A report highlights a shift in gang activity in northern Nicaragua, where local groups are copying the style of, and making contact with, the MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs found in Central America's violent "Northern Triangle."
Since 2008, the city of Somoto has seen the rise of around 10 well-organized gangs whose members identify themselves with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs, or "maras," reported La Prensa.
According to La Prensa, there are a total of 570 gang members operating in the city, who perpetrate armed robberies and extort pedestrians, taxi drivers and truck drivers. Members have prominent tattoos, and leave gang graffiti around neighborhoods they claim to control, in the style of the maras.
Gang members who spoke to La Prensa on the condition of anonymity stated that the groups maintain ties with gangs in neighboring countries. They said that members cross into El Salvador and make contact with the MS13, which contracts them to carry out robberies.
Two Salvadoran MS13 members have been arrested in the Somoto region in recent years, and both allegedly had made contact with local gangs, according to La Prensa.
InSight Crime Analysis
The MS13 and Barrio 18 are powerful in the "Northern Triangle" of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and contribute to high levels of violence in these countries. The southern part of Central America -- Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama -- has far lower levels of violent crime, due in part to the lack of violent, territorial groups like the maras.
Although Nicaragua has one of the region's lowest homicide rates and has been hailed as a security success story, reports of ties between local criminal groups and Northern Triangle gangs suggest that insecurity in the turbulent neighboring countries may be spilling over the border.
SEE ALSO: MS13 Profile
The reports of Northern Triangle maras contracting out low-level criminal tasks to gangs in Nicaragua are plausible, but may not be a cause for concern about these groups joining forces. At the next level up, transnational drug trafficking groups are thought to have a similar relationship with the maras, paying them to protect drug shipments or carry out contract killings, but this has not led to deeper integration between the groups.
Meanwhile, authorities in Panama have identified 194 gangs operating in the country, with a total of 4,200 members, reported Critica. Since President Juan Carlos Varela implemented an amnesty program in July, 1,302 gang members have reportedly taken advantage of the initiative to disarm.