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El Salvador’s Gang Violence: Turf Wars, Internal Battles and Life Defined by Invisible Borders

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Authors: Sarah Kinosian, Angelika Albaladejo, Lisa Haugaard

Editor’s Note: In response to the spike in violence in El Salvador, the Center for International Policy and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund are exploring the different sources and dynamics of the violence in El Salvador. The below article on gang-related violence is the first in a series of eight articles and is cross-posted on the Security Assistance Monitor blog. For more information on this series and the other article in the series, see this introduction page

Following the official breakdown of the controversial truce between El Salvador’s two main gangs in March 2014, El Salvador’s murder rate increased substantially, reaching a peak in the late summer of 2015, hitting a high of over 900 murders, or 30 per day, in August. 

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A policeman detains a suspected member of the MS-13 gang at a checkpoint in San Salvador during a ban on public transport imposed by the gangs. Photo credit: Encarni Pindado, NPR

When the agreement was first made in March of 2012, brokered by third-party mediators tied to the previous government of President Mauricio Funes, murders halved, dropping from around 12 per day to an average of five. During this time gang witnesses claim the government gave imprisoned leaders concessions for their participation in the truce, such as cell phones, transfers to lower security prisons, and conjugal visits. The role that the Funes administration played is extremely unclear and is currently under investigation, although President Funes denies any involvement. Critics have argued that while homicides declined during the truce, disappearances increased and the gangs strengthened. Others have noted that it was the overall lack of transparency surrounding the truce, including the extent of the government’s involvement and any possible concessions, paired with a lack of accountability on either side or dialogue with gang members on the street, that soured public opinion on the agreement and paved the way for the chaos that was to follow, not dialogue itself. In June of 2015, leaders from the country’s two main gangs sent a letter to minister of security and justice at the time, Benito Lara, saying they were open to dialogue. It is unclear if that is still the case. 

Current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén was voted into power promising a tougher security strategy to the previously unpopular truce, and has publicly rejected negotiating with the gangs. When he took office in June 2014, he put gang leaders back in maximum security prisons. In response, the gangs escalated attacks on police. So, the government deployed more security forces. Then, the gangs attacked the soldiers. By the spring of 2015, the government had basically declared war. 

As the war continues to rage, the fight against the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs has often taken center stage. However, the security landscape in El Salvador is more complex than a battle between gangs and security forces. There are struggles between the gangs, within the gangs, conflicts between all armed actors and citizens, and some violence due to transnational drug trafficking. In this complicated, very bloody fight, violence has become a daily occurrence, forcing entire neighborhoods to leave their homes and making it nearly impossible for many children to go to school or for adults to make a living.

Gang vs. Gang: Territorial Control, Extortion and Micro-Trafficking

Originating on the streets of Los Angeles and strengthened by Salvadorans who had fled to the city during El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) and their children, the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs now regularly fight over territorial control of cities, towns and local drug markets in El Salvador to increase influence and profits. As a seasoned, San Salvador-based investigative journalist explained, “They want to control territory for extortion, that’s how they make their money—that’s a big generator of violence. They are fighting for control of territory and of community members to control extortion. At a certain point as well, killing with brutal methods becomes a way of communicating and reaffirming leadership.” 

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Members of the Barrio 18 gang, displaying their allegiance with tattoos, sit handcuffed together on a bus as they arrive at the San Francisco Gotera penitentiary. Photo credit: Jose Cabezas, Reuters

Large-scale deportations of gang members from the United States in the mid-1990s brought U.S.-style gang structure and customs to El Salvador, helping to boost mostly small local youth gangs into more violent and more organized groups. The deportees brought back the names and styles of U.S. gangs, along with personal and family connections to the gang structures in the United States. They were also met by a politically and economically fragile country trying to rebuild itself following the signing of a 1992 peace accord.

“Gang members came from Los Angeles with a much more professional and unified force, and the conditions were ripe for them to recruit, consolidate and expand,” the journalist noted. Now, with an estimated 60,000 gang members, El Salvador has more gang members per capita than any other country in Central America. As a result, the gangs have become an integral part of Salvadoran society, with as many as 600,000 in a country of about 6 million believed to be in the groups’ extended networks, including family members of free and imprisoned gang members who live off the money extorted by the gangs. 

As of 2005, there are two factions of the Barrio 18: the Revolucionarios and the Sureños. According to several interviews, as the smallest and weakest of the groups, the Revolucionarios are the most volatile and have ramped up violence to stake their place in the underworld. The group is responsible for the transportation “strike” earlier this year that resulted in the death of nine drivers, and for car bombs that have been placed strategically near government buildings, a new pressure tactic by the gangs that has just emerged this year. Gang units known as “clicas” or “cliques” from the three groups (MS-13, Revolucionarios, and Sureños) have now carved out territories throughout the country. As InSight Crime notes, the cliques are relatively autonomous groups that have their own name and hierarchy but are subject to the leadership’s overall, strategic decisions. However, since the breakdown of a truce between the gangs in 2014, gang leadership has lost a degree of control throughout their ranks and violent scuffles between and within gangs have increased.    

Changing Nature of the Gangs  

The gangs of today look different than those of 2012 that entered into the truce. Whereas top jailed leaders once wielded immense power over foot soldiers on the ground, it appears the lower, younger ranks have also taken more control of operations and in some instances are at odds with the older leaders who negotiated the truce. When imprisoned gang leaders were transferred back to maximum security prisons, their communication with members on the street was disrupted and disillusioned mid-level members took more control. 

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 Photo credit: Meridith Kohut, The New York Times

A security analyst told us, “There is tension between the old and young; the ‘ranfla libre,’ or the younger members on the street, are discontent with paying extortion to the ‘ranfla en la cárcel,’ or imprisoned leaders. For a long time they [younger members] weren’t seeing any new programs while the top leaders got benefits like being moved to lower-security prisons. Now they are calling a lot of the shots.” Run by younger gang members, sometimes as young as 13, gang cells are not waiting for instructions from gang leadership before attacking rival gangs or police. 

A seasoned investigative journalist explained the rift further: “Gangs have a lot of people on their payroll. They were hoping the reinsertion programs [included in the truce] would get people off their payroll. And some leaders are getting older, beyond when they thought they would live. They don’t want war anymore. Their reality from the young guys on the street is different.” 

Further contributing to the gang violence is the fact that some cliques are increasingly making money from micro-drug trafficking. The MS-13 and Barrio 18 cliques operating in El Salvador are distinctive in operations and use of violence, with some more violent than others or more focused on extortion. According to reports, some cliques of the MS-13 aspire to acquire cocaine routes traditionally held by local organizations with connections to Colombian producers and Mexican distributors, who transport drugs across national territory. Like the MS-13 cliques in Honduras, the gang’s cliques in El Salvador are more focused on local drug sales than those of the Barrio 18. As the investigative journalist explained: “The MS-13 has some main cliques, Normandy (the biggest), Los Stoners, Los Teclas, and Los Sancochos (the most powerful) which distribute the most drugs locally and are now also distributing to Guatemala.” 

While the gangs do not make anywhere near the exorbitant profits of Mexico’s drug cartels or Colombia’s criminal bands, they have been able to better arms themselves, raising the stakes of war. There are also signs that their modus operandi could be changing.  

According to a researcher at the Central American University (UCA), “Not only is the firepower of the gangs increasing, but, we have not seen the car bombs before. This is a hint that the nature of the gangs is changing—they are also starting to say they will provide the population with services.” This fits in with the narrative of the gangs, who claim that they provide structure in neighborhoods with little to no state infrastructure or presence. While the gangs may provide an alternative structure to the government, they are also terrorizing the population. 

Official numbers for how many alleged gang members are killed versus how many non-gang members are killed are highly politicized and vary depending on the source. There is very rarely hard evidence to substantiate them. Relatively recently for instance the Salvadoran government claimed that gang members now make up the vast majority of murder victims, while the former subdirector of the country’s national police said that just 30 percent, or 2,014, of the 6,657 killed in 2015 were alleged gang members. At the same time, many of our interviewees told us that no investigation is pursued if the homicide victim is suspected to have any gang affiliation or relation, so it is difficult to get a hard statistic.

Gangs vs. Population: Extortion, Murder, and Control

The gangs control entire communities, leveraging so much power that even police are afraid to enter some areas. All over the country, residents’ lives are defined by invisible borders set by the gangs, often marked by an innocuous park, bridge, or school. Salvadorans, particularly those living in gang-controlled territories, are frequently killed for anything from crossing into the territory of another gang, witnessing a crime, refusing to join or trying to leave a gang, or for being unwilling or unable to pay extortion fees.

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As one aid worker who has worked in gang-controlled communities for 15 years explained, “A person who is a carpenter who lives in an MS-13 zone can’t take a job in a Barrio 18 zone, or visit a family member, even if it’s just a few blocks away.” These invisible lines make it extremely hard for people to get to school or work, as they may have to travel through several neighborhoods, all controlled by different gangs’ cliques. The extent of gang presence and control in San Salvador was recently mapped out by Salvadoran daily newspaper El Diario de Hoy. 

Territorial control is important, as gangs earn most of their income from extortion. According to an estimate by Honduras’ National Anti-Extortion Force, Salvadorans pay nearly $400 million in extortion, or “rent,” each year. No one is exempt from paying what gang members call “rent.” In the past, the issue of extortion was not typically discussed openly, but that may be starting to change, especially following the publication of El Faro’s extensive special series on this topic, which includes an anonymous questionnaire for victims to report their own experiences with extortion. Everyone from old women peddling pupusas to shopkeepers and bus drivers must pay what the gangs ask or they put themselves and their family at risk of being tortured or murdered. Even teachers have to pay the tax—out of their own pockets—just to carry out class. “The gangs don’t let the people live their lives—they will often kill people who don’t pay extortion,” an aid worker explained. 

Turf wars among the gangs also impacts political elections. “Candidates have to work with the gangs to get permission to campaign in those neighborhoods, and gangs control local politics through intimidation and corruption,” the aid worker told us. The power and political sway of the gangs helps them avoid formal prosecution for crimes committed against the communities they control. 

In addition to intimidating citizens, committing acts of torture, sexual violence, and murder, the gangs responsible for carrying out disappearances. A civil society organization investigating human rights violations told us that they are receiving more cases of disappearances, mainly of young people, and that it’s not just the police disappearing people, but the gangs as well. This reality has caused a large portion of the population to back the government’s hardline approach.

At the same time, gangs have become an integral aspect of poor, vulnerable areas. “People living in gang territory live under different authoritarian structures and become part of the organic structure of organized crime,” explained a U.S. human rights activist who has worked for the past decade in these communities in El Salvador. “They don’t believe the state can resolve their problems.” The activist mentioned that “people in some communities are now saying they are more afraid of police than the gangs. In some areas they think they can get better security from gangs if they follow the gangs’ rules. They are more predictable than state security forces. So the gangs begin to think of themselves as an alternate state.” 

The gangs’ presence and power is evident in their high recruitment numbers. Joining the gangs is often one of the only options for children in communities where gang members hold clout, state presence is lacking, opportunities are few, and violence is the norm. Young people who refuse to join will be threatened, if not killed, and non-consenting young girls will often be raped by gang members. For the most part, residents in these areas have no options for refuge. As Dr. Mauricio Gaborit, the head of psychology at the Central American University (UCA) and an immigration specialist, said, “If a gang threatens someone, that person doesn’t have a place to turn and will likely have to leave.”  

According to Dr. Gaborit, this violence propels migration to the United States. “Adolescents in El Salvador are besieged by gangs to belong, to carry out certain activities that they do out of fear. When the families in the United States see this is happening, they try to get them out,” he said. “And then the threat directed at the child then is directed at the family in El Salvador when the gangs find the child has left. Then the whole family has to leave.”

While gang violence previously had been more focused in urban areas, in response to the government flooding the streets with masked security forces armed with heavy artillery, the gangs have expanded their operations outside of the country’s main cities like the capital of Soyapango, Santa Ana, and the capital San Salvador. This has caused an increase of violence in rural areas. Of 8,150 murders that occurred in the country between January 2014 and September 2015, about 54 percent took place outside of cities.

Narco-trafficking Groups 

Narcotics and other contraband move through El Salvador with relative ease along its borders and coastline, although the country is a “relatively small player” in the drug trade compared to other Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras, according to InSight Crime and confirmed by interviews. Local drug trafficking groups servicing larger criminal enterprises, primarily from Mexico, will sometimes contract out murder, torture and other activities to gang members, mostly in areas outside of cities where the gangs are now operating. According to Salvadoran and U.S. security officials though, violence related to the international drug trade is a small slice of the overall pie. 

Known as transportistas, these groups moving drugs across El Salvador’s borders have their roots in contraband smuggling operations during the civil war. The main groups are the Texis cartel and the Perrones. Although the gangs have some links with transportista groups, gang members are not the main actors moving drugs, guns, or humans transnationally. As noted, some cliques of the MS-13 might be trying to take control of some of these routes, but overall it remains to be seen if the gangs will become more involved with the international narcotics trade or human trafficking.  

Although not the main drug trafficking hub in Central America, El Salvador has become a base for laundering drug money, particularly since it adopted the dollar as its official currency in 2001. As the U.S. State Department notes, “the country’s dollarized economy and geographic location make it an ideal haven for transnational organized crime groups, including human smuggling and drug trafficking organizations.” Numerous reports have linked high-level officials to the larger transportista groups, indicating their political influence and level of penetration into the government. 

Because these groups are not a primary driver of violence in the country, we did not look into their operations much. However, several journalists, analysts, and activists interviewed for this report flagged the gangs’ potentially growing involvement in trafficking and government corruption linked to these transportista groups as issues that require further investigation. 

InSight Crime has an excellent series of articles written by investigative journalist Hector Silva highlighting such corruption, while this Wilson Center paper by Steve Dudley, a founder of InSight Crime, on drug trafficking, transportistas and maras in Central America is also a useful resource. 

While it is unclear how internal gang dynamics will develop, how they will change their tactics or how they will increase their profits, what is clear is that if the government continues with the same strategy that invites an all-out war with the gangs and little else, violence will continue to escalate and many Salvadorans will continue to face a choice between death or migration. A more comprehensive strategy providing greater (non-militarized) state presence in marginalized communities, more economic opportunity for people in those communities, including for gang members, community-level violence prevention and protection for victims would gradually help. Dialogue with the gangs should not be taken off the table as an option, although very significant problems associated with the truce, such as a lack of transparency and accountability, as well as the need to engage with non-imprisoned gang leadership, should not be forgotten. But at this point, without any change, there is little hope that the gangs will change course or that murder rates will drop. 

Tomorrow, we will take a look at how the Salvadoran government’s response to the gangs has affected overall violence, the gangs, and the lives of Salvadorans.