Santa Ana is a key transit point for criminal groups smuggling cocaine and marijuana between El Salvador and Guatemala. It also has a strong gang presence. 

The department was once the operational center of the Texis Cartel — a powerful network of businessmen, politicians and criminal groups that used a road known as “El Caminito” (The Little Pathway) to ship vast quantities of drugs into Guatemala and Honduras. Though the group’s leadership was largely broken up in 2016, smaller criminal networks are still active in drug transshipment. The Texis Cartel also appears to be once again gaining steam.  

The Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gangs have a strong presence in the department and are involved in local drug peddling, contraband and extortion.  

Drug trafficking organizations have forged close bonds with the department’s politicians and police officers to guarantee their own protection.

Criminal Actors 

MS13: Various cells of the MS13 are active in Santa Ana. In the north of the department, the group engages in drug peddling, murder-for-hire, extortion and arms trafficking.   

Barrio 18: There appear to be only four active Barrio 18 cliques in the department, mostly dedicated to extorting transport companies in the administrative capital, also called Santa Ana.  

Texis Cartel: The Texis Cartel, historically one of El Salvador’s main drug clans, has long controlled territory in northern Santa Ana, especially in the cities of Metapán and Texistepeque. The group also controls various unmonitored border crossings near the Anguiatú and San Cristóbal customs checkpoints, bordering Guatemala. The Texis Cartel also operates smuggling routes in the neighboring department of Chalatenango, in the city of Nueva Concepción. The group has political clout within the Metapán mayor’s office and in other surrounding municipalities, where many politicians have links to one of the cartel’s former leaders, Juan Umaña Samayoa, the former mayor of Metapán. 

Criminal Economies 

Arms Trafficking: Factions of the MS13 and Barrio 18 in Santa Ana use funds from extortion rackets to purchase illegal firearms. Both gangs maintain a strong presence in the department and use firearms on a daily basis to enforce their territorial control, meaning there is at least a medium-size illicit arms market in Santa Ana. 

Cocaine: Santa Ana is a key transit point for cocaine, and it is the epicenter for the Texis Cartel. The group’s leadership has been hard hit by arrests, but others have stepped in to oversee a moderate revival of the cartel’s operations. Metapán, a municipality in the north of Santa Ana, is once again being used as a transit point for cocaine shipments that arrive in El Salvador in the east of the country. This smuggling route, known as “El Caminito” (The Little Pathway), was historically used by the Texis Cartel to smuggle cocaine into Guatemala. The revival of this once-dominant group appears to be driving a mid-sized cocaine economy in Santa Ana. 

Cannabis: Between 2013 and mid-2018, Salvadoran authorities seized more cannabis in Santa Ana than in any other department — almost nine metric tons. In the departmental capital, both the MS13 and Barrio 18 operate healthy cannabis retail markets. In addition, more marijuana is cultivated in Santa Ana than in any other department in El Salvador. The shared border with Guatemala is an important entry point for cannabis, also contributing to what appears to be a mid-sized cannabis trade in Santa Ana. 

Environmental Crime: There appears to be some small-scale illegal logging within the department, but no sign of a significant criminal economy. Santa Ana also houses endangered bird species, some of which have been rescued by local wildlife organizations. 

Human Trafficking: In 2017, the San Cristobal border crossing in Santa Ana was identified as a transit point for human trafficking victims being transported between El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, though there is little to suggest this is a major criminal economy. A lack of border patrols makes policing human trafficking a difficult task for authorities. 

Human Smuggling: It is estimated that just over 3,000 Salvadoran migrants were returned to Santa Ana in 2019. Given the price of hiring a smuggler in the area (roughly $10,000), this is likely a very lucrative criminal economy, reaching tens of millions of dollars. Santa Ana’s two customs checkpoints — San Cristóbal and Anguiatú — are frequently used to smuggle undocumented migrants into Guatemala.  

Extortion: Santa Ana’s administrative capital, which shares the department’s name, is El Salvador’s second city in terms of commerce and politics. There, and throughout the department, the country’s two main gangs, Barrio 18 and the MS13, maintain a menacing presence and engage in widespread extortion. Between 2013 and 2017, Santa Ana had one of the highest extortion rates of any Salvadoran department. In the city of Santa Ana, both gangs charge small but frequent extortion fees, with transport workers and small-business owners among the most common targets. Severe underreporting makes it difficult to quantify how much the gangs earn from extortion. 

Money Laundering: The Texis Cartel has historically specialized in two criminal economies: cocaine trafficking and money laundering. The group’s efforts to conceal illicit profits do not necessarily impact the department of Santa Ana, as funds may be laundered through the national financial system or through construction projects all over the country. However, this criminal economy does influence criminal dynamics along El Salvador’s western border, as the Texis Cartel’s political influence largely stems from their access to dirty money. El Salvador’s Finance Ministry has previously investigated suspect transactions linked to the group’s alleged leaders.  

Contraband: Contraband smuggling is Santa Ana’s oldest economy, aided by limited vigilance on the department’s northern border. Contraband smugglers have increasingly penetrated the state at the local level, allowing the involved groups to develop into more sophisticated organizations. These networks smuggle all kinds of goods, notably cattle, dairy products, coffee, and cigarettes.  

Sources: This profile is based on a field investigation in Santa Ana and research in San Salvador, where InSight Crime interviewed high-ranking officials in the mayor’s office, former national police officials with knowledge of drug trafficking operations, sources within El Salvador’s Finance Ministry, intelligence officials, police officers in Metapán, 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.

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