Central American street gangs have established a presence in Spain and receive orders from their counterparts in Honduras and El Salvador, says the Spanish government, adding to fears these "maras" may become genuine transnational criminal actors.
According to a government report obtained by Spanish newspaper La Razon, the Barrio 18 and MS13 street gangs -- known as "maras" -- have been present in Spain since 2005, and could now use the country's fragile economic situation to expand.
The report refers to the cells established in Spain as "pseudo-maras," and says they are made up of gang members who have fled the hardline "iron fist" government policies in El Salvador and Honduras, and are now attempting to expand territorially from their new location.
Until now, the gangs have mostly been involved in isolated acts, included property crimes, knife violence, and inter-gang confrontations, says the report, but criminologist Ricardo Magaz said they are becoming "more and more violent" and have begun to profit from local drug distribution.
Sociologist Laura Etcharren said the maras had also begun associating with drug traffickers moving product through Spain -- a jumping off point for cocaine distributed in Europe -- and that the groups represented a "fusion between local and 'imported' crime."
InSight Crime Analysis
Both the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs have cells stretching from Central America to Canada. The United States recently sanctioned six MS13 leaders for charges including international drug trafficking, and last year designated the gang as a transnational criminal organization.
However, as noted by InSight Crime, this label is questionable because much of the gang's activity continues to be localized. The different cells, or "cliques" control territory and charge extortion fees to local residents and businesses. While certain cliques are contracted to assist transnational drug traffickers, they generally have not in the past -- with certain exceptions -- run operations or been drug traffickers in their own right.
Nonetheless, cross-border communication does occur between mara cliques, as evidenced by Honduran maras' attempts to replicate the El Salvador gang truce, and by numerous examples of maras in the United States coordinating with Central American counterparts.
The establishment of Spanish mara cliques that maintain contact with the Central American gangs, along with reports they are involved with drug traffickers, could be signs that the maras are becoming genuinely transnational operations. However, for the moment it seems social and economic factors are driving migration, not a planned criminal strategy, and their criminal objectives remained dominated by the local.