Gangs, Vendors and Political Capital in Downtown San Salvador


In San Salvador’s bustling Historic Center, nothing gets done without going through the gangs.

The notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs have steadily tightened their grip on almost all aspects of life in a city center housing the heart of El Salvador’s informal urban markets – a gold mine for extortion, contraband, drug-peddling, and more.

This two-year InSight Crime investigation chronicles how the gangs, with their ever-increasing control of territory and criminal revenue, have used their stranglehold on the Historic Center to expand their power in El Salvador.

The center is crucial to the gang’s political awakening – a reality which has brought with it a host of alliances and negotiations with politicians of all parties, from municipal officials to the halls of Nayib Bukele’s presidential palace.

Chapter 1

How El Salvador President Bukele Deals with Gangs

BARRIO 18 / 1 OCT 2020

It was late 2016 and officials in San Salvador were preparing for the grand opening of a sparkling new market in the city’s Historic Center.

Chapter 2

From Predators to Partners: How Gangs are Taking San Salvador

BARRIO 18 / 1 OCT 2020

This is the second part of a three-part series on San Salvador’s Historic Center, the heart of the country’s informal urban markets and a long-time bastion of the street gangs.

Chapter 3

The ‘Protection Racket,’ Gangs and Violence in San Salvador

BARRIO 18 / 1 OCT 2020

For San Salvador resident Humberto Reyes, a sunny morning in the Historic Center’s sprawling markets began with two shots in the back of the head.

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