Central American gangs: changing nature and new partners.

AuthorFarah, Douglas
PositionDevelopment - Report

This article will examine the changing roles of Central American gangs within the drug trafficking structures, particularly the Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), operating in the region. This will include the emerging political role of the gangs (Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 as well as Barrio 18), the negotiations between the gangs and Mexican DTOs for joint operational capacity, the interactions between the two sides, and the significant repercussions all this will likely have across the region as the gangs become both better financed and more politically aware and active. This article is based on field research in San Salvador, where the author was able to spend time with some members of the MS-13. It is also informed by his examination of the truce between the gangs and the Salvadoran government, as well as the talks between the gangs and the Sinaloa cartel. (1)


Central America's geographic location--between the world's largest cocaine producers in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru and the world's largest market in the United States--has made it a strategic transit route for illicit drugs for more than three decades. While the region has been of constant interest to transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), in recent years, its importance as a transshipment route has grown dramatically. During the 1990s, only about 30 percent of the cocaine from South America for the U.S. market transited through Central America; current estimates indicate that up to 90 percent now moves through the region. (2)

This shift in drug routes, brought on in part by successful U.S. and Caribbean efforts to crimp the sea traffic that funneled illicit drugs into Miami, has coincided with a significant rise in violence in Central America's Northern Triangle: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Most of the violence is attributed to powerful gangs, known as maras or pandillas, which have taken over territory and petty crime activity throughout the region.

There is significant debate within the law enforcement, intelligence, and development communities over the true nature of the ties between local gangs and larger TCOs. The recent truce between El Salvador's two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18, brokered by government-sanctioned intermediaries, has brought heightened attention to the phenomenon of Central American gangs, their relationship with TCOs, and the role they are beginning to play in national and local politics. (3)

This paper examines the changing nature of the gangs, particularly in El Salvador, their strengthening ties to TCOs, especially the Mexican Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels, their independent human trafficking structures, and finally, the implications these developments have for the arc of transnational criminal activity across Central America, Mexico, and the United States.

This paper will also examine the new inroads that gangs have made in becoming recognized political forces through their control of extensive territory in the countries where they operate and their ability to negotiate with the government for concessions and benefits. It is part of a broader trend aptly described by Moises Naim in his seminal book, Illicit, about the unintended consequences of globalization and the growth of transnational organized crime:

Ultimately it is the fabric of society that is at stake. Global illicit trade is sinking entire industries while boosting others, ravaging countries and sparking booms, making and breaking political careers, destabilizing some governments and propping up others. At one extreme are countries where the smuggling routes, the hidden factories, the pilfered natural resources, the dirty-money transactions can no longer be distinguished from the official economy and government. But comfortable middle-class lives in wealthy countries are far more connected to trafficking--and to its global effects--than most of us care to imagine. (4) Much of the research for this paper was conducted through interviews with members of MS-13 during seven trips to E1 Salvador over the past two years. Through trusted intermediaries, whose friendships I have developed during my twenty-seven years of working in the region, I was able to meet with gang members ranging from foot soldiers to the upper level leadership. I visited their neighborhoods, met their families, and established a dialogue with them. I also spent many hours discussing the gang phenomenon with investigators who have been working with the gangs and studying their behavior for years; I am deeply in their debt for the knowledge and insights they have provided. Much of the information here is based on my field work and not on previously published studies. Due to the risk posed to the lives of those who have become my guides in the gang world, my sources are not identified by name.

The gangs, long part of an extremely violent local subculture that operates in the neighborhoods they control and constantly at war with rival gangs, are in a historic process of change. Some investigators such as John Sullivan have already characterized the MS-13 and similar groups as "third-generation gangs" at the forefront of "ushering in an era of asymmetric threats, where nonstate actors can extend their influence and challenge states and their institutions to gain social, political, or economic influence.'' (5) Other scholars such as Max Manwaring have described gangs as a "new urban insurgency" arguing:

The common denominator that can link gangs to insurgency is that some gangs' and insurgents' ultimate objective is to depose or control the governments of targeted countries. As a consequence, the "Duck Analogy" applies. That is, third generation gangs look like ducks, walk like ducks, and act like ducks--a peculiar breed, but ducks nevertheless! (6) What these prescient analysts did not include was the opportunity for these groups to link their structures to the superstructures of TCOs, a linkage neither smooth nor uniform, but one that is growing in multiple aspects. This change has significant implications, not only within the specific countries where the gangs have their bases of operation, but also for the Central American region and the United States. Ultimately, these changes will impact the future contours of transnational organized crime across the Western Hemisphere.


The history of the emergence of violent youth gangs in the northern triangle of Central America during the mid-1990s has been well documented. However, it is worth reviewing briefly, because, without an understanding of how the gangs emerged, it is difficult to understand what the gangs have become, the relationships they have developed, and the current transformation process.

Following the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, prosecutors began to charge young Latino gang members as adults instead of minors, sending hundreds to prison on felony charges. This was followed in 1996 by a national immigration law legislating that noncitizens sentenced to more than a year in prison would be repatriated to their countries of origin after serving their sentences. (7)

This policy led to the repatriation of tens of thousands of young Central Americans to countries they were unfamiliar with, where many did not even speak the language. In an effort to survive, the deportees, mostly young men, sought social acceptance and safety by banding together and replicating the gang structures they had come out of in the Los Angeles area. From 2000 to 2004, some 20,000 young Central American criminals were deported. (8) The trend accelerated from the early years, and from 2008 to 2010, another 63,000 criminals were deported to E1 Salvador. (9)

From a Congressional Research Service report, it is reasonable to extrapolate that over the past fifteen years, more than 300,000 criminals, mostly gang members, have been deported to E1 Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala--all countries that were in the process of recovering from a decade of civil war. (10) Within these countries, police forces were new and untrained, the judicial systems were fragile and often not fully functional, and there was virtually no social safety net in place to deal with the onslaught.

As investigative journalist Ana Arana notes, the consequences have been severe:

Fed by an explosive growth in the area's youth population and by a host of social problems such as poverty and unemployment, the gangs are spreading, spilling into Mexico and beyond--even back into the United States itself. With them, the maras are bringing rampant crime, committing thousands of murders, and contributing to a flourishing drug trade. Central America's governments, meanwhile, seem utterly unable to meet the challenge, lacking the skills, know-how and money...

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