Aside from some contraband smuggling between Cabañas and neighboring Honduras, there is no indication that the department is involved in any major transnational crime. Street gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 engage in local drug dealing and their members possess illegal firearms. However, nothing suggests that these criminal markets stretch beyond the department’s borders.
MS13: The MS13 reportedly has a presence in the departmental capital, Sensuntepeque, and the municipalities of Ilobasco and San Isidrio, where a gang cell known as the Francis Locos Salvatruchos operates. In these areas, the gang is thought to be the main driver of homicides and extortion committed against civilians and other societal sectors.
Arms Trafficking: The MS13 is present in Cabañas, and the gang’s members routinely use illicit firearms, meaning there is at least a modest black market for weapons in the department. Illegal weapons may be sourced through bribery or leaked from state stockpiles that were meant to be destroyed.
Cannabis: Marijuana is sold in areas of Cabañas with an active gang presence, including the Ilobasco prison, where hundreds of gang members are housed. Cabañas is of less strategic importance in comparison to gang strongholds in major urban areas, meaning the cannabis trafficking economy is likely a modest one.
Human Smuggling: We estimate that just over 1,100 migrants were returned to Cabañas from the US and Mexico in 2019. Given the price of hiring a smuggler in the area (roughly $10,000), this appears to be a lucrative economy, reaching millions of dollars. Smugglers reportedly operate in Ilobasco and Sensuntepeque, where they assist and recruit migrants.
Extortion: Reported extortion cases are fairly low in Cabañas compared to other parts of El Salvador, but those living and working in areas with a gang presence still suffer from this crime, including public transport workers, local business owners and municipal officials. In 2019, Sensuntepeque was prioritized in government plans for tackling gang-related crime at the national level.
Sources: This profile is based on a field investigation in San Salvador, where InSight Crime interviewed national anti-narcotics police, former high-ranking police officials with knowledge of gang activity, and local journalists. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by the Government of El Salvador, the Economic Ministry’s General Direction of Statistics and Censuses (Dirección General de Estadística y Censos), municipal extortion data, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the El Salvador-based Diálogos think tank, and local press.
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