that defined some of the key terms of my topic, such as globalization, networks, and development. For the context of this paper, globalization is defined in four different parts based on readings from Jan Aart Scholte. By far, this was the most complete definition out of any of the sources that I read. Manuel Castells says that a network is “a set of interconnected nodes” and that they are “open structures, able to expand without limits, integrating new nodes as long as they are able to communicate within the network” (Castells 501). Maggie Black discusses the politics of development and its impacts on countries that suffer in “circumstances of gross inequality” and defines globalization with a bit more bias than Scholte does, but offers an interesting perspective and explanation of the politics surrounding the topic (Black 119). The rest of my sources were more directly applicable to the region and network that I am studying.

El Salvador in the Age of Globalization: Discerning Violence, Manifesting Peace was unique because it provided a perspective of someone from El Salvador and spoke about the current situation there and the perspective from a citizen on how the country arrived at their current state, historically. More notable pieces are Humanitarian Protection for Children Fleeing Gang-Based Violence in the America and The Gang’s All Here: The Globalization of Gang Activity, they both provided similar information but from the perspective of the United States and gave a much more in depth history of not just El Salvador, but all of the Northern Triangle. The source that I looked to the most was A Guide to Understanding Street Gangs as it provided a little bit of everything that I needed to know on many different topics related to my project. I believe that my paper will culminate all of these sources in a way that has not been done yet. No other source connects all the ideas in the same way that I do in order to come to the conclusion of how globalization has led to the growth of transnational gangs.


            It all began in the country of El Salvador, where a painful and violent civil war lasted 12 years, from 1980 – 1992. A massive military reprisal called ‘la matanza’ (meaning ‘the slaughter’) killed more than 30,000 citizens who were marked for death by their traditional dress. It began the conflict between the left and the right wings while the assassination of human rights defender Archbishop Oscar Romero was the tipping point of the war (The Center for Justice and Accountability). “The military four-decades-long dictatorships were repressive…and attacked citizens mercilessly. Anyone who questioned the government, asked for justice, or demanded a stop to the repression of impoverished peasants, factory workers, and Indigenous peoples were disappeared, imprisoned, or murdered” (Benavides 162). An Amnesty law of May 20th, 1993 excuses all human rights violations committed during the Civil War, so in many ways the crimes have not been addressed and there is still tension between the government forces and the citizenry (The Center for Justice and Accountability). This war led to many citizens fleeing the region, to the North, and left the economy in a very disproportionate state.

            MS-13 began in Los Angeles in the 1980s as the flood of Salvadorian immigrants fled the Civil War. They arrived as very poor immigrants with no resources or connections to anyone in the region. They faced extreme racial oppression when they arrived to the big cities in the United States. They were also present in San Francisco and Chicago (Benavides). These children and families found themselves alone and had no knowledge of the streets or any sense of life in the United States. In order to protect themselves from other gangs that targeted them, knowing their vulnerability, the Salvadorian immigrants banded together and created their own gang (Kopan and Morse). This is where their name came from, ‘maras’. This translates to ‘ocean wave,’ representing the wave of children that came into the United States all at once.

            Once the gang and the violence they represented became a problem for the United States, there were mass deportations of these immigrants back to El Salvador. Most of these young people are citizens or legal residents of the United States (Benavides). “It was not until these gang members were deported from the United States back to their home country that the gang took off in Central America” (Kopan). They were unifed and able to grow in the United States, as the United States is one of the top consumers of drugs in the world (National Institute of Drug Abuse, Cruz, and Vitorri).  When they returned to El Salvador’s weak government system, it was easy for the gang to corrupt the system and essentially take over. The vulnerable poor population was also very easily dominated. “Much of the violence in Central America and flight of Central Americans north is the consequence of long-term social inequality and poverty throughout the region” (Carlson and Gallagher).

These deportations also did not help the situation in the United States. “US politicians mistakenly believed that deportation of gang members would remedy the gang problem in the United States” (Carlson and Gallagher). These deportations are what started the transnational link between Central America and US gangs. With the political and economical instability in the rest of the Northern Triangle, it was easy for MS-13 to recruit in those other countries. For example, “children from the urban areas of Guatemala are amongst the most vulnerable to the long-lasting problems of food insecurity, targeting and recruitment by gang members, and the rise in the use of force and violence on the part of state militarized security forces” (Carlson and Gallagher). However, poverty is not the only thing that has made the Northern Triangle so vulnerable nor is the fault solely in the hands of those that live in the region.


First, I would like to elaborate on the previously mentioned definition of globalization I selected for my writing purposes. Globalization can be interpreted as internationalization, liberalization, universalization, and westernization. As internationalization, it “refers to a growth of transactions and interdependence between countries” (Scholte 1474). As liberalization, it “denotes a process of removing officially imposed restrictions on movements of resources between countries in order to form an ‘open’ and ‘borderless’ world economy” (Scholte 1475). As universalization, “globalization is taken to describe a process of dispersing various objects and experiences to people at all inhabited parts of the earth” (Scholte 1476). Lastly, and most applicable to my findings, was globalization as westernization which is “regarded as a particular type of universalization, one in which social structures of Western modernity (capitalization, industrialism, etc.) are spread across all of humanity, in the process of destroying pre-existent cultures and local self-determination” (Scholte 1476-7). All four parts of the definition are necessary when trying to explain the dynamic concept of globalization. In the region where MS-13 wreaks the most havoc, it is argued that westernization has been an extreme contributor to the extreme poverty and corruption (Al Valdez, Benavidez, Cruz and Carlson and Gallagher).

Westernization deliberately contributed to the suppression of minority groups through the support of government movements and also diminished the Central American identity. “Violence in the region grew and spread in large part due to US support of wars against popular movements seeking social change in Northern Triangle countries in the 1970s and 1980s” (Carlson and Gallagher). Maggie Black discusses how development was launched in a geo-political context, saying that in the end it is meant to benefit the Western world (Black 116) and that when “introduced in circumstances of gross inequality, it too will suffer from gross inequality” (Black 119). This is applicable to the United States’ involvement in Central American affairs throughout the last 500 years of colonial conquests. “The history of the ‘maras’, are rooted in the time of conquest and colonialism, in the 1500s… And this story is the same for all the nations who have suffered and lived through… colonial practices, which really have never been left behind. These situations are present, nowadays… for [El Salvadorians] continue to face hunger, malnutrition, lack of education, housing, unemployment, and the denial of our right to determine our lives” (Benavides 162). This Westernization has led to poverty, taken away a base identity in the region, and therefore contributed to the mass displacement of people from Central America.

This mass displacement is also responsible for stripping the identities of citizens and has left them easily susceptible to gang influence. “Identity is a very dynamic product of historical practices, it is constructed through everyday practice, identities are dialogic and relational, and they involve ethical commitments” and they are “a form of self-understanding” (Escobar 200-216). If this sense of self-understanding is taken away, particularly for a young person, all that person knows of who they are is lost.

By the end of 2011, the US Customs and Border Protection saw a rise in the number of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) from the Northern Triangle countries (Carlson and Gallagher). Researchers MacHarg and Cruz advise that “it is the effects of poverty along with social stigma and being ostracized that fuels gang membership and the growth of street gangs” (Al Valdez 418). Undocumented immigrants in the United States tend to lack stable family or work in their communities, are often paid in cash, and fear reporting crimes to the police for fear of deportation. “MS-13 preys on that vulnerability, targeting immigrants for extortion and manipulating minors into joining their ranks” (Kopan). Then in countries in Central America, parents often leave behind their children to go to the United States so that they can make money to send back to their families, leaving the children feeling abandoned. “That sense of alienation, has left thousands of unaccompanied minors susceptible to MS-13” (Miller) in the Northern Triangle. In both regions, some incoming children face hardship either through their poor neighborhoods in Central America or their out-casting in the United States due to their ethnic differences, they find it hard to fit in. In these scenarios, gang membership becomes a way to survive and find belonging (Thale).


            The liberalization and universalization of technology in the recently globalized world has made MS-13 into an international network and has made their operations much easier to facilitate across state borders. Networks, as previously defined by Manuel Castells, dominate functions and processes in the Information Age. “Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies, and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power, and culture… The new information technology paradigm provides the material basis for its pervasive expansion throughout the entire social structure” (Castells 501). MS-13 has developed their network largely through social media. “Few teenagers affiliated with MS-13 wear identifying colors or hang out in the same spots the way previous generations of gangs did… Most of them communicate with one another on social-media websites, where the bulk of the recruiting occurs” (Olivo). The social websites, like Facebook, are difficult to track, highly accessible to the younger generation, and difficult to prevent. MS-13 has shown to have “an increased mobility of their goods, services, and transfer money throughout the world” (Al Valdez 417). The gang is now reported as being active in Canada, Mexico, Nicuaragua, Spain, and Italy. The access to these types of technology is allowing MS-13 to inspire individuals across the globe. However, this is not the first time that this influence has been spread. Researchers argue that United States’ street gang culture is the original influence that inspired MS-13 in the first place, through similar methods of communication technologies and media outlets.


Some feel that American street gang behaviors appear to be the standard for gangs across the world. The United States entertainment industry and media are some of the most influential sources in the developing and developed worlds. “It has been suggested… that American type street gangs were a new phenomenon in Central America just a few years ago” (Al Valdez 143) and that “the internet indirectly has been used to globalize the American gang culture” (427). United States pop culture has always been a leader in trends, and once gang culture became a part of movies and music, it became almost a movement. “Some argue that the entertainment industry has glorified the gang lifestyle with movies and through music.” “To them, the fictional movies are a reflection of their lives, a sort of unauthorized biography” (Al Valdez 12). There is also research that supports how influential these images and types of media are on the young mind. “Research on media violence and its relationship to real-life aggression is substantial and convincing. Young persons learn their attitudes about violence at a very young age and, once learned, those attitudes are difficult to modify” (Starsburger 2265). Studies show that music can affect attitude and behavior in the same way and is a type of propaganda tool for younger generations (Al Valdez 13). Once again, the United States is indirectly impacting the lives and minds of citizens amongst the vulnerable youth populations in their own country and in the Northern Triangle.


After examining the history of El Salvador, learning about the West’s involvement with the poverty throughout Central America, and discovering the effects of social media and the entertainment industry I believe it is clear that globalization has led to the rise of MS-13 in the Northern Triangle and the United States. MS-13 came to power through the destructive societies in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, westernization, and by manipulating vulnerable youth populations who lose touch with their identities. Their strategies were purposeful and highly effective.

There are many factors that make the location of the next transnational gang operation very predictable. These include “a large population of young males, high levels of juvenile delinquency, drug use, high numbers of criminals in the population, high poverty rates, and a large number of single parent, mother-led families” (Vittori 1). Researchers have already forecasted the countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, Israel, Sierra Leone, Costa Rica, Panama, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela as having this predictable potential to host the world’s next dangerous street gang (Vittori). The research I have conducted can hopefully contribute to hindering this development of transnational gangs. MS-13 is a remarkably horrific example of how easily a powerful network can develop in the current globalized world. Internationally, the acknowledgement of the effects of colonialism can help to correct the corruption of the past. Domestically in the United States, ceasing media that promotes violence and by intervening into school systems vulnerable youth populations can be protected and the recruitment methods of transnational gangs can be hindered.

Works Cited

Benavides, Marta. “El Salvador in the Age of Globalization.” Canadian Woman Studies 27.1 (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 06 May 2017.

Black, Maggie. “Chapter 6, Development Is Political.” The No-Nonsense Guide to International Development. Oxford: New Internationalist, 2013. N. pag. Print.

Carlson, Elizabeth, and Anna Marie Gallagher. “Humanitarian Protection for Children Fleeing Gang-Based Violence in the Americas.” Journal on Migration and Human Security 3.2 (2015): 129-58. Web. 06 May 2017.

Castells, Manuel. “The Rise of the Network Society.” The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture 1 (2009): n. pag. Web. 06 May 2017.

“El Salvador: 12 Years of Civil War.” CJA. The Center for Justice and Accountability, n.d. Web. 08 May 2017.

Escobar, Arturo. “Chapter 5, Identity.” Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008. N. pag. Print.

Franco, Celinda. “MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats.” Domestic Social Policy Division, 30 Jan. 2008. Web. 06 May 2017.

Kopan, Tal. “MS-13 Is Trump’s Public Enemy No.1, But Should It Be?” CNN. Cable News Network, 29 Apr. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017.

Lakhani, Nina. “Surge in Central American Migrants at US Border Threatens Repeat of 2014 Crisis.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 13 Jan. 2016. Web. 06 May 2017.

Miller, Michael E. “She Thought She’d Saved Her Daughter from MS-13 by Smuggling Her to the U.S. She Was Wrong.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 20 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017.

Morse, Dan. “Behind the Rise in Seemingly Chaotic MS-13 Violence: A Structured Hierarchy.”The Washington Post. WP Company, 19 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017.

Olivo, Antonio. “With Gang Recruitment Increasing, Fairfax Police Say Crime Is Up in Every District.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 21 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017.

Renwick, Danielle. “Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, n.d. Web. 07 Sept. 2016.

Scholte, Jan Aart. “Defining Globalisation.” The World Economy (2008): n. pag. Web. 06 May 2017.

Strasburger, Victor C. “Media and Children.” Jama 301.21 (2009): 2265-266. Web. 06 May 2017.

“Trends & Statistics.” NIDA. National Institute on Drug Abuse, 24 Apr. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017.

Valdez, Al. Gangs: A Guide to Understanding Street Gangs. San Clemente, CA: Law Tech Pub., 2005. Print.

Vittori, Jodi. “The Gang’s All Here: The Globalization of Gang Activity.” Journal of Gang Research 14.3 (2007): n. pag. Web. 06 May 2017.

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