HomeNewsAnalysisEl Salvador's New Role in the Drug Trade Forged Behind Bars

El Salvador's New Role in the Drug Trade Forged Behind Bars


El Salvador's street gangs, including the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, have used their time in prison to deepen their connections to organized crime and the international drug trade, according to a report from El Universal.

The National Civil Police (PNC) are based in an old building from the 1930s where archangel  Michael, patron saint of the police, observes the uniformed agents who guard the second most violent country in the hemisphere. According to the 2011 Military Balance report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Honduras has the region’s highest homicide rate with 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Second is El Salvador, with 71.

In a large room with high ceilings and a long mahogany table appears the police sub-director, Mauricio Landaverde. He speaks of drugs and violence with a resigned tone, saying that in recent years three “mini-cartels” have appeared, organizations that transport drugs by land and by sea along the Pacific coast. They are intricate networks made up of local businessmen who invest the money, police who guard the drugs, mayors who give permission for construction projects to launder money, and gangs who guard their plaza [drug trafficking territory] and carry out assassinations.

He doesn’t name names, but places: “We’ve had situations like the one in Chalatenango province, in the north, where the alliance between gangs and organized crime is more solid and you can’t distinguish one from the other.”


In Majucla, the asphalt gives way to dirt and buildings to constructions made out of any material that can be found. Life in this poor neighborhood on the outskirts of San Salvador rotates around Mariona prison, just a couple of blocks away. Many residents have been in prison, or know somebody there.

“My friend got 350 years for a couple of murders,” says Steve, a fat man about 5’5 tall, clean-shaven and smiling.

“It’s crazy,” says his friend Mario ... a man of sharp features and few words. “He’s gonna die in there.”

Just like Villa Mariona, Ciudad Futura and Villa Hermosa, Majucla is MS-13 territory. Up until eight years ago all these neighborhoods were under the command of Juan, a short man with a twisted smile who only greets people with his left hand. Being one-handed didn’t prevent him from leading the Villa Mariona Locos Salvatruchos, one of the innumerable cliques [groups] which make up the gang.


During Juan’s time, the gangs weren’t key players in the drug trade. They were small-scale dealers, or they provided security for local traffickers, who went into the business as contraband-runners: first cheese, then guns, then people. “The gangs have been evolving into structures that are much more complicated and more organized. They control territory, they are numerous and they have the capacity to mutate and adapt themselves to new demands that surround them. That’s why organized crime uses them for so many activities. Sometimes, the leader of a clique can even become part of the mafia,” says Jeanette Aguilar, director of the University Institute of Public Opinion, one of the few organizations that study the mara phenomenon.

As the cliques grew, so did the seriousness of their crimes. From robbery they moved on to kidnapping, then extortion, and now large-scale drug trafficking.

Although the topic is now being studied and talked about, by officials and on the streets, the way the gangs actually operate remains an enigma.

“How exactly do the gangs work for the drug trade?”

“There are things that can’t be said,” Juan replies coldly. 


A Narco Apprentice

Jose Misael Cisneros Rodriguez is nicknamed “Half Million” [Medio Millon) because he always had money in his pockets. He built his legend from the United States to El Salvador, a famous gang leader as well as a drug trafficker. Two years ago he managed to escape an ambush involving 100 agents, supposedly after he was tipped off by a member of the police. He was finally arrested on May 28.

Half Million is one of the few narco-gangsters that the authorities acknowledge. He heads the most violent cliques in the municipality of Nueva Concepcion [in the east]: Fulton Locos Salvatruchos and Hollywood Locos Salvatruchas -- from the MS-13 -- which are linked to the Texis Cartel, one of the country's principal drug trafficking groups.

Gangs leaders who have officially turned into narcos are rare, like Moris Alexander Bercian Manchon, alias “El Barney,” whose relationship with drugs was the result of a bloody journey. His father, Arturo Bercian Rivera, “El Tiburon,” was a retired colonel who worked for decades for Guatemalan cartel the Lucianos, which operated on the border between the two countries.

El Barney inherited the business in Sonsonate province, on the border with Guatemala, and used his position as leader of the Normandie Locos Salvatruchos to build himself an armed group. He is linked to 50 murders.

Barney’s power is such that members of his group have occupied posts in local government, explains police sub-director Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde: “They built a structure which is impenetrable and difficult to attack. In some cases, gang members seek to become independent, like El Barney, who is no longer solely dedicated to providing security or guaranteeing the transfer of drugs, but instead to taking control of the entire business.” In 2010 he was arrested with 7 kilos of cocaine, but was acquitted by a judge.


The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 -- believed to have some 64,000 members between the two of them -- have been observing a truce since March of this year, which has caused homicides to drop from 14 to five a day. But the government doesn't trust this momentary peace and David Munguia Payes, the justice and public security minister and self-described "manager" of this strategy, hasn't ruled out a return to the "Iron Fist" policies and mass arrests. The situation, he says, could get worse: "The gangs could turn into cartels and they would have a lot more money and weapons. The threat would be much greater."


Juan Martinez is a Salvadoran anthropologist who has spent hours and hours with gang members, spending time in the barrios and visiting them in jails. He has been a witness to how the gangs have become increasingly closed off and clandestine organizations: "The gang members met drug traffickers in prisons, who used [the gangs] as a way to provide security. The older ones, the gang leaders, aren't there anymore to go around fighting with the young kids in the barrio, so they take over micro-trafficking and then they move into large-scale trafficking."

The new role of El Salvador in the drug trade was forged behind bars.

The above is InSight Crime's translation of selections from the article, with permission of El Universal and authors Alejandra Inzunza and Jose Luis Pardo (read the original in Spanish).

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