Street gangs and organized crime

Peace & Security01 Jan 2007The Broker

The authorities in Central America usually refer to and label street gangs as ‘organized crime’. Although little is known about the criminal activities of gangs, they likely differ considerably from organized crime, which focuses on material gain and therefore has a more hierarchical leadership structure1. The activities of gangs are usually more fragmented, opportunistic and based on individual contacts2. For instance, involvement in the drugs trade is mostly limited to the sale of drugs in and around the neighbourhood of a clique. Only some gang leaders seem to make the step to distribution of drugs, employing members of their clique3. The relationship between street gangs and the drugs mafia is ambivalent. On the one hand ‘narcos’ don’t like the presence of the gangs in the areas of their activity. On the other hand they pay members of street gangs to do particular jobs. The amount of money, firepower and violence controlled by the ‘narcos’ is usually much greater than those of gangs. Street gangs have, however, become much more active in the field of extortion, which they do compete with others, and in some cases even with other cliques. For the victims the situation is chaotic; for instance, a public transport or a distribution company has to pay various cliques whose territory their vehicles cross.


  1. Goldstein, 1991; Moore, 1990.
  2. Klein, 1995.
  3. Savenije, 2009.