Washington DC Peace & Security Forum

Washington DC Forum: Transnational Crime and Gang Violence

Washington DC, USA - "Transnational Crime and Gang Violence," was the topic of a Dec. 11 forum organized by UPF's Office of Peace and Security Affairs in Washington, DC.

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Transnational crime and gang violence have been around for generations, but because of its growing membership and globalization, gangs have become increasingly affiliated with international criminal networks. Two predominantly Hispanic gangs — Calle 18 and Mara Salvatrucha – are linked to more than 200,000 members in Mexico and Central America and have expanded across the United States to major cities and rural communities, according to the Heritage Foundation. Transnational crime and gang violence threatens the world financial system through corruption and exploitation. The World Bank estimates about $1 trillion is spent each year to bribe public officials. Hardly a country in the world is immune to its tentacles. Organized crime in Europe, Middle East, Russia and China includes drug trafficking, money laundering, human trafficking, extortion, and murder for hire. Criminal operations engage in corruption, black marketeering, terrorism, abduction, arms trafficking, and even smuggling of radioactive substances.

Transnational crime and gang violence is a huge and complicated problem. Policymakers are coming to recognize the need for a paradigm shift to look at the root causes and to build an integrative and comprehensive approach which brings together action elements at all levels of society: community, state, national, and international. While the debate continues over how to deal with the numerous criminal manifestations of transnational crime and gang violence, there must be a concerted effort to get to the causes. Poverty, breakdown of the family, jobs and welfare dependence top the list. Without an understanding of the root causes, sound policymaking is impossible. A two-pronged approach is needed: “Hard power” utilizing the police and military; and “soft power,” emphasizing solutions centered on universal spiritual and moral values.

To understand and act on the root causes, the globalized world needs a paradigm shift. It is the work of governments in concert with the UN to create that paradigm shift -- one that brings new "playing field rules" that are signed by all governments and that will facilitate the work at all levels in the countries of the world. Global problems demand global solutions and global allocation of resources, human and otherwise. 

Welcome Remarks by Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director, Office of Peace and Security Affairs, Washington, DC-UPF International

This is our second conference on Transnational Crime, the previous one, more than a year ago dealt with the role of transnational crime and the destabilization of Central American democracies. Today's theme, “Transnational Crime and Gang Violence” brings this subject again to light. Because of globalization and its growing membership, gangs have become increasingly affiliated with international criminal networks.

There are the traditional transnational organized crime groups with operations in the United States, such as the Mafia, the Chinese Triad Society, Russian Mafia, Yakuza, and the Sicilian Mafia. Ethnic-based gangs include the Asians, East Africans (Sudanese, Ethiopian and Somali,) and the Caribbean ethnic-based gangs -- Dominican, Haitian, and Jamaican gangs.

Transnational crime and gang violence threatens the life, health and the economies of individuals, families, neighborhoods, and entire communities in the US and many countries. It diminishes the quality of life of cities and countries, and it threatens the world financial system and the democratic system through corruption and exploitation. The World Bank estimates about $1 trillion is spent each year to bribe public officials.

Complicating factors include:

- Globalization has expanded international trade and broadened the range of organized crime activities.
- A growing labor force is available from the unemployed and underemployed, youth gangs, and soldiers laid off by their countries’ armies – all eager to grab an opportunity for quick money.
- Many governments are ill-equipped, both financially and politically, to deal with these situations.

These and many other factors have strengthened the grasp these criminal organizations have on our nation and countries around the world and have crippled law enforcement entities, government efforts, and business and investment at all levels. 

Our moderator, Cynthia Turner, is a founding member and the Executive Director of Seraphim GLOBAL, a 501(c)3 organization formed in 1996 to improve the health, education and socio-economic opportunities for vulnerable and disadvantaged populations with emphasis on the empowerment of women around the world. 

On behalf of the Universal Peace Federation, I welcome you all and now invite Cynthia to begin her duties as moderator.

There was a lively two-hour discussion led by the moderator. The following summary and excerpts encapsulate the general issues surrounding the subject. This rough transcription should NOT be seen as a full representation of their spoken views. Not all participants are quoted below either to avoid redundancy or in respect to their wishes.

Cynthia Turner welcomed the forum participants. “It is a wonderful opportunity to be here. There are experts here who will address the issue from the perspective of their respective arenas. Transnational Crime and Gang Violence has been around since the beginnings of humanity. Criminals have always looked for ways to organize themselves and look for more effective ways to get what they want. The composition of gangs in the 50s and 60s has changed dramatically, and certainly in the 70s and 80s. In El Salvador, we’ve seen first hand the increasing numbers of young people and women used as messengers for arms and human trafficking. Those gangs moved to the United States. In my travels I’m surprised that people around the world know gangs because of Al Capone’s worldwide reputation. It’s sadly alarming our culture has had such a direct impact on the world. There are more than 30,000 violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs with about 1.4 million members criminally active in the U.S. today, mostly in urban areas but proliferating in rural and suburban areas, fueled by pressure from law enforcement to look for new and lucrative markets. According to Juvenile Justice Bulletin, 86% of U.S. cities with a population of 100,000 or more report gang activity. This is happening not only in the US, but Central America, China, and Japan. One of the things we need to understand is the relationship between transnational organizations and street gangs.”

Dr. Evan Ellis, Associate Professor, National Defense University: “This is an international problem. The origins of these violent gangs: Mara Salvatruchas (MS-18) and Barrio 18 have to do with US immigration policies of deporting noncitizen criminals to their countries of origin. The result is an increase of gang membership in Central America and the US. Deportation has no deterrence on criminal activity. Much of the violent activity in Central America is modeled after what they see in US, whether from reality or how it is portrayed on the media.”

Laura Lederer, President, Global Centurion Foundation: “The work that I've done is training of foreign nationals with the 37 Western Hemisphere countries as part of a series of workshops on sex trafficking and labor trafficking and its link to its immigration issues. Illegal immigration, violent transnational crimes and the foreign national militaries are often called to link up with the police. They need to be trained in how to address some of the internal problems in other countries. The growing links between street gangs, criminal networks, international cartels and syndicates and the ways in which they used to be contained in various regions are now quite international. With China, the ways that these routes into various countries is really astonishing. We think of street gangs as loosely unorganized kids coming together on the street. That's really no longer what's happening. They’re very organized, sophisticated and more linked internationally with the criminal network, if not Mafia. They're more organized than governments and criminal justice systems.”

The moderator pointed out that “at the OAS international meeting there was a recommendation that instead of incarcerating gang members they be enlisted into the military.” A participant pointed out that “Al-Qaeda pays youth $100 a month to put out improvised explosive devices (IED). Why don’t we hire them to do building works? Constant incarceration for traffickers and gang young is not getting us anywhere. Kids are put in jail and learn the tricks of the trade. We have not come up with any solutions.”

Dr. Evan Ellis: “Some level of military interaction is a potential piece to consider. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have immigration issues and lack economic opportunities. There is real danger in the streets. We need to understand how and why gangs operate. Identify youth at risk. Create safe options for getting out of gangs. Prisons have become incubators for gang activity. The criminal justice system including everything from police to prisons faces significant challenges. There’s a whole system to consider. If we attack just one aspect of transnational crime then we’re actually making it worse.”

Cynthia Turner: “The prison population is separate and distinct. It’s surprising the level of sophistication how these gangs achieve their goals, even the level of identification. The use of tattoos was very important to the gang. It’s not the case anymore. It’s changing. It’s not as readily visible as they used to be. Tattoos were a clear indication of the relationship of that person to a gang. That's not the case anymore. Infiltration is at all levels in the political and economic system. This is an election year in El Salvador. We are concerned about this. The current administration has not been successful with managing and providing real economic opportunities. One of the suggestions is to use the mayor's program to fight violent gang crime, which has been successful in some America cities, and use it as a model in Central America. We’re concerned about the recruitment of women into gangs. What mental and physical health issues do they face in that environment?”

Dr. Fred Bemak, Director, Mental Health Services, SeraphimGLOBAL: “We really have to look at the full picture. Taking a small piece is just not enough. Funding is limited. Must take into consideration other factors – family’s economic situation, community, and vocational opportunities. We need a much more comprehensive approach. How do we change our funding? The recidivism rates? Levels of incarceration? We’re doing a disservice if we go down the same road to the same place. How do we rethink these issues? The gangs are evolving. They’re changing. Much more sophisticated. We’re not up to speed with them. We haven't caught up with them. We’d better go back and rethink it rather than just funnel money into the same programs.”

The moderator said, “How do you deal with teens in a gang environment who come from broken families, and who have grown up in an environment of violence, anger, and rage? One of the things of interest to me is the relationship between gang violence and cyber technology.”

Arben Hanelli, Police Attaché, Albanian Embassy: “There are no orders, no nationalities in gangs and organized crime. They know phone numbers and work through social media. The rules of engagement have changed. Modern technology and computers help them very much to be more organized and more transnational. Within this framework, it is not just a law enforcement issue; it’s a social and civilian issue.”

Dr. Patricia Escamilla-Hamm, Associate Professor, National Defense University: “Gangs are becoming more and more sophisticated. They’re not the neighborhood gangs like in the 50s. Gangs are not as capable as organized crime and transnational criminal organizations that we refer to as cartels. Gangs are part of the support and supply chain of the network. They provide services to organized crime that helps accomplish these endeavors. Gangs are not drug traffickers. They may be retailers. They sell drugs in the streets but the distance between cartels and gangs is huge. They are related but they are not the same.”

Computer crime and cybercrime are one of the most worrisome illicit activities. Issues include child pornography, stealing confidential information. Cybercrime in the US is estimated to cost $100 billion annually. Extortion schemes are in many ways cooked inside jails in US and Mexico. Gangs use the Internet to extort. They use the social media. Everyone around the table today has received an email asking for money, or claiming to be stranded. This is an activity done by gangs as part of cybercrime and organized crime.

Javier Saavedra, Outreach and Engagement Coordinator, Identity Inc.: “I am a counselor with Identity, Inc., a community program for Latino youth at risk in Montgomery and Prince George’s County, MD. Initially I was a client. I was a gang member but Identity gave me an opportunity. They removed my tattoos. Now I don't have any tattoos. I used to have teardrop tattoos on my face and more on my arms. Now I’m a counselor and work with youth aged 13 to 25. I do gang intervention. I talk with the gangs and the problems they face. We have a program at Blair High School in Montgomery County. Kids are targeted by gangs. They get involved to protect themselves especially those new immigrants. These kids don't know their rights, they don’t know their way around. They are afraid, experience fear and discrimination. They want a better life. I took a group to the museums in DC. They said I'd never thought I would have an opportunity to do this. They don't have a mom at home. Mom works three jobs. We don't have a lot of girls. Many times youth start hanging with a friend not realizing they are taking a side and become a member just by association.”

Dr. Fred Bemak: “There are certain pluses to be in a gang (a sense of belonging). So I have to ask myself the question whenever I work with kids—“What am I bringing to the table that is going to take you out of this situation which you perceive as a positive life experience? What do I have that is better?”

Dr. Aaron Adade, Statistician, US Department of Treasury: “We need to target the issues that these young people deal with. We shouldn’t focus on a single portion or issue. It’s like a cancer that requires a multidisciplinary approach. We must get to the root of the problem, and not just deal with the branches.”

Cynthia Turner: “A common denominator boils down to a sense of belonging and connection. We need to look and begin addressing this common denominator. In Guatemala and El Salvador, gangs are lowering the age of recruitment. Children are recruited to transport drugs. Let’s look at the environment and the relationship with human trafficking, gang violence, broken families, lack of connection, protection, abuse. A holistic approach takes into account the relationship of the child to the mother and family.”

Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director, Office of Peace and Security Affairs-Washington, DC: “We are experiencing a transition from the 20th to the 21st-century society -- globally from the level of the UN to the level of the neighborhood. It is basically the collapsing of two ideological systems -- the socialist one and capitalist one, which both show signs of being exhausted. The Soviet system collapsed in 1991. China decided to have a capitalist command economy. The traditional capitalistic system showed it's intrinsic limitations in 2008. These changes have affected two thirds of humanity. Neither system has an answer or is capable to resolve the problem of the masses of the world -- the problems that come with globalization, the enormous unemployment especially in the developing world, and limited opportunities for the world's poor. The UN needs to create new "rules for the playing field" in the globalized world.

"From the Universal Peace Federation perspective, in trying to fulfill the legacy of our founder, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, we see the need for a new global logic and a new global ethical system. One that is beyond religion and yet takes into consideration the universal values that spring from religion -- the ones that have worked effectively in creating the contract between the government and the governed, giving to the maximum of the world’s populations their freedoms, dignity and human rights since 1776 (not perfect since it is a work in progress). Reverend Moon, speaking at the UN in 2000, proposed the creation of an Inter-religious Council at the UN -- one that would embark on a serious dialogue with the governments of the world, from an inter-religious perspective studying how to create a new universal logic and ethics for the emerging globalization, one that is capable to create a unified global family of brothers and sisters. The values of true love, which is to live for the sake of others, would be the principle behind that new logic and ethics, lending true meaning to the concept of "global citizenry."

“The meaning of citizenship and the rights of a citizen, as we know it today, were totally alien prior to 1776. It was in this USA, that religious people from different backgrounds through a secular dialogue with a future government in mind, created the most advanced contract and playing field rules between government and governed. They created a concept of a new citizen that still is going on today and will continue into the future.

“The UN with the collaboration of key countries of the world in a dialogue with the world’s religions have to create new playing field rules for the world. Only with those new playing field rules can we address effectively the traditional problems that have afflicted humanity since time immemorial, problems that are now global in scope, such as the one we are addressing today -- Transnational Crime and Gang Violence. The only organization that is responsible for the global world and the problems of globalization is the UN. The Universal Peace Federation will continue to help facilitate that encounter and dialogue between the UN and the roster of government members of that institution to create the new playing field rules for the world, one that responds and resonates with the universal aspirations of all the world’s citizens.” 

Cassandra Lucaccioni, Policy Analyst for the Western Hemisphere, Heritage Foundation: “We hope to put together a couple of conferences on this subject. One of the things we don't know about is how are we going to stop it at the global level if we only look at it locally. If we only look at the symptoms then you'll never figure out how to treat the actual disease, the cancer, you’ll never get to the larger problem. Just throwing money at the problem is clearly not the answer. I'm originally from Chicago. There is an idolized view of Al Capone. The view of organized crime has not changed all that much. They give you clothing, fancy cars, material possessions, and status. Drugs are brought to the country and sold at inflated amounts. This is not a new phenomenon. Its been going on for hundreds of years. We have to start at the local and state levels and see what communities can do. Chicago is a small city and is bordered by Lake Michigan. There are no geographical division. The south side has now been overrun by gangs. My personal opinion is that Chicago is not looking how to solve it at the ground level. Increasing the number of law enforcement officers will only encourage more resistance. What is needed is to restructure, to bring back communities and organizations and to let them function on their own.”

The moderator shared some important statistics. “According to the criminal justice statistics, Hispanics account for 47% of all U.S. gang members, African-Americans for 34%, whites for 13%, and Asians for 6%. Gang crime costs taxpayers and crime victims over $2 billion a year.”

Dr. Aaron Adade: “Someone said that gang members are looking for some sort of identity. Could we find a way to identify their needs and find healthy directions to fill that need? If someone joins a gang to get money then let’s give them jobs. If I join a gang to have nice clothes, get me a job in a clothing store. Let’s think outside the box and respond to their needs in a constructive way.”

Javier Saavedra pointed out that employers tend not to hire young people with a tattoo. Tattoos show gang membership and have coded meanings.

Dr. Felicia Buadoo-Adade, director of Women and Children’s Affairs, Medical Service Corporation International (MSCI)/SeraphimGLOBAL: “During the discussion, participants shared many different reasons why young people join gangs and are attracted to identifiable leadership and internal organizations. While reasons shared stem from the notion ofprotection, recognition, socialization, and other common interest, the negativity and experiences associated with gang activity put young people, especially children, at risk and is unsettling. Young and younger youth, including children of kindergarten age, are being recruited as gang members. This is devastating and brings to mind the question – where are the parents? Our role is to find strategies that inspire decent moral value, character, and ethical principles that our children deserve and which would serve to reduce and eliminate gang activity.One suggestion is to ensure that women of child bearing age play a critical role in nurturing young people before, during and after motherhood/parenting. Directing efforts at providing support for mothers to help them become the best parent they can be is an important part of the solution.”

Dr. Patricia Escamilla-Hamm: “The history of gangs goes back to the early 1800s with immigrant groups -- English, Irish and German. These early gangs were not exclusively engaged in criminal activity; their members often were employed as common laborers. In the late 1800s, there were gangs made up of Chinese immigrants, and the Italian organized crime network. These groups were marginalized from mainstream society and suffered from poverty, but what distinguishes them from contemporary gangs is they entered the country legally. It makes a huge difference being legal or illegal. It influences your identity, your sense of who you are, self-confidence – it makes a difference whether you to need to join gangs for protection or to take advantage of opportunities open to you. Today’s immigrants feel isolated and rejected.”

Dr. Evan Ellis: “The concept of family is an important universal value. It’s difficult to work with gangs who operate within a different structure. How do you change values if you don't see an immediate payoff? It takes generations. It’s important to recognize the interdependence between gangs and cartels. There is a supply chain. Cartels depend on gangs to move drugs in the local markets. It’s part of the dilemma that we need to put attention on gang recidivism, and at the same time, recognize there are many pieces to the puzzle. Studies show that gang affiliation was a significant influence. The time between release and re-arrest is about four months. How to change this negative cycle?”

Dr. Fred Bemak: “A key component is how do we rescue these people to leave their lifestyles and get their needs met? How can we provide something that's equitable for those values especially when there is a sense of security, sense of belonging in the gangs. Funding falls way short. If we go into the field and help them go in for a job interview but then they discriminated against because of their race, background; if they don’t speak fluent English and get ridiculed by peers; they have a different sense of time so they come late; come back from lunch late -- all this is happening in ways that are very disruptive and disheartening. I ask myself, “why am I doing this? I'm getting a lot of negative heat. I'm trying so hard but I couldn’t get out in the morning because there was a fight in my neighborhood. I had to attend to that. I had to take care of my friends.” These issues become prohibitive. We have a McDonald's mentality to hurry up and change. We have to look at what we have to do now and not feel we’re dead in the water or running in circles.”

Cassandra Lucaccioni: “Part of the issue is those sentenced for repeat minor offenses going to a high-security prison. It's a breeding ground. Not only do they learn everything by watching, but they have to affiliate themselves with a particular group for protection. When they come out they have gained a storehouse of knowledge, which they bring into the street. They’re hoping this knowledge will help them find a job, but the institutions are not willing to accept them.”

Cynthia Turner: “We all have a role to play. We need to be more culturally sensitive and educated about the mindset of former gang members trying to move forward. The situation in Somalia is interesting. It’s a combination of gangs and transnational violence. It was colonialized by Italy and England. After WWII, Italy relinquished control and Somalia was given to the United Nations. In 1960, Somalia was granted independence. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports organized criminal networks operating in the region are involved in human trafficking, ivory poaching, and drug trafficking. Somali maritime piracy, fueled by regional conflict and poverty, was estimated at $150 million in 2011.”

Laura Lederer: “We need to make a paradigm shift to look at the root causes. We need to step up efforts at the level of the local community. Each program needs to arise organically from the local community in coordination with state and federal programs. We find some organizations operating at the community level dealing with human trafficking and think they can do everything and be the be all to everything. It's not true. You can have one federal response. You need a local response. What's been effective about this forum is the recognition how far we have come and what do we do next -- and make that paradigm shift. We need to prioritize to help people understand how to be more effective with the funding that we have. We need a larger strategy.”

Dr. William Selig, Deputy Director, Office of Peace and Security Affairs-Washington, DC: “Transnational crime is a huge problem. I resonate with Dr. Adade who described it as a cancer. There are more than a 100 different types of cancer. They multiply without control and are able to invade other parts of the body. I serve as a chaplain in the oncology unit at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda. There are 4 treatments for cancer: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and biologic therapies. In the war against transnational crime and gang violence, the UPF favors a multifaceted approach which integrates hard and soft power solutions with emphasis on marriage and family.”

Luis Aparicio, Political Counselor, Embassy of El Salvador: “El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States, Rubén Zamora has spoken on this issue. In March 2012, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) declared a truce. These gangs got their start in Southern California. Barrio 18 came into existence as an offshoot of a Chicano gang called Clanton 14 around the 1950s, while Mara Salvatrucha began primarily with Salvadorans and Hondurans in the late ’70s. In the late 1980s, a bloody war exploded between the gangs on the streets of Southern California. Few people in Central America even knew they existed — until the US government began deporting gang members there in the 1980s and ’90s. According to President Mauricio Funes, there are an estimated 60,000 gang members in El Salvador, a country of just over six million inhabitants. The government has taken this as an opportunity. We need the cooperation of US agencies particularly for the creation of jobs. The US gives trade concessions to countries which offer cheap labor like Vietnam, instead of your neighbors to the South. El Salvador also needs economic assistance to develop our maritime industry and trade.”

Arben Hanelli: “I have been a policeman in Albania for 33 years. I have seen many changes. We are living in a time of globalization. It is very important to cooperate not just information but also share our experiences to deal with this dangerous activity in a coordinated front.”

Dr. Evan Ellis: “We need to redefine our concepts of global especially in this era of global calling cards and computers. People living in El Salvador feel closer to their friends and relatives living in America than those living geographically closer. This aspect of intimacy in international relations did not previously exist. Changing technology is allowing the world to come together in ways we never imagined.”

Min. Chi Mauuso, Clergy, Christian Outreach Center for Deliverance and Washington Family Church: “This subject and the discussion have touched my heart deeply. It’s hard to express my feelings because this week there was an act of violence just a few doors from my home. The death of my neighbor due to gang violence has left me emotionally exhausted and has devastated the sense of security in our neighborhood.”


Transnational crime and gang violence is a huge and complicated problem. Policymakers are coming to recognize the need for an integrative and comprehensive approach, which brings together a response at all levels of society: community, state, national, and international. While the debate continues over how to deal with the numerous criminal manifestations of transnational crime and gang violence, there must be a concerted effort to get to the causes. Poverty, breakdown of the family, jobs and welfare dependence top the list. Without an understanding of the root causes, sound policymaking is impossible.

To understand and act on the root causes, the globalized world needs as was mentioned earlier, a paradigm shift. It is the work of governments in concert with the UN to create that paradigm shift -- one that brings a new "playing field rule" that is signed by all governments and that will facilitate the work at all levels in the countries of the world. Global problems demand global solutions and global allocations of resources, human and otherwise.


Dr. Aaron Adade, Statistician, US Department of Treasury
Luis Aparicio, Political Counselor, Embassy of El Salvador
Dr. Fred Bemak, Director, Mental Health Services, SeraphimGLOBAL
Dr. Felicia Buadoo-Adade, Director of Women and Children’s Affairs, Medical Service Corporation International (MSCI)/SeraphimGLOBAL
Lt. Col. Richard Drew, fellow, Special Forces US Army War College, Georgetown University
Dr. Evan Ellis, Associate Professor, National Defense University
Dr. Patricia Escamilla-Hamm, Associate Professor, National Defense University
Prof. Diane Falk, research writer and editor
Arben Hanelli, Police Attaché, Albanian Embassy
Laura Lederer, President, Global Centurion Foundation
Cassandra Lucaccioni, Policy Analyst for the Western Hemisphere, Heritage Foundation
Min. Chi Mauuso, Clergy, Christian Outreach Center for Deliverance and Washington Family Church.
William Reed, President, Black Press Foundation
Javier Saavedra, Outreach and Engagement Coordinator, Identity Inc.
Cynthia Turner, Executive Director, SeraphimGLOBAL
Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director, Office of Peace and Security Affairs-Washington, DC
Dr. William Selig, Deputy Director, Office of Peace and Security Affairs-Washington, DC

Thomas McDevitt, President, The Washington Times


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