San Miguel was an important operational center for the once-powerful Perrones drug cartel, which owned various properties in the city used to launder money. Though the group was largely broken up in the late 2000s and early 2010s, relatives and other associates of the cartel’s former leaders still appear to have some control over smuggling routes in eastern El Salvador.
The department is also a hotbed for gang activity, with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang enjoying widespread territorial control in departmental capital, San Miguel, among other areas. The scope of gang extortion is purportedly increasing and appears unaffected by fluctuations in state security presence.
MS13: The MS13 is the dominant gang in San Miguel, with a reported presence in 11 out of 20 municipalities. The gang leverages its large membership and its broad network of collaborators to operate extortion rackets, peddle drugs and recruit the department’s youth. In addition, the gang has forcefully recruited underage girls for prostitution. Several powerful factions of the MS13 have a strong presence in the department; these groups are significant buyers of illicit firearms and also launder money through small businesses. In the San Miguel municipality, the MS13 enjoys widespread territorial control and municipal authorities may need to negotiate with the gang to launch infrastructure projects or hold political campaign events. In some areas, the MS13 imposes its own social rules and controls who enters and exits a particular territory.
Barrio 18: The presence of Barrio 18 in San Miguel is dwarfed by that of its rival, the MS13. Nonetheless, the gang still controls some smaller territories in the department, where it extorts locals and sell drugs. Like the MS13, Barrio 18 actively recruits new members from the department’s youth, mostly in poor urban areas. The gang also uses violence to reinforce its territorial control and make sure that extortion victims pay up.
Los Perrones: This organization has historically been one of El Salvador’s most notorious drug trafficking groups, operating out of San Miguel and other cities in eastern El Salvador. Though the group was hard hit by arrests in the late 2000s and 2010s, there are signs that remnants of the organization — including family members — are still smuggling cocaine, arms and contraband through the department. Some businesses in the San Miguel municipality with prior links to money laundering — such as used car lots, hardware stores and hotels — appear to be re-emerging, possibly signaling an increase in the group’s illicit activities.
Arms Trafficking: In 2019, departmental authorities in San Miguel seized over 250 firearms, potentially worth over $500,000 on the black market and likely a fraction of the total amount of illicit weapons in circulation. Given San Miguel’s importance as an operations center for drug trafficking groups and the MS13, this appears to be a lucrative economy, potentially reaching into the millions of dollars.
Cocaine: San Miguel has historically been one of the main transit points for cocaine shipments entering El Salvador in the Gulf of Fonseca and on the country’s eastern border with Honduras, though large seizures are rare. The department is also connected to San Salvador and Guatemala via the Pan-American highway, a major smuggling route. The city of San Miguel has long served as an operational center for the Perrones, and remnants of this group are purportedly still active in the cocaine trade. In all, this appears to be a substantial criminal economy.
Cannabis: The MS13 is reportedly present in 11 out of 20 municipalities, including departmental capital, San Miguel. There is also a smaller Barrio 18 presence. These gangs control the sale of cannabis in San Miguel, one of their main sources of income. Considering this gang activity, the cannabis trafficking market appears to generate at least modest revenues in San Miguel.
Environmental Crime: Illegal logging and wildlife trafficking appear minimal in San Miguel. In one case, a Taiwanese individual allegedly worked with locals to extract timber and export it to Asia, but whether the network remains active is unclear.
Human Trafficking: Human trafficking rings in San Miguel have forced national and foreign victims into labor and sexual exploitation. The city of San Miguel houses numerous brothels, where women and girls from El Salvador and Honduras have been forced into prostitution. Guatemalan nationals have been coerced into selling fruit for no pay. There are also signs that human organs are trafficked in the department, along with newborn babies that get sold for adoption. In all, human trafficking appears to be a moderate criminal economy in San Miguel.
Human Smuggling: It is estimated that over 4,000 Salvadoran migrants were returned to San Miguel from the US and Mexico in 2019. Given the price of hiring a smuggler in the area (around $10,000), this appears to be a very lucrative criminal economy, reaching tens of millions of dollars. San Miguel has historically represented a large proportion of the migrants who move to the United States. Many are driven by poverty and violence, as well as the chance to reunite with US-based family members. With a large diaspora already in the US, remittances sent to families in San Miguel help drive the department’s human smuggling trade.
Extortion: Between 2013 and 2017, San Miguel registered the second highest number of extortion cases out of all El Salvador’s departments. Street gangs are the driving force behind extortion, targeting local businesses, merchants, market stalls, transport operators, taxi drivers, restaurants, and the manufacturing sector. Gangs usually base their extortion fees on how much a company earns. Failure to pay extortion fees can result in death or disappearance. Gangs tend to control extortion rackets remotely, obliging victims to drop off payments at a certain location, or forcing taxi drivers to pick up extortion fees for them, meaning they can continue extorting even when security forces increase their presence. The scope of extortion appears to be increasing, with some gangs now asking for one-off payments from families and businesses that they would not ordinarily target, including companies employing former gang members.
Money Laundering: Criminal and private sector actors in San Miguel have participated in national corruption networks committing financial crimes.
Sourcing: This profile is based on a field investigation in San Miguel and research in San Salvador, where InSight Crime interviewed the Attorney General’s Office, national anti-narcotics police, state prosecutors and judges, the human rights ombudsman, City Hall officials, evangelical pastors working in gang-controlled areas, civil servants, and local journalists, most of whom requested anonymity. 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.