Indiana State University Newsroom



Conference on gangs shares information on global problem

April 21, 2009

Three speakers at the Conference on Central American Gangs, hosted by Indiana State University's department of criminology and criminal justice, traced the evolution of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, the gangs' effect on El Salvador and gangs in the prison system during the two-day conference at Indiana State University.

Dave Skelton, department chair, said the department plans to host a conference on a yearly basis about different topics.

"We want to be a bridge between the academic and real worlds," he said in opening the conference held April 2-3.

This year, the department focused on the growth of gangs, especially MS-13 and 18th Street. MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, and 18th Street are known as two of the most dangerous gangs in America, and are thought to have more than 10,000 members in the United States, Mexico and Central America.

"Suppose we were all doctors," Al Valdez told the law enforcement and criminal justice professionals gathered for the conference. "If we couldn't define the disease then we couldn't treat it. We don't have one (a definition) for gangs."

Valdez, retired as the gang unit supervisor from the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and adjunct professor at the University of California at Irvine, then took attendees through a short history lesson so they could understand the formation of the Latino gangs in California. The gangs began in response to class distinction, bias and racism, he said giving separate examples that led up to gangs of today.

Although MS-13 is thought of as a Salvadoran gang, it actually began in Los Angeles.

"Salvadorans got tired of getting beat up by the 18th Street members," Valdez said. "By 1992 it was a big battle."

Into that battle, the Mexican Mafia -- a powerful prison gang also known as La eMe -- stepped in and set boundaries for the two gangs, and Mara Salvatrucha added the numeral 13 to its name in honor of the Mexican Mafia who use the 13 -- the place M falls in the alphabet -- as a symbol. The United States deportation policy sent Salvadoran gang members back to El Salvador, where the gang continued to grow.

"I think as a society we ignore red flags with gangs," Valdez said. "They did that in California. Now, LA is considered the gang capital of the nation. It's difficult for parents to say my kid has a problem, for communities to say we have a problem. It's difficult for community leaders to say we have a problem because they're politicians."

The two gangs have spread beyond the U.S., Mexico and Central America to across the globe.

"It's not an Indiana problem. It's not a California problem. It's not an El Salvador problem," Valdez said. "It's a global problem."

Carlos Ponce, director of the Center for Criminology and Police Sciences with El Salvador's National Civil Police, spoke about the impact of the 18th Street and MS-13 gangs on his country. In the country of 5.2 million people, there were 3,172 homicides last year, which is a rate of 55 per 100,000 people. Comparably, in the United States, the homicide rate is 5 per 100,000 people.

"We are significantly above what World Health Organization considers an epidemic," said Ponce, who is an ISU alumnus. "Just as of yesterday, we're 300 homicides up from last year."

The speakers said although gangs are usually delineated by the color of skin, the most common color for them is green -- they have evolved into groups that make millions of dollars a year. In addition to selling drugs, Ponce said the gangs are moving to other crimes including kidnapping for ransom, DVD bootlegging, extortion and car thefts.

Ponce discussed the structure of the gangs in El Salvador as well as the police response to the gangs.

"We as a police force have made effective cases against gang leaders and hard core gang members," he said. "In a jail search we found a letter where they were worried because 95 percent of their leaders were in prison."

In closing the conference on Friday (April 3), Rick Veach, who recently retired as warden of the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, spoke about gangs in prison.

"In Terre Haute, we had an estimated 1,500 prisoners in the penitentiary. We had about 150 confirmed GDs (Gangster Disciples, a black street gang) and 200 associates. That's a dominate force to have on your yard."

Those entering the prison system usually align themselves with a group because to stand alone is to be considered prey, said Veach, who is an ISU alumnus. He noted as looked around the room that even in a non-prison environment, people sat with those they knew.

"It's human instinct to associate with people you feel comfortable with, especially in stressful situations," he said.

Veach urged those working in prisons to become aware of ways to identify gang members through tattoos, symbols, colors, hand signs, court documents or membership documents.

"The only way we can win this is to share information with different agencies -- quite frankly, we don't do that too well," he said.

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Contact: David Polizzi , Indiana State University, assistant professor of criminal justice, at dpolizzi@indstate.edu or 812-237-2192.

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at jennifer.sicking@indstate.edu or 812-237-7972.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/504051347_4KmpT-L.jpg 

Cutline: Carlos Ponce, director of the Center for Criminology and Police Sciences with El Salvador's National Civil Police, spoke about the impact of the 18th Street and MS-13 gangs on his country during the conference on gangs at Indiana State University. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/503965050_svDQB-L.jpg 

Cutline: Al Valdez, retired as the gang unit supervisor from the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and adjunct professor at the University of California at Irvine, discussed the creation and history of gangs in California. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem

 

Story Highlights

Three speakers at the Conference on Central American Gangs, hosted by Indiana State Universitys department of criminology and criminal justice, traced the evolution of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, the gangs effect on El Salvador and gangs in the prison system during the two-day conference at Indiana State University.

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