La Unión’s two ports and its Pacific coastline are routinely used by cocaine smugglers moving drugs north in boats and submarines. In addition, the department’s leaky land border with Honduras lies on an important international trade route and is used by criminal groups to transport drugs, contraband, arms and exotic wildlife between the two countries.
The department is also a transit point for human trafficking victims and migrants being smuggled from El Salvador to Guatemala, Mexico and the United States.
State actors, including municipal authorities and the police, are often involved in criminal networks.
MS13: The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang has a total of twelve factions in La Unión making it by far the strongest criminal actor in the department. The gang’s most powerful cell in La Unión – the so-called Hempstead Locos Salvatruchos (HLS) – has taken control of at least part of the transnational drug smuggling route in the Gulf of Fonseca, connecting Nicaragua and El Salvador, a rarity for a criminal group not known for its sophistication. The MS13 controls several beaches on the department’s Pacific coast and owns adjacent tourist establishments, used to launder money and store drugs. Beaches where the MS13 bases its drug-trafficking operations include El Tamarindo, Las Tunas, Playas Negras, El Jagüey and Intipucá. The gang also coerces fishermen in the Gulf of Fonseca into supporting the logistics of narcotics trafficking, and engages in arms trafficking and local drug distribution. However, with the exception of the HLS cell, the gang’s main income comes from extortion, particularly in the municipalities of San Alejo, Bolívar, El Carmen, Pasaquina, San José, Yucuaquín and El Sauce.
Barrio 18: Barrio 18 maintains a presence in the city of Santa Rosa de Lima and in the municipality of La Unión. In the latter, they extort local merchants. In total, the gang has five cells in the department.
Death-squads: Death-squads are present on La Unión’s border with the department of San Miguel. Close to 20 percent of the homicides in La Unión in 2019 could be attributed to these groups. Death-squads are tasked with “cleansing” La Unión’s gangs, including in the municipalities of Intipucá and El Carmen. Death-squads in La Unión and elsewhere in El Salvador tend to operate along drug trafficking routes; it is possible that drug traffickers attempt to oust street gangs by employing these paramilitaries, as InSight Crime has previously observed in other parts of Latin America.
Los Perrones: La Unión has historically been one of the most important areas of influence for Los Perrones, one of El Salvador’s most powerful drug trafficking groups. Los Perrones began as a freight company in the mid-1990s in the municipality of Santa Rosa de Lima. One of the leaders was Reynerio de Jesús Flores Lazo, who was involved in all manner of contraband smuggling and operating along the land routes in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The group later expanded into cocaine trafficking, but its leaders were hard hit by arrests in the late 2000s. Remnants of Los Perrones may still be active in La Unión. The drug-trafficking routes they once managed are still active and the group’s operational hub of Santa Rosa de Lima is still a key storage and distribution point for northbound cocaine. However, the group’s current leaders are unknown and the MS13’s incursions into the department’s drug trade appear to have complicated Los Perrones’ operations.
Arms Trafficking: The MS13 and Barrio 18, as well as remnants from Los Perrones, are active in La Unión and use illicit firearms. These groups allegedly control an active weapons trafficking route through the department. These routes are partially supplied by international smugglers operating in Honduras and Nicaragua. Because of the department’s strategic location – bordering Honduras and with maritime access to the Gulf of Fonseca – La Unión has been El Salvador’s main entry point for arms and drug shipments since the 1980s. This has facilitated a mid-size arms trafficking economy in the department.
Cocaine: Authorities in La Unión have made sizeable individual cocaine seizures; in 2018, they seized six metric tons of the drug in just one operation. It is likely that significantly more cocaine enters the department, due to its position as the first entry point for overland and maritime cocaine shipments entering El Salvador from Honduras and Nicaragua. It is also a landing point for maritime shipments sent directly from Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica. The Pan-American highway, a key commercial and overland smuggling route, enters the department via the El Amatillo customs checkpoint, bordering Honduras, and from there leads to Santa Rosa de Lima and San Miguel – the main storage and distribution points for cocaine shipments passing through eastern El Salvador.
Cannabis: Marijuana enters La Unión from the departments of Valle and La Paz, in neighboring Honduras. At the Port of La Unión and in Santa Rosa de Lima, there is a small local cannabis consumption market, controlled by the MS13 and Barrio 18.
Environmental crime: There is a small wildlife trafficking economy in La Unión. A variety of endangered species are commercialized in the department, including spider monkeys, turtle eggs, armadillos, green iguanas, and the hawksbill turtle. These animals are poached in La Unión and sold on national and foreign markets, including in Honduras and Nicaragua.
Human trafficking: There is a modest prostitution economy in La Unión, which includes the exploitation of minors. Criminal groups subject Salvadorans and Nicaraguans to sexual and labor exploitation within the department. Trafficking networks allegedly charge a fee of $20 to 25 for sex with underage girls.
Human smuggling: La Unión has been one of the main sources of outbound migration from El Salvador. In the last 20 years, the department has been one of the principal recipients of remittances, in turn fueling the human smuggling economy. In 2019, some 3,000 Salvadoran migrants returned to La Unión after being deported from the United States or Mexico. Given the price of hiring a smuggler in the area (roughly $10,000), this appears to be a very lucrative criminal economy, reaching tens of millions of dollars.
Extortion: In 2017, the department recorded 48 extortion cases — one of the lowest figures in El Salvador. The number of reported extortion cases did increase from 21 to 25 between 2018 and 2019, but it is difficult to read into these figures, as extortion is among the crimes that are least reported. For La Unión’s street gangs, extortion is the main source of income; they extort private businesses and merchants throughout the department. Most extortion reports are filed in the La Unión municipality, where Barrio 18 is active. Extortion also affects tourism, particularly on the department’s beaches and in its fishing communities. On occasion, gangs in La Unión may simply demand a large, one-off payment, instead of regular fees, from richer families or certain businesses.
Sources: This profile is based on one field trip to La Unión and research in San Salvador, where InSight Crime interviewed the Attorney General’s Office, national anti-narcotics police, City Hall officials, the local police in La Unión, and local politicians, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also visited the Port of La Unión and El Amatillo. Further information was drawn from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Economic Ministry’s General Direction of Statistics and Censuses (Dirección General de Estadística y Censos), municipal extortion data, the Foundation for Democracy, Security and Pace (FUNDEMOSPAZ), El Salvador-based think tank Diálogos, which monitors violence data in El Salvador, and the local press.