Combating Gangs:

Federal Agencies Have Implemented a Central American Gang Strategy, but Could Strengthen Oversight and Measurement of Efforts

GAO-10-395: Published: Apr 23, 2010. Publicly Released: Apr 23, 2010.

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Thousands of gang members in the United States belong to gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street that are also active in Central American countries. Federal entities with responsibilities for addressing Central American gangs include the National Security Council (NSC); the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Justice (DOJ), and State; and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). GAO was asked to review federal efforts to combat transnational gangs. This report addresses (1) the extent to which the federal government has developed a strategy to combat these gangs, and (2) how federal agencies have implemented the strategy and other programs to combat these gangs, coordinated their actions, and assessed their results. GAO examined federal agencies' antigang plans, resources, and measures; interviewed federal, state, and local officials in seven localities representing varying population sizes and geographic regions; and interviewed U.S. and foreign officials in El Salvador and Guatemala where U.S. agencies have implemented antigang programs. The results of these interviews are not generalizable.

The NSC, in conjunction with State, DOJ, DHS, and USAID, developed a strategy to combat gangs with connections to Central America; however, the strategy lacks an approach or framework to oversee implementation and performance goals and measures to assess progress. GAO previously reported that characteristics such as defining the problem to be addressed as well as the scope and methodology of the strategy; describing agencies' activities, roles, and responsibilities; providing an approach to oversee implementation; and establishing performance measures, among other characteristics, can enhance a strategy's effectiveness. While the antigang strategy contains some of these characteristics, such as identifying the problems and risks associated with the gangs, describing the scope and purpose of the strategy, and defining roles and responsibilities of federal agencies as well as specific implementation activities, it lacks other characteristics such as an approach for overseeing implementation and goals and measures for assessing progress. For example, although agencies coordinate the strategy's implementation through an interagency task force, agency officials reported that this task force does not oversee the strategy's implementation and that no entity exercises oversight responsibility for the strategy's implementation. Similarly, while State and USAID are developing measures to assess the outcomes of their antigang programs, these measures do not encompass all programs under the strategy or track results of the strategy as a whole. Incorporating these characteristics could enhance the accountability of agencies to implement the strategy and provide a means for assessing progress. To carry out the strategy and combat transnational gangs, federal agencies have implemented programs and taken steps to coordinate their actions and develop performance measures to assess results of individual programs; but, coordination could be strengthened in an antigang unit in El Salvador by reaching agreement on Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) role in the unit, the only such unit currently in Central America. Agencies use various interagency groups to coordinate with each other, such as DOJ's Anti-gang Coordination Committee. However, improved coordination at the FBI-initiated antigang unit in El Salvador could enhance information sharing. While the FBI requests information directly from Salvadoran police, ICE requests go to its country attache, then to FBI agents at the unit who pass it on to Salvadoran police, as ICE does not have an agent at the unit. Prior GAO work has shown that agencies should facilitate information sharing and look for opportunities to leverage resources. Although FBI and ICE officials agree that the process could be improved by posting an ICE agent at the unit and have been discussing the possibility since 2008, they have not yet reached agreement on ICE's role. By reaching agreement, the FBI and ICE could strengthen coordination and information sharing. While agencies have established measures to assess programs, as some of the programs are just starting, data collection for many measures is in the early stages.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To strengthen oversight and accountability for implementation of the Strategy to Combat the Threat of Criminal Gangs from Central America and Mexico (the Strategy), the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, in conjunction with DOJ, DHS, State, USAID, and DOD, should revise the Strategy to include, or include in the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) if the Strategy is incorporated into that initiative an approach or framework for overseeing implementation of the Strategy and antigang efforts in Central America.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: National Security Council

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO provided the National Security Council with a copy of the report. As of June 2014, the Council had not provided GAO with any comments on the status of this recommendation or plans, if any, to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To strengthen oversight and accountability for implementation of the Strategy to Combat the Threat of Criminal Gangs from Central America and Mexico (the Strategy), the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, in conjunction with DOJ, DHS, State, USAID, and DOD, should revise the Strategy to include, or include in the CARSI if the Strategy is incorporated into that initiative performance goals and measures to assess progress made in achieving intended results under the Strategy.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: National Security Council

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO provided the National Security Council with a copy of the report. As of June 2014, the Council had not provided GAO with any comments on the status of this recommendation or plans, if any, to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To strengthen federal agencies' coordination of antigang efforts and maximize use of federal law enforcement resources in El Salvador, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security should reach agreement on ICE's role and participation in the Transnational Anti-Gang unit (TAG) unit.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our review found that coordination and information sharing on gang members and investigations could be strengthened in a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) antigang unit in El Salvador by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reaching agreement on Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) role in the unit. While the FBI was able to request information directly from the Salvadoran police stationed at the unit, because ICE did not have an agent at the unit, ICE requests for information first went to its country attache who sent it on to FBI agents at the unit who then passed it on to the Salvadoran police. FBI and ICE officials stated that the process could be strengthened by ICE's direct participation in the unit. Although they had been discussing ICE's possible participation since 2008, they had not yet reached agreement at the time of our report. Consequently, we recommended that DOJ and DHS reach agreement on ICE's role and participation in the unit. As of January 2011, both DOJ and DHS reported that the FBI, ICE, and DOJ had undertaken a series of discussions to consider ICE's participation. As a result of these discussions, it was agreed that the FBI and ICE have appropriate systems in place for ensuring that the FBI and ICE in EI Salvador work in an efficient and coordinated manner and that ICE's direct participation in the FBI unit was not necessary. As evidence of this coordination, the departments cited the fact that FBI and ICE personnel in EI Salvador routinely deconflict investigations and operations and provide assistance in each other's cases as well as meet on a weekly basis to address significant activities and coordinate investigations. The departments also noted that both FBI and ICE leadership monitor the work carefully to ensure that their respective units continue to coordinate their efforts and that the FBI and ICE are engaged in discussions to establish similar processes in Guatemala and Honduras as additional antigang units become operational in those countries. By reaching agreement on ICE's role and participation in the FBI's unit and taking steps to facilitate continued coordination and information sharing between ICE and the FBI during investigations, these actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To strengthen federal agencies' coordination of antigang efforts and maximize use of federal law enforcement resources in El Salvador, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security should reach agreement on ICE's role and participation in the Transnational Anti-Gang unit (TAG) unit.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our review found that coordination and information sharing on gang members and investigations could be strengthened in a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) antigang unit in El Salvador by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reaching agreement on Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) role in the unit. While the FBI was able to request information directly from the Salvadoran police stationed at the unit, because ICE did not have an agent at the unit, ICE requests for information first went to its country attache who sent it on to FBI agents at the unit who then passed it on to the Salvadoran police. FBI and ICE officials stated that the process could be strengthened by ICE's direct participation in the unit. Although they had been discussing ICE's possible participation since 2008, they had not yet reached agreement at the time of our report. Consequently, we recommended that DOJ and DHS reach agreement on ICE's role and participation in the unit. As of January 2011, both DOJ and DHS reported that the FBI, ICE, and DOJ had undertaken a series of discussions to consider ICE's participation. As a result of these discussions, it was agreed that the FBI and ICE have appropriate systems in place for ensuring that the FBI and ICE in El Salvador work in an efficient and coordinated manner and that ICE's direct participation in the FBI unit was not necessary. As evidence of this coordination, the departments cited the fact that FBI and ICE personnel in EI Salvador routinely deconflict investigations and operations and provide assistance in each other's cases as well as meet on a weekly basis to address significant activities and coordinate investigations. The departments also noted that both FBI and ICE leadership monitor the work carefully to ensure that their respective units continue to coordinate their efforts and that the FBI and ICE are engaged in discussions to establish similar processes in Guatemala and Honduras as additional antigang units become operational in those countries. By reaching agreement on ICE's role and participation in the FBI's unit and taking steps to facilitate continued coordination and information sharing between ICE and the FBI during investigations, these actions are consistent with our recommendation.

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