Police in Belize have arrested six suspects allegedly linked to the MS13 for attempted extortion and arson, in a case that supports earlier reports the transnational street gang is setting up shop in this vulnerable Central American nation.
Belize City resident Edwin Flores was detained on July 22 along with his girlfriend in a police sting operation, after a local businessman told police the couple had demanded he pay them $8,000. After Flores' girlfriend received the cash, police arrested the couple and four associates. One of the men was also wanted for armed robbery and confessed to committing a recent deadly arson attack, reported the Guardian.
Authorities believe Flores and the four other male suspects are members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang, reported Channel 5 Belize. Flores has been charged with blackmail and -- along with the other detainees -- displaying gang insignia, reported CTV 3 News.
According to Senior Police Superintendent Edward Broaster, the MS13 maintains operations in Belize, but these are generally focused on extortion. Their activities are less violent than in nearby El Salvador, making it harder for police to detect the gang's operations, reported Channel 5 Belize.
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There have been reports of an MS13 presence in Belize since at least 2003, according to a 2012 La Prensa Grafica article that claimed both that gang, and its Barrio 18 rivals, had increased their presence in the tiny Central American nation -- which has a large Salvadoran population -- in recent years. The newspaper also reported that an unnamed Salvadoran gang with 400 members operated in the Cayo District, where capital city Belmopan is located. Since then, there have been scattered reports of authorities in Belize capturing suspected MS13 members.
Nonetheless, it may be the case that alleged MS13 activity is really that of Belize's many local gangs posing as maras to provoke fear -- as has been known to happen in neighboring Honduras.
The MS13 was founded by Salvadoran refugees in California in the 1980s and has since expanded to the East Coast of the United States and into Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The March arrests of 35 alleged MS13 members in Spain indicate the group has established a presence in that European country as well.
SEE ALSO: MS13 Profile
As the MS13 continues to expand, Belize could become a strategic operating platform. The state's weak central government has helped make it a center for money laundering, and its location next to Central America's principal drug transit nations also makes it potentially useful as a transshipment point. Meanwhile, the violent turf war currently being waged by numerous local gangs could offer an opportunity for the MS13 to expand while homegrown groups are engaged in conflict.