The recent capture of alleged Barrio 18 gang members in Italy confirms the spread of the Central American mara gangs in Europe, but questions remains as to whether this means they are now truly transnational criminal organizations.
Italian police arrested 15 suspected Barrio 18 members in Milan and other nearby cities in northern Italy, reported AFP.
The group -- which was mostly comprised of Salvadorans but also reportedly included two Italians -- is accused of crimes including extortion, drug trafficking, armed robbery and the attempted murder of a rival from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang.
An Italian judge ordered the arrests following an investigation that began in January 2014 after a female Salvadoran accused one of the group's members of sexually assaulting her, according to AFP.
SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile
Central American gangs like Barrio 18 and MS13, which are known as "maras," have been operating in Italy for years, particularly in northern immigrant communities, the report added.
InSight Crime Analysis
Over the last two years, security forces in both Italy and Spain have noted the expansion of the MS13 in Europe, and these latest report confirms they are not alone -- their great rivals in Barrio 18 have also crossed the ocean.
The key question surrounding this development is whether the spread is a result of Central American migrants bringing mara street gang culture with them and setting up autonomous networks, or whether these new European based factions are running criminal operations with maras in Central America, suggesting the gangs have made the leap into transnational organizations.
Both gangs are also well established in parts of the United States and the US government has already designated the MS13 a transnational criminal organization, ranking them alongside criminal groups such as the Mexican cartels. However, despite evidence of cross-border collaboration in criminal activities, the decentralized nature and highly localized and territorial focus of the maras has always cast doubts on this classification.
There have also been reports of the Spanish maras coordinating with their counterparts in the Americas, but even if this level of cooperation were to expand, it is unlikely they would have the capacity to coordinate serious transatlantic criminal operations. If they were to seek to establish control over transnational activities such as drug trafficking in Europe, they also would likely encounter formidable opposition; in Spain drug trafficking and associated activities such as contract killing is largely controlled by offshoots of Colombian cartels, while Italy is the domain of powerful and well-connected mafias such as the 'Ndrangheta.