The 18th Street Gang, also known as Barrio 18, is one of the largest youth gangs in the Western Hemisphere, much like its better-known rival, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). While it has cells operating from Central America to Canada, it has been greatly weakened in El Salvador due to the ongoing crackdown, which has seen thousands of its members summarily jailed, with those who have escaped prison going to ground or fleeing the country.
But with thousands of members across hundreds of kilometers and interests in a number of different illicit activities, the Barrio 18 remains one of the more significant criminal threats in Honduras and Guatemala.
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, Barrio 18 began to recruit members from various 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 and local law enforcement took down some of 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 into 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 mainly 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 started passing more stringent laws that criminalized mere “association” with gangs. These so-called mano dura (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 partly filled 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 to influence policy at the local levels and, later, national levels.
Around 2005, Barrio 18 in El Salvador suffered a rupture between some inside 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 early 2012, 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, reaching a peak 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 attributed the fall to its national security plan, there were 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.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 presented both opportunities and economic challenges for the gang. Members worked with street sellers’ union leaders in El Salvador to secure government relief funds meant for struggling businesses. 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.
The period of relative peace was shattered when members of Barrio 18 and MS13 racked up 46 murders during a three-day killing spree in November 2021. This was followed up by the indiscriminate massacring of 92 people in El Salvador, including shoppers, traders, and bus passengers, in March 2022 in an apparent attempt to send a message to the government.
The government responded with the most extensive gang crackdown the country had ever seen, arresting tens of thousands of suspected gang members during a long-lasting state of exception. As a result, Barrio 18 lost control of illegal economies in many of the areas of the country where it was previously dominant.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro followed Bukele’s lead by declaring a state of exception there in November 2022 as a response to rising extortion cases. While the state of exception has proved long-lasting, there has only been a fraction of the number of arrests seen in El Salvador.
At the top are palabreros (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.”
In El Salvador, four of the highest-ranking leaders of the Sureños faction, including Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias “El Viejo Lin” sent an audio recording to members on the outside requesting an end to the killings that shook the nation in November 2021. This led to speculation that there had been a rupture between the gang’s imprisoned leaders and its street leaders.
Although many of the higher-ranking members were already incarcerated by the beginning of the gang crackdown in March 2022, many of its street leaders were either imprisoned or forced to flee.
In Guatemala, a group known as the “Rueda” (wheel) coordinates the gang’s activities. Many of these members, including its leader Aldo Dupie Ochoa Mejia, alias “El Lobo”, are currently imprisoned. Likewise, the Barrio 18’s main leaders in Honduras, such as Nahum Medina, alias “Tacoma,” find themselves imprisoned.
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. Police in Spain highlighted this danger when they arrested 15 Hondurans in 2023 who they said were seeking to set up a Barrio 18 clique in Barcelona.
There have been reports that Barrio 18 members fleeing the crackdown in El Salvador have been moving into southern Mexico and attempting to replicate their criminal economies there.
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 greatly weakened in El Salvador following the government’s gang crackdown and it remains to be seen if it will be able to adapt to the situation in the long-term.
However, its well-established presence in other countries and moves toward expansion means it does not currently face a similar existential threat elsewhere.
What are your thoughts?
Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.
We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.