A forum at George Mason University gathered a dozen academic, media and policy experts to discuss the complex nexus of migration, gangs, and the resulting challenges to homeland security.
The four-hour forum, called “Migration, Homeland Security, and Gangs” drew an audience of more than 100 to the MIX on Mason’s Fairfax Campus on Oct. 24. The discussion was sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security’s Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis Center of Excellence (CINA), and Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
“As we are pursuing evidence-based approaches to help our government address crucial issues of national security, it is essential for us to better understand the complex processes that drive and sometimes link migration and gang activities,” CINA Director Anthony Stefanidis said.
Several messages came into focus in the event.
Oscar Martinez, an award-winning author and reporter for the Latin American digital newspaper El Faro, and a recognized authority on the subject of Latin American gangs, discussed common misconceptions regarding the operations of these gangs. He emphasized the fact that MS-13 in the US and in Latin America should not be viewed as a single gang, but rather as separate operational entities that occasionally collaborate but remain at large separate entities. Furthermore, while MS-13 deals in drugs, it does not operate as a drug cartel and should not be viewed as such.
Adam Isacson, from the Washington Office on Latin America, emphasized the role of prisons as fertile grounds for the recruitment and training of gang members, and the complex relationship between transnational crime and gangs.
InSight Crime’s Hector Silva addressed the importance of solutions to the gang problem at local levels, similar to how Fairfax and other communities addressed the MS-13 issue.
“Forced migration from Central America seems to be as much an economic and human problem as it is a security problem,” said Professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera. “Sometimes focusing solely on the security aspects of this issue may obscure the root causes of this complex phenomenon. Extreme poverty and violence are at the core of an appropriate explanation.”
In the same direction, Professor Jose Miguel Cruz, a CINA-sponsored researcher at Florida International University, discussed the potential role of remittances sent from migrants back to their home countries as a stabilizing factor for these local economies, which in turn may be alleviating the need to migrate.
Regarding gangs such as MS-13 and how they are portrayed, “we must adopt a holistic and historical perspective to the fully grasp the issue of gang violence both in the U.S. and in Central America,” Professor Mariely López-Santana said.
Ron Nixon, of the New York Times, discussed the role of today’s fast-paced media environment on shaping public perceptions of these complex issues. Professor Jim Witte, director of Mason’s Institute for Immigration Research, observed that “The incorporation of social media speculation into mainstream media reporting influences perception.”
The event was organized in two panel sessions. Participants in the first session, which addressed the causes and challenges of migration around the world, but particularly in Central America, included Ron Nixon; Adam Isacson; Maria Sacchetti from the Washington Post; Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute; and moderator Celina Realuyo of the National Defense University. Witte served as discussant.
The second session, “Gangs and National Security,” featured José Miguel Cruz; Óscar Martínez; Hector Silva; and moderator Clare Seelke from the Congressional Research Service. CINA Science Committee member, Schar School professor, and director of Mason’s TraCCC Center Louise Shelley was discussant.