HomeNewsAnalysisStreet Gang No More, MS-13 Moves into Organized Crime
ANALYSIS

Street Gang No More, MS-13 Moves into Organized Crime

EL SALVADOR / 9 MAR 2011 BY HANNAH STONE EN

El Salvador's infamous street gangs, including the Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13), are getting more deeply involved in drug trafficking and are poised to become major players in transnational crime, indicates a new media report. This marks a further step in the group's evolution from a loose-knit association of small-time street gangs to become a much more formidable and organized force.

According to El Salvador's principal newspaper, El Diario del Hoy, sources in police and military intelligence say that certain factions of the MS-13 now control prime drug-trafficking territory on the coast of the southwestern province La Union. Several of these groups have reportedly divided among themselves the strategic area around the Fonseca Gulf, a bay whose perimeter is also shared by Honduras and Nicaragua, and are seeking a foothold on islands in the gulf.

The gangs have upped their game; sources told the newspaper that, instead of escaping on bicycles or in cars, the MS-13 now speed away from crime scenes on go-fast boats. The MS-13 cells in this area are also reportedly moving away from small-scale activities like extorting local businessmen and are getting more deeply involved in international trafficking, using landing spots in the coastal municipality of Conchagua. The gangs active in this area go by the names Heisten, Coronados, Vias Satelite and Pinos Locos, according to the newspaper.

Reports from El Diario de Hoy in February 2010 warned that the local branches of the MS-13 were battling for control over Conchagua's coastline, following the April 2009 arrest of local kingpin Daniel Quezada, whose drug gang the Perrones had previously controlled the area and its valuable landing sites. The anti-narcotics police force told El Diario that the MS-13 were no longer content with the street-level distribution of drugs, but wanted to move up the supply chain to become bulk distributors in control of the market.

This marks a qualitative shift for the El Salvador-based activities of the MS-13, which began as a self-protection gang for Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s. It expanded into Central America after many gang members served prison sentences in the U.S. and were deported back to their homeland.

Despite the fact that MS-13 has a strong presence in several countries, including the U.S., Mexico, and Guatemala, it is traditionally considered a gang rather than a fully organized criminal cartel, made up of a loose collection of local groups lacking central leadership, coordination or long-term strategic planning. This means the MS-13 historically has not had the kind of resources or quasi-political aims associated with big centralized groups, like the Mexican cartels, and lacks the manpower and firepower to carry out long-term or large-scale projects. The gang is better known for its acts of purposeless brutality than for organized, profitable criminal activity.

This could be changing. The latest reports on the evolution of some branches of the MS-13 suggest ambitions to move beyond low-level extortion and drug rackets into the world of transnational organized crime. An InSight investigation in January 2011 highlighted the developing links between El Salvadoran gangs like MS-13 and international crime cartels, specifically Mexican groups, and warned that this could be a game-changer for crime in the region. The investigation found that, as well as moves to control La Union's drug routes, MS-13 factions further west along the coast towards the Guatemalan border may also be seeking control over bulk distribution of drugs.

The MS-13's relationships with major international groups are encouraged by the fact that security drives in both Colombia and Mexico are squeezing these countries’ crime syndicates, pushing them towards using Central America as a more loosely-policed theater of operations. In particular, the MS-13 appears to have a blossoming relationship with the Zetas, a Mexican cartel.

A faction of the MS-13, the Fulton Locos Salvatruchas, had allegedly received training from the Zetas, while police suspect other branches of the MS-13 use weapons supplied by this Mexican group. These concerns were publicly acknowledged by President Mauricio Funes in a September 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, when he said not only that Salvadoran cartels have links with Colombian, Guatemalan, and Mexican cartels, but that according to intelligence reports MS-13 are forming ties with the Zetas.

Another factor driving these relationships forward is the El Salvadoran government’s hardline policies, known as ‘mano dura,’ or iron fist, which have been adopted towards groups like the MS-13 since the mid-2000s. The state crackdown may have been a factor in encouraging MS-13's disparate factions to organize, forge links with foreign groups, and expand their revenue sources in order to survive.

As reported by InSight, one of the unwanted side-effects of the mano dura policy involves the mass round-up of gang members. This led to overcrowded prisons, which in turn has led to huge prison riots. The government responded by keeping rival gang members in seperate facilities. But the concentration of MS-13 leaders in jail gave them the time to make contacts, network, regroup, discuss strategy, and institute more centralized command structures - all steps in the move towards the world of transnational organized crime.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

EL SALVADOR / 27 OCT 2015

The following is part two of El Faro's interview with Raul Mijango. In the interview, Mijango -- a former guerrilla…

BARRIO 18 / 30 SEP 2016

Prison gangs in Central America and Brazil have evolved from small predatory groups to sophisticated criminal organizations with an ability…

BARRIO 18 / 9 MAY 2013

Statistics show that for the first time since 2009, homicides have begun to climb at a steady pace in Guatemala,…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Unraveling the Web of Elites Connected to Organized Crime

27 JUL 2021

InSight Crime published Elites and Organized Crime in Nicaragua, a deep dive into the relationships between criminal actors and elites in that Central American nation.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime’s Greater Focus on US-Mexico Border

20 JUL 2021

InSight Crime has decided to turn many of its investigative resources towards understanding and chronicling the criminal dynamics along the US-Mexico border.

THE ORGANIZATION

Key Arrests and Police Budget Increases Due to InSight Crime Investigations

8 JUL 2021

With Memo Fantasma’s arrest, InSight Crime has proven that our investigations can and will uncover major criminal threats in the Americas.

THE ORGANIZATION

Organized Crime’s Influence on Gender-Based Violence

30 JUN 2021

InSight Crime investigator Laura N. Ávila spoke on organized crime and gender-based violence at the launch of a research project by the United Nations Development Programme.

THE ORGANIZATION

Conversation with Paraguay Judicial Operators on PCC

24 JUN 2021

InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley formed part of a panel attended by over 500 students, all of whom work in Paraguay's judicial system.