El Salvador is a relatively small but growing player in the drug trafficking business. It serves as a drug receiving and storage point along the Pacific Coast, and a bridge via the Pan-American Highway, the Fonseca Gulf and roads from Honduras that cut through relatively unpopulated areas. The country is also the most critical operational center in Central America for the region’s two most notorious street gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 – which have an estimated 60,000 members combined in El Salvador.
As a small nation, El Salvador’s relatively high population density and mountainous terrain impede traffickers from transporting goods by air. Nonetheless, the country is home to overland smuggling routes that have been used for decades to traffic humans, weapons, contraband, and more recently, illicit drugs. Porous borders with neighboring Honduras and Guatemala aid the movement of illegal goods in and through the country. Additionally, El Salvador’s short coastline provides traffickers numerous places to unload and repackage drugs into smaller quantities for the journey north, or distribution and sale to the country’s domestic drug market.
After more than a decade of civil war in which over 75,000 people lost their lives, the Salvadoran government and leftist guerrillas signed a peace agreement in 1992. The peace accords were hailed as a success by the international community, particularly efforts to create an integrated police force that included members of the rebel coalition, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN). Yet violence in El Salvador did not end with the war. Instead, the accords opened a new type of conflict, which has led to political and social turmoil that threatens to upend the achievement the accords once represented.
The first phase of this post-war criminal spree included both former military and ex-combatants. Some former guerrillas, for example, never gave up their weapons and instead created criminal enterprises, engaging in car theft, kidnapping and human smuggling.
The second phase came with the rise of street gangs, commonly referred to as “maras.” In El Salvador, there are two dominant gangs, MS13 and Barrio 18. Poor, urban youth were attracted to the gangs. Socials issues — including marginalization, lack of access to basic services and educational opportunities, and dysfunctional families — also led to their growth. Meanwhile, the gangs modeled themselves on US street gangs after the repatriation of gang members from the United States. A pre-existing culture of violence and access to weapons left over from the region’s civil wars fueled gang killings.
The government responded to the threat posed by gangs with a harsh “mano dura,” or “iron fist,” approach. This repressive approach, however, did not produce the desired effect, and served to further marginalize the country’s youth, stimulate gang recruitment, and double the prison population. Within prisons, the gangs built operational sanctuaries to manage their activities without fear of the law or rival gangs.
The gangs primarily engage in extortion, kidnapping and domestic drug distribution, selling crack, powder cocaine, amphetamines and marijuana in mostly poor neighborhoods. They have also been contracted by larger organizations to serve as contract killers or to perform other specific tasks, and there are some signs the gangs are looking to expand into bulk distribution and international trafficking.
In March 2012, the Salvadoran government and church secretly brokered a truce between the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs, granting concessions to imprisoned gang leaders in exchange for a reduction in violence. As part of the truce, the government implemented “peace zones,” or areas where the gangs pledged to halt criminal activity, and the government promised to withdraw the military. After its implementation, the truce did lead to a drop in homicides, but violence began rising again in 2014 when the truce began to unravel. Critics of the truce have questioned whether it was ever effective at reducing killings, with some theorizing that the homicide rate was artificially low because victims were being “disappeared” by gang members.
The experience of the truce led to debate over the nature of the gangs. More specifically, there were concerns the truce allowed the gangs to become more cohesive and sophisticated. Indeed, there have been reports of gang leaders meeting with Mexican criminal organizations — such as the Zetas — potentially indicating a move into the international drug trade. Yet, security officials typically consider the gangs as lacking the discipline and sophistication to make reliable partners.
The disintegration of the truce contributed to an escalation of violence in El Salvador. In particular, during 2015, the gangs stepped up attacks on Salvadoran security forces, which some observers viewed as a means of pressuring the government to reopen truce negotiations and grant the gangs certain concessions. Inter- and intra-gang violence also increased, by the end of 2015, El Salvador had a homicide rate of over 100 per 100,000 people — the highest in the world. Violence, however, declined and stabilized through 2016 and early 2017.
President Nayib Bukele came into office in June 2019, promising to reduce violence and increase security. Under Bukele, El Salvador’s murder rate plunged from 51 per 100,000 people in 2018 to 36 per 100,000 in 2019. In 2020, it stood at 20 per 100,000 people – the lowest rate in recent history. The Bukele administration attributes the radical decline in violent deaths to the government’s flagship security plan, the so-called Territorial Control Plan (Plan Control Territorial), a seven-point program that largely mirrors the hardline policies of previous administrations.
But the unprecedented nature of the drop has also sparked rumors of some kind of new agreement between the El Salvador government and the gangs. That was confirmed when, in September 2020, Salvadoran media outlet El Faro published an investigation documenting how top government officials had been engaging in talks with imprisoned gang leaders since at least October 2019, intending to reduce violence. Some of the officials involved in the alleged dialogue had also worked with Bukele when he was mayor of San Salvador. during which his municipal administration negotiated with the gangs as part of efforts to revitalize the city’s Historic Center.
El Salvador is also home to “transportistas” groups with roots in moving contraband across the borders with Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala during the civil war. They continue to use these routes to move migrants, contraband, pirated goods, precursors chemicals and illegal drugs.
These drug transport networks often operate with the aid of corrupt border, police and military officials. Two of the main transport networks in El Salvador are the Perrones and Texis Cartel. The transportistas are not tied to a particular drug trafficking organizations. Their services are for hire to Colombian and Mexican cartels, including powerful Mexican groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas. While the transportistas are responsible for drug shipments transiting El Salvador, the gangs are primarily responsible for much of the country’s violent crime.
El Salvador has around 25,000 active personnel in its armed forces and another over 23,000 officers in the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil – PNC). Serving as a police officer in El Salvador is an extremely dangerous job, and PNC officers typically begin making less than $500 per monthIn September 2019, President Bukele announced that all police officers would receive a $100 salary increase as of 2020. In 2014, security forces increasingly became the target of attacks by gang members, driving desertions from the PNC. To supplement shortcomings and lack of resources, El Salvador routinely calls on the military to supplement the PNC in its duties. In 2019, for instance, the government, as part of Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan, deployed 3,000 soldiers to recover territory in gang-affected municipalities. As gang violence in El Salvador has risen, there have been indications of police and military officials engaging in extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals.
Accompanying and exacerbating El Salvador’s general insecurity is a weak judicial system that promotes impunity. Indeed, most crimes go unresolved, and suspects may spend years behind bars before facing trial.
Corruption within El Salvador’s judicial system is another key issue. Police are routinely found to be active or complicit in criminal activity, and firearms from government stockpiles regularly turn up on the black market or in the hands of criminals. Judges have also been discovered to be accepting bribes from organized crime groups in exchange for favoritism. Many officials may see little choice but to cooperate with criminals when faced with death threats and other forms of intimidation.
Also, the selection process for appointing Supreme Court judges has previously been obstructed by congressional representatives with links to corruption and organized crime.
There has been some pressure from the international community for El Salvador to establish a body similar to the United Nations – backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) to compensate for its judicial shortcomings. To that end, President Bukele founded the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad de El Salvador — CICIES), a body resembling the CICIG that has the backing of the Organization of American States (OAS). So far, there are minimal details on how the CICIES how the body will function in practice, and it is not clear how it will remain independent of the Attorney General’s Office. Before the CICIES, El Salvador officials had refused to create such a commission, though they did establish an anti-impunity unit in the Attorney General’s Office.
El Salvador’s weak judicial system has also contributed to a death squad phenomenon, with instances surfacing of citizens and possibly police conducting “social cleansing” of criminals and others deemed undesirable.
El Salvador’s prisons are notoriously under-resourced, dangerous and overcrowded. Years of strict anti-gang legislation have filled the country’s penal institutions, to more than three times their capacity as of June 2018, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. Contributing to rampant overcrowding has been the use of pretrial detention, which can sometimes leave suspects languishing in prison for months or years before seeing a judge.
El Salvador’s prisons have largely been divided along gang lines, with members of different gangs sent to various prisons. This policy has allowed the MS13 and Barrio 18 to establish complete domination over the prisons they control, turning them into centers for recruitment, criminal operations, and gang consolidation — in many ways a de facto gang headquarters. This is facilitated by understaffed and under-resourced facilities, which means prison guards are typically relegated to simply standing watch on prison walls and leaving inmates in control of day-to-day life.
The dynamic between the gangs’ imprisoned leadership and members on the street is crucial for understanding El Salvador’s gang phenomenon. Free gang members are expected to provide for those behind bars by sending money and supplies, and incarcerated gang leaders often direct criminal activity on the streets via cell phone and message couriers. This symbiotic relationship rests partly on the logic that all gang members will, at one point or another, spend time in jail and, one there, will need the gang’s protection to survive — a form of “prison insurance.” MS13 and Barrio 18 gang leaders have traditionally been held in maximum-security facilities, such as the infamous Zacatecoluca prison, also known as “Zacatraz.”
Though the official policy of gang segregation was reversed in 2015, MS13 and Barrio 18 members have remained mainly apart, split up into different sectors inside the prisons. In April 2020, President Bukele went further by placing members of the MS13 and Barrio 18 into common cells, though this is not an official policy. It is also unclear how many jails have seen members of separate gangs mixed together.