El Salvador officials have warned of gang members fleeing into neighboring countries to escape the pressure of security forces. But is this a serious threat or simply a convenient method for officials to tout the "successes" of hardline security measures?
Salvadoran Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde has alerted Central American police forces that gang members may flee El Salvador into neighboring countries, reported El Mundo.
"We are aware a flight possibility exists," said Ramírez. "Gang members will be looking to evade Salvadoran justice."
Roberto Flores, El Salvador's vice minister of security, added, "We have information [gang members] are leaving through blind spots, and others through border crossings," according to La Prensa Gráfica.
The warnings over gang members fleeing El Salvador come off the back of a raft of new security measures.
On April 20, El Salvador deployed the Special Reaction Force (Fuerza Especializada de Reacción – FER), an elite anti-gang unit consisting of 600 soldiers and 400 police officers, to rural areas. One of the principal objectives of the FER is to capture 100 leaders of the most dangerous gangs in the country.
Following deployment of the FER to the countryside, Howard Cotto, director of the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC), said gang members may become displaced and migrate to urban areas.
"It is possible leaders of the criminal structures are telling their members to move to urban zones," said Cotto. "Our special force is trained to operate in urban areas if it is necessary and if the conditions require it."
On April 27, another joint task force, the Intervention and Territorial Recuperation Force (Fuerza de Intervención y Recuperación Territorial – FIRT), deployed to an area of Soyapango municipality, north of San Salvador. The area is reportedly a stronghold of the Barrio 18 Sureños faction. Cotto said the FIRT, composed of 600 soldiers and 200 police officers, would be sent to the 10 municipalities with the highest levels of gang violence.
In addition to deploying anti-gang units, El Salvador has been ratcheting up other security measures over the past month, declaring a number of "states of exception" and introducing "extraordinary measures" to clamp down on gang activity in the country's prison system. In addition, El Salvador's Legislative Assembly reformed the country's penal codes to prohibit negotiations with criminals and classify street gangs as terrorist organizations.
Around the same time as these measures, Honduras' National Inter-institutional Security Force (Fuerza de Seguridad Interinstitucional Nacional – FUSINA) announced it had "intensified operations along the country's land and sea borders" to prevent the entry of criminal elements, reported EFE. The FUSINA issued a press release stating it is "coordinating with Central American authorities to exchange information on the movements of criminal groups," and is working to prevent the entry of persons into Honduras "with the intent of committing crimes."
Security officials in Guatemala have also ordered the national police to establish a series of controls to prevent Salvadoran gang members from entering the country, reported La Prensa Gráfica.
"Bearing in mind the information given to us ... regarding the policy of the El Salvador government to confront the gang phenomenon, we ask officers be instructed to conduct vehicular and pedestrian controls," the order reads.
Guatemalan border agents will be checking the nationality of those crossing the border and determining if they have clothing or tattoos alluding to any gang. If they do show signs of gang membership, border agents will then check if they have a criminal record, according to La Prensa Gráfica.
The message from El Salvador that its neighbors need to protect themselves from gang members fleeing the security crackdown comes amidst a government campaign to trumpet the achievements of their still new security measures.
El Salvador's President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has said the government's security and anti-crime policies are bearing fruit, serving to disrupt coordination between incarcerated gang members and allowing security forces to retake control of gang territory. In April, the number of murders in the country dropped by 42 percent, which the government claimed credit for -- although so did the gangs, who had announced a ceasefire the month before.
InSight Crime Analysis
Central American gang members have been moving between countries for years, and this movement is something local officials frequently sound the alarm over.
In April 2015, officials made strikingly similar comments about Salvadoran gang members fleeing into neighboring countries to escape increased persecution. At the time, reports were emerging of Salvadoran MS13 members overtaking an isolated village in Honduras, recruiting youths and forcing locals to provide shelter.
In another case in mid-2015, six "highly dangerous" MS13 members escaped from police custody in El Salvador and fled into Honduras. Several were recaptured in a town along the Salvadoran border.
Nonetheless, the latest warnings from Central American raise the prospect of the phenomenon of criminal migration out of El Salvador taking on a new, potentially greater dimension this time around.
Reaching a reliable conclusion, however, is difficult. Local officials provide few, if any, numbers on border detentions that might shed light on trends in cross-border criminal movement. For instance, last week, Guatemalan border agents detained a number of people attempting to enter the country illegally from El Salvador. A Guatemalan official told InSight Crime these detentions were the result of El Salvador's enhanced security and judicial policies. Those apprehended were processed and handed over to Salvadoran officials, the source said.
Yet in such cases it is not always immediately apparent if those illegally crossing the border are actually gang members or not, nor what their exact motivation for leaving El Salvador is.
The motivation for the latest warnings over increased criminal migration out of El Salvador, meanwhile, may have a political edge. Sounding the alarm in this way allows officials to tout the successes of their policies at a time when they desperately need to be seen to be reasserting control over the country's security crisis.
Regardless, if El Salvador's security polices do precipitate an exodus of gang members into nearby countries, this could have serious consequences for the regional dynamic.
Salvadoran gang members seeking refuge with local factions in Guatemala or Honduras to avoid arrest could potentially foment stronger ties and help consolidate cross-border gang networks. This could conceivably give rise to gangs' increased involvement in more sophisticated transnational criminal activities.
Moreover, criminal migration out of El Salvador could also lead to spillover violence, especially if Salvadoran gang members do not just use neighboring countries for hiding, but also begin engaging in criminal activity.
There have been some recent indications this is already occurring. Sources within the Guatemalan government have told InSight Crime it was a Salvadoran Barrio 18 member who planted a bomb on a San José Pinula bus in March. A Salvadoran gang member is also believed to have led an extortion ring in Mixco, near Guatemala City, and Guatemalan officials are investigating the presence of Salvadoran gang elements in Chimaltenango, the source said.
For the time being, such occurrences appear to be isolated incidents and there is no obvious correlation with El Salvador's increasingly repressive security measures. Moving forward, however, as El Salvador continues to ramp up security measures and pressure gangs, such criminal migration may become a serious concern.