The 18th Street Gang, also known as “Barrio 18,” is one of the largest youth gangs in the Western Hemisphere. Like its better known rival, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the Barrio 18 has cells operating from Central America to Canada, and has a much larger presence than the MS13 in the United States.
With thousands of members across hundreds of kilometers, and interests in a number of different illicit activities, Barrio 18 is one of the more significant criminal threats in the region. Still, it is questionable how far its different units are coordinated across borders, or even within the same city.
The Barrio 18 first emerged as a small-time street gang in Los Angeles. While some accounts trace its origins to the late 1950s, the gang began to take its current form in the 1980s after splitting from the Clanton 14 gang. It earned particular notoriety for its role in riots in that city following the acquittal of the police who brutally beat Rodney King, an African-American motorist.
Originally, the group’s many cells, known as “cliques,” were the exclusive province of Mexican immigrants in Southern California, and dominated neighborhoods such as MacArthur Park in the Koreatown part of central Los Angeles.
However, as other Latino nationalities joined the immigrant population, the Barrio 18 began to recruit members from a variety of backgrounds, a development that would facilitate the group’s spread into other nations, particularly in Central America.
Efforts by US law enforcement to slow the gang’s growth have not proved effective. In the late 1990s, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) task force, along with local law enforcement, took down some of the Barrio 18’s foremost leaders. However, this did not so much handicap the gang as give them another base from which to operate and recruit new members: federal prisons.
Despite efforts to isolate gang leaders from their contacts on the outside and from their fellow prisoners, Barrio 18 bosses like Francisco Martinez, alias “Puppet,” devised ways to continue running criminal activities from the inside. Some Barrio 18 also become members of the Mexican Mafia, the feared prison gang that grouped street gangs in Southern California in a single, powerful collective known as the Sureños. Outside of prison, the street gangs fight one another; inside, they form a single unit under the leadership of the Mafia.
Barrio 18 spread south into Central America and Mexico largely as a function of a change to US immigration policies in the mid-1990s, which increased the number of criminal charges for which a foreign-born resident could be deported to their country of origin.
The new policy was applied aggressively to gangs in California, where many of Barrio 18’s members were not US citizens. The deportations led to a sudden influx of Barrio 18 members in Central America and Mexico. As a result, some argue that US policy helped Barrio 18 spread internationally.
The response of Central American governments to the rise in gang activity has also proven to be largely counterproductive. In the late 90s, beginning in El Salvador, the governments began passing more stringent laws that criminalized mere “association” with gangs. These so-called “mano dura,” or “iron fist,” policies only encouraged the gangs’ growth by concentrating many members in prison, pushing them to reorganize and regroup. In Central America, the space created for extortion rackets and kidnapping gangs by weak police forces and a relatively open criminal landscape was filled in part by the Barrio 18 and the MS13 in the 2000s.
What’s more, following a series of violent incidents in prisons between the Barrio 18 and the MS13, Salvadoran officials separated inmates from the two gangs from each other. The leaders increased their control over criminal acts, such as extortion, from inside the prisons.
On the outside, they branched into petty drug trafficking. They also began to operate in a more sophisticated manner, laundering money through small businesses such as car washes, and trying to control community and local non-governmental organizations in order to influence policy at the local levels and, later, national levels.
Around 2005, the Barrio 18 in El Salvador suffered a rupture between some on the inside of prison and some on the outside. The result of the in-fighting was a split into two factions, the Revolutionaries and Sureños. These factions remain, fighting each other with the same fervor as they do the MS13.
The gang poses the greatest threat in Central American nations like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where weaker governments and larger gangs (relative to the population) have turned the gang phenomenon into a significant threat to national security — the gangs systematically extort public transport systems, displace entire communities, and have forced their way into the political system.
This was most evident in March 2012, Barrio 18 leaders and their rivals in the MS13 agreed to a nationwide “truce,” which was mediated by a government envoy and the Catholic Church and facilitated by the government. As a result of this ceasefire, the homicide rate in the country plummeted.
Whereas El Salvador saw about 13 or 14 murders a day in the beginning of that year, this fell to around six a day, on average, in the following months. Following the initial success of the truce, an unsuccessful attempt to emulate it was made in Honduras.
The leaders of both the MS13 and Barrio 18 proved alarmingly adept at using their now heightened political profile to their advantage, fueling concerns that the initiative could provide a means of increasing their criminal sophistication and overall influence in the country. To add to these concerns, extortion and disappearances have reportedly continued to rise in El Salvador over the course of the truce, and homicides began rising again in mid-2013 topping out in 2015, before dropping back again.
A radical drop-off in El Salvador’s murder rate starting in 2019 has again thrust the country’s gangs into the spotlight. Though state officials attribute the fall to its national security plan, there have been multiple media reports of an informal pact between parts of the El Salvador government and imprisoned gang leaders, with the latter reportedly cooling killings in exchange for better prison conditions.
Though the bulk of the alleged negotiations appear to have gone through the MS13, El Salvador media initially detected at least one meeting between government officials and imprisoned Barrio 18 leaders. Additional materials sourced from an unfinished government investigation later provided further evidence of encounters between top officials and imprisoned members of the Barrio 18.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 presented both opportunities and economic challenges for the gang. In some parts of Central America, the gang shored up local support by reportedly giving shopkeepers and other extortion victims a temporary reprieve from payments as the initial lockdowns began to bite. But that decision took its toll on rank-and-file gang members in Guatemala, where some strapped-for-cash members purportedly broke off into splinter groups to keep up with extortion rackets, exacerbating the structural weaknesses that have long affected the group.
At the top are “palabreros,” or “leaders,” most of whom are in the prison system. They coordinate all criminal activities. One palabrero keeps a notebook that keeps track of all finances, homicides, drugs, and weapons. There are also palabreros outside the prison system, aka, “en la libre.”
Outside, the gang organizes itself in “canchas.” A cancha is a territorial division that isn’t necessarily based on municipal delineations. Each cancha has several “tribus,” or tribes, the smallest units of the Barrio 18 organization.
Finally, there are collaborators: those who are not quite or never will be gang members. They help the gang with small jobs, like gathering intelligence, and moving or holding illicit goods.
In Central America, the gang operates mostly in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where it is estimated to have over 16,000 members. But it is in the United States where it has its most defined presence: an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 members. The group operates in dozens of cities across an estimated 20 states.
Many of its members are located in California, but the Barrio 18 also has a presence in other western cities like Denver. Barrio 18 has also had a presence in Italy since the mid-2000s, and in September 2016 the arrest of an alleged Barrio 18 leader hinted at the gangs’ desires to expand their presence in Europe.
Allies and Enemies
The Barrio 18 are fierce enemies with the MS13, and internal divisions among the group periodically flare into violence. The Barrio 18 in El Salvador is divided into rival factions, the Revolutionaries and the Sureños.
The gang also has a close relationship with the Mexican Mafia. It is also known to have networks of lawyers, taxi drivers and mechanics as collaborators. The gang’s reliance on extortion and penchant for violence, however, puts it at odds with the local community.
The Barrio 18 has been operational for over 70 years. There is no reason to believe it won’t be around for 70 more.