The United Nations and U.S. Southern Command estimate there are approximately 70,000 gang members, or so-called maras, most of them concentrated in the Northern Triangle: 36,000 in Honduras, 10,500 in El Salvador and 14,000 in Guatemala. Most of these are concentrated in two gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18). The gangs have a grave impact on the security situation in the region. Maras extort, kidnap, and murder local rivals, neighbors and security personnel. Their grip on many communities has crippled them and forced governments to reassess their security strategies. Their rise has also corresponded to higher murder rates. The Northern Triangle currently ranks as the most dangerous place in the world, according to the United Nations.·

Throughout the region, in particular in the Northern Triangle, the governments have responded to the real and perceived threat of street gangs with a so-called “Mano Dura,” or “iron fist” approach. In El Salvador, this included rounding up thousands of youth based on their appearance, associations or address. Most of these arrests did not hold up in Salvadoran courts but served to further stigmatize already marginal communities and may have accelerated recruitment for the gangs themselves. Far more troubling, from a criminology standpoint was the effect Mano Dura had on the prison system, the mara leadership and its operational structures.

Mano Dura operations were successful in jailing many mara “soldiers” and leaders for everything from petty crimes to murder to extortion. By some estimates, between 2004 and 2008, the number of gang members in El Salvador’s jails doubled from 4,000 to 8,000, representing about a third of the total jail population. The already clogged and inadequate prison systems were overwhelmed. The jump in mara jail population strained the system even further and immediately changed the dynamic of the prisons. The fighting on the street between the two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha-13 and the Barrio 18 spilled into the overcrowded jails. Hundreds died in several riots. The authorities, seemingly desperate for a short-term solution, split the groups up. Now, MS-13 and 18 members are sent to different prisons, a de facto nod to their increasing power and a de facto admission that the state was relatively powerless to stop them.

Grouping the leaders and large portions of the hard-core soldiers together in Salvadoran jails had an additional effect, especially once the two gangs were separated. The leaders of these gangs had more time to organize, strategize and plan their activities. They were safer in jail, from both their enemies and, ironically, from criminal prosecution. They could communicate easier: Their near total control of the facilities gave them ready access to cellular phones, which they used to hold meetings with leaders in other jails via conference calls, as well as messengers to pass more sensitive information. The facilities themselves were also well-suited to their communications since they have electrical outlets throughout to recharge their cellular phones. The leadership of both gangs took advantage. They formed more hierarchical command structures, reinforced old codes of conduct and instituted new ones. These included forbidding tattoos and instructing new initiates and cell leaders to dress less “gang-like,” i.e., blend in, which they have.

They also began entering new criminal territory, specifically extortions and kidnappings. These criminal activities are almost exclusively run from the prisons. The Salvadoran prosecutor in charge of the anti-extortion unit estimates that 84 percent of all extortion operations are run from jail. Some are very sophisticated rackets that target entire public transportation routes or transportation companies that deliver food and beverages to poor neighborhoods. Others are quick hits of individuals that the gang members see on television, read about in the paper or hear about through the network of outside informants that include other gang members, family, girlfriends, friends and other associates. The more sophisticated extortions involve multiple players, each with a specific role such as driver, lookout, pickup and negotiator. Most of the money collected from these operations goes to the gang leader in jail and his immediate circle of family, friends and close associates. What’s left goes to logistics and further operations.

These further operations include controlling drug distribution networks in mostly poor neighborhoods where the maras peddle crack, powder cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines. While academic observers and police intelligence officials all said that maras have long had a hand in this aspect of the drug trade, they also acknowledged that the gangs are increasingly seeking to wrest total control of this market from the traditional distributors and that part of the recent increase in the homicide rate in El Salvador can be attributed to these battles.


This report is based on a visit the author made to El Salvador in February 2010, during which time the author spoke to numerous Salvadoran security officials, diplomats, foreign intelligence officers and analysts. See also, “Gangs in Central America,” Congressional Research Service (CRS), December 4, 2009 (pdf).

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...