Striving for Stability: Combating Transnational Crime to Change Lives

I have not only seen the impact instability has on societies: I have lived through them.

As a student from Guatemala who migrated to the United States, I have experienced firsthand how injustice, violence, and corruption harm lives.

Witnessing those facets of life and society in my home country is a part of my journey that I will never forget. It helped make me who I am, and it has made me aware of how helping other countries not only improves lives overseas, but advances the interests of the United States and its own citizens.

Addressing underlying conditions that drive instability not only makes lives of people in communities around the world better, but also enhances our foreign partnerships. 

That is why the United States is working to fight drugs, violent transnational crime, terrorism, and other threats around the world. Increasing the stability of foreign countries also helps achieve other important American objectives, such as stemming the flow of illegal immigration.

One way the United States does this is through the work of the U.S. Department of States’ International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau (INL). 

INL’s programs help our foreign partners develop justice sector institutions. This is critical, for responsive governments, dynamic economies, and stable social structures, are all built on foundations of good governance and the rule of law. 

These programs touch millions of lives, and while the impact can be told through statistics, such as the number of dollars spent, they are best understood through individual stories of how lives have been changed for the better. Let me share with you a few examples of how INL’s programs are having a positive influence:

Given a Second Chance

In Central America, INL helps break the cycle of youth lured to crime, gangs, and violence using two tactics: employing programs that provide alternatives to incarceration, and programs that help at-risk youth develop marketable skills.

Manuel was born in Villa Nueva, Guatemala in 1992, about 20 miles from where I grew up. By the time he turned seven, Manuel was getting in trouble, and by 13 he was a member of the notorious 18th Street Gang, which was involved in violent and illegal activities, including drug dealing.

After a few years he tried to go home. His mother called the police. He was sentenced by a court, and placed in a halfway house for high risk juveniles called Hogar San Gabriel, or Saint Gabriel’s Home. While tempted to go back to the gang, the support and stability he found at San Gabriel made him stay.

A gang member stands in a cell of a court building in Mixco, Guatemala. (AP Photo)

Upon release, Manuel went to Hands Who Support You (AMA in Spanish), a non-profit organization sponsored by INL. The mission of AMA — which shares it acronym with the Spanish word for “love” — is to provide training, job opportunities, and multidisciplinary support to juveniles. For Manuel however, AMA was more than that. AMA helped Manuel regain a productive place in society, and saved him from the fate of many who return to the streets: a life surrounded by drug addiction, violence, lawlessness, and quite often an early death.

Since then, Manuel has become a manager, and finished his first year of business school. He is an inspiration to other young workers, and is helping them change their lives, multiplying AMA’s impact. Manuel also inspired his family: when Manuel completes his degree, he will be the first in his family to finish college. Through this INL-supported program — which helped end Manuel’s connection to a brutal transnational gang — Manuel and hundreds of others have had a second chance on life, and an opportunity to contribute to the future of Guatemala.

Stopping the Spread of Corruption

Bordering Guatemala is El Salvador, a land also plagued by violent gangs. El Salvador is a dynamic country that has not prospered as it could. One factor hampering its growth is endemic corruption, including graft by street gangs. Extortion is a large source of revenue for gangs, with an estimated $400 million in fees being paid each year. This affects everyone, but small vulnerable retail enterprises, such as restaurants, are hit particularly hard.

This was especially true for Juan, a restaurant owner in San Salvador. In 2014 gang members robbed his restaurant. In order to prevent it from happening again, they told Juan that making “rent” payments could “protect” his restaurant from them.

At the same time INL, working with the U.S. Justice Department and Salvadoran authorities, had established a Business Crimes Task Force to address this problem.

People stand outside a store, as members of the Salvadoran National Police stand guard during an anti-gang raid in San Salvador, El Salvador. [AP Photo]

Juan approached the task force, and methodically they built a case. This included delivering controlled, undercover packages of marked currency for extortion; conducting surveillance; obtaining judicial authorization to intercept telephone calls; and tracing extortion demands to a gang leader in jail. Ultimately, 50 gang members were charged, and their leader was transferred to a maximum security prison. Juan said:

“After the gang leader was transferred, everything has been calm, and the gang has not come back for more money, or caused other problems.”

This task force is now a permanent part of El Salvador’s police structure, and it has an impressive 96 percent conviction rate. It not only takes ill-gotten money away from gangs, or prevents extortion altogether, but makes citizens and small business owners feel safe, allowing them to provide goods, services, and an entrepreneurial spirit to their communities.

Saving the Life of Another

To assist other nations in fighting violent crime, INL has helped national police forces develop vetted, often specialized law enforcement units. This process involves regular integrity reviews to identify individuals susceptible to corruption and illegal behavior, and provides access to special training, tools, and support.

One of these INL-supported and vetted law enforcement units is TIGRES in Honduras. TIGRES takes on SWAT-like missions and are integral to the new, comprehensive Honduran-approach to combating insecurity, protecting people, and countering criminal organizations.

One member of the TIGRES is Leslie. She was vetted and trained as a medic in a nine-week course sponsored by INL. Last September, her unit went into a violent neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Colonia Ciudad España, to arrest members of a violent street gang, and during that mission her training helped save a life.

A man who was injured during a shooting gets emergency medical attention from doctors and nurses in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. [AP Photo]

Using techniques the Hondurans learned in INL training from U.S. and Colombian law enforcement personnel, the TIGRES entered a targeted house, and while clearing two rooms they came under gunfire. Shots were fired by a gang member, and then returned by the TIGRES. A man was down, and Leslie was called.

Leslie found the wounded individual on the floor, bleeding profusely. He was a gang member and his right pant leg was soaked with blood. Leslie took out her scissors and cut through the man’s pants after which she discovered the man had been shot in the femur and was bleeding out. The man had lost so much blood that he would have died without Leslie who was able to stop the bleeding thanks to her training.

At the ambulance, the doctor looked at the dressing and said it was the best pressure dressing he had ever seen. Leslie was proud of her work and said:

“The training has been extremely important-not only was I able to save a life, but I learned to respond effectively to emergency situations in the future.”

Before leaving him, Leslie told the wounded gang member: 

“Danielito, do you know who is taking care of you? He said ‘the police.’ I said to him, no, not just the police, the TIGRES. We take care of each other when we’re hurt. We take care of civilians when they’re hurt. And we will take care of gang members when they are hurt. Remember that.” 

The compassion and responsiveness of Leslie is a great example of the professionalism and commitment to duty we seek to transmit and instill in all of our partners and in the organizations we work with throughout the hemisphere and across the world.

Taking Another, Better Path in Peru

Peru is the largest producer of cocaine in the world. Among the top coca-growing regions in Peru are the mountainous inland area called Sivia, where Joel was raised.

Joel’s family, like many in Sivia, was involved in drug trafficking. From a young age Joel participated in transporting drugs through the rugged terrain. These “backpackers” described it as “getting dirty” because they knew the work was illegal and dangerous. Joel wanted to take a different path. He heard about an INL-sponsored program called the Center of Information and Education for the Prevention of Drug Abuse (CEDRO is its Spanish abbreviation), and six years ago when representatives from the center visited his school, he got involved.

Joel, now 24, works in agricultural cooperative producing locally grown organic products. Originally supported by CEDRO, the business is now self-sufficient. Joel is also leading efforts to recover his community’s culture and spaces in it lost to drug trafficking. He does this by training others, leading programs promoting entrepreneurship, encouraging law enforcement cooperation, and through community outreach programs such as Talentos del Barrio, a sports project.

A man uses the bottom half of his shirt to collect coca leaves in Samugari, Peru. [AP Photo]

Many of these activities are funded by INL through CEDRO as part of a program called Building Legality and the Rule of Law, which is active in Sivia and over a dozen Peruvian high-risk communities. The program focuses on activities, including joint community-police outreach initiatives with more than 800 community leaders like Joel, touching the lives of more than 6,000 young Peruvians each year.

Joel, Leslie, Juan, and Manuel, are four among tens of thousands directly impacted by INL programs. Their stories are proof of how the United States is forging more stable, just, and compassionate societies. That change is good for individuals, good for our foreign partners, and good for the United States. 

Not only does this important work improve our nation’s image, it bolsters our security and reinforces our core values that the world so admires. This work and its positive impact is one more reason why I am so proud to be an American and to represent the American people wherever I go.

About the Author: Luis Arreaga serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

Editor's Note: This blog also appears on Medium.com.

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Former gang members listen to speeches during an event aimed at rehabilitating gang members in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Posted by Luis E. Arreaga
January 20, 2016

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