The increasing mobility and violence of gang members who often sneak into the United States has raised concerns that the groups could be exploited by terrorists, feeding claims by local governments that Al Qaeda (search) might tap into the region's growing problem.
But U.S. and Central American officials who have investigated the allegations say there is no evidence linking gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (search) to terrorist activity. Analysts and even gang members themselves say the idea is far-fetched.
Mike Figueroa stood before a room full of U.S. and Central American law enforcement officials and admitted to being a gang member, a criminal, a drug addict, a dealer. But no matter what officials might think, he said, he and others like him will never be terrorists.
"There's never been anything like that," said Figueroa, a 33-year-old former member of the gang.
Born in Los Angeles among Salvadoran migrants, the gang problem spread to Central America in the mid-1990s as members were deported for crimes like carrying a weapon or homicide. Members often return, sneaking back into the United States and moving into cities like Boston and even wealthy Fairfax County in Virginia, home to many of Washington's elite.
The FBI and other federal officials have taken a growing interest in the problem, with U.S. immigration and customs officials tracking deportations and resulting returns. Many gang members now control migrant routes in southern Mexico, the first stop on a long trip north to the United States.
But U.S. federal officials at a law enforcement conference in San Salvador said they have found no evidence to support claims by Honduran security officials and even Salvadoran President Tony Saca that the gangs could eventually be linked to terrorists.
"I'm not aware of any confirmed ties to terrorism," said Kevin Kozak, an assistant special agent for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (search) in Long Beach, Calif.
Still, Saca opened the conference — a Monday-Wednesday event that included nearly 20 U.S. federal agents from the FBI and U.S. Customs and Immigration — by announcing that he could not rule out the possibility that the country's widespread gang problem had ties to terrorists.
That's a sensitive topic in El Salvador, which as the only Latin American country with troops still in Iraq was threatened last year on the Internet with terrorist attacks.
Allegations of links between gangs and terrorists aren't new. Last year, the Honduran government said it had evidence that an Al Qaeda operative was spotted at a Tegucigalpa Internet cafe, plotting his trip north to the United States. Security Minister Oscar Alvarez now says the tip turned out to be baseless, but he continues to warn against similar threats.
Those claims are taken seriously by U.S. investigators, but so far nothing conclusive has been found. Claude Arnold, Immigration and Customs unit chief for human rights violations and public safety, says U.S. officials are keeping an eye on any group moving drugs or people illegally across the U.S.-Mexican border, including members of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 (search) gang.
"Who knows? MS-13 is involved in smuggling, and if (the terrorists) paid the right price," anything is possible, he said.
But Harlan Ullman, a senior adviser to the Washington-based Center For Strategic and International Studies' International Security Program, said language and cultural barriers make cooperation between terrorists and gangs unlikely. And, he adds, it's even less likely that terrorists would need or trust gang members.
"Al Qaeda works with people they already know," he said.
Figueroa, who was deported from California in 1997 for a slew of criminal offenses, has little in common with an Al Qaeda operative. Like many gang members, he's deeply Christian.
"Why would they mess up their gang like that?" asked Figueroa, who has "In God I trust" tattooed across his forehead. He said authorities are tying gangs to terrorists "to wash their hands of the problem."
Freddy Monterosas, another former member of the Mara Salvatrucha who works with other gang members, said the so-called Maras are tight-knit and suspicious of outsiders, making them unlikely to help international terrorists.
Central American and U.S. officials are already sharing information on gangs, and the Salvadoran government submitted a proposed law to Congress this week that would expand those programs.
Salvador Quintanilla, a taxi driver who avoids driving through some San Salvador neighborhoods because gang members require him to pay a kind of toll, said the government should focus on reforming gang members rather than working with other governments to keep them in jail.
"The government is just attacking it from one side," he said. "It isn't offering solutions."
And he doesn't believe that the gangs could be involved in terrorism.
"That's just politics, pure propaganda," he said. "They want to intimidate the gangs, and gang members are already afraid to leave their homes."