Police in Guatemala say the economic pressures stemming from the coronavirus lockdown are exacerbating internal divisions within the Barrio 18 street gang, a symptom of the structural weaknesses that have long affected the group.
With much of the Guatemalan economy shut down since the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March, some gangs have put extortion payments on hold, adversely affecting low-ranking Barrio 18 members who rely on these revenues to make ends meet, according to David Boteo, head of the country’s anti-gang police (División Nacional contra el Desarrollo de las Pandillas – DIPANDA).
The systematic extortion of local business, public transport, and convenience stores, among other victims, is the main source of income for the gang, which has around 3,000 active members and a vast network of collaborators spread across 19 of Guatemala’s 22 departments, according to information provided by DIPANDA.
Strapped for cash, low-ranking gang members are increasingly breaking off into splinter groups, engaging in the same criminal activities but no longer under the banner of Barrio 18, Boteo told InSight Crime.
“They’ve found themselves needing to go out and commit robberies, steal from supply trucks, vehicles, and houses,” the DIPANDA chief said, adding that the breakaway groups have “tried to extort in areas under Barrio 18 control and risking their lives in doing so because they are doing it without permission.”
But unlike in neighboring El Salvador, where Barrio 18 has long been divided into two rival factions, the gang’s splinter groups in Guatemala has thus far remained minor criminal players, according to Mario Bosos, a former DIPANDA advisor.
Nonetheless, Guatemala’s anti-gang police are now concentrating efforts on avoiding further gang fragmentation and the growth of new extortion rackets, Prensa Libre reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
Guatemala’s coronavirus lockdown appears to be accelerating existing fractures within Barrio 18, which is active throughout Central America and known for its decentralized structure.
The pandemic has highlighted the economic frustrations felt by the gang’s rank-and-file, many of whom are now struggling to subsist without extortion rent, while gang leaders use revenues from legal business to tide themselves over until the economy re-opens, Boteo explained.
Yet these tensions are not new and were already causing the gang’s fragmentation before the onset of the coronavirus in Guatemala.
Bosos told InSight Crime that Barrio 18’s leadership began losing authority after many members became frustrated at a lack of chances of upward mobility and a perception that high-ranking members were living in better prison conditions after Guatemala authorities began isolating leaders in separate jails in the early 2010s.
That gradual erosion of the leadership’s legitimacy vis-à-vis the lower ranks and the need for economic survival paved the way for independent groups to emerge, a dynamic that appears to have sped up with the economic desperation brought about by the coronavirus lockdown.
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Now, it appears that economic necessity is superseding respect for the gang’s leadership, despite the risk of death that comes with betraying the gang.
“Many [low-ranking members] now act like they aren’t active members, because they don’t follow the organization’s rules,” Bosos explained. He added that the breakaway factions are already up to speed with Barrio 18 criminal portfolio and said that “once they have gained territorial control, they want independence.”