Surveillance carried out by US authorities shows the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs in Central America are in constant contact with their US counterparts, supporting claims that the maras have evolved into genuine transnational organized crime groups.
Telephone wiretaps monitoring gang communications show how the leadership of the "mara" street gangs coordinate criminal activities between Honduras, El Salvador, and the United States, reported Honduran newspaper La Prensa.
Investigations by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) also showed how money was channeled to the gang leadership via "hormiga" (ant) smuggling -- a method of smuggling that involves multiple small transfers of cash, often no more than $100 at one time.
In the United States, the gangs have established a presence in Washington DC, Virginia, and California -- in particular Los Angeles.
InSight Crime Analysis
In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). In June 2013, this was followed by the addition of six MS-13 leaders to the Treasury Department's list of Specially Designated Nationals.
These moves on the part of US authorities proved controversial: even El Salvador President Mauricio Funes weighed in, accusing the US of "over-estimating the gangs."
Reports of the ICE's tracking of the gangs' transnational communications and money transfers lend credence to the contentious designations by the Treasury Department. US authorities have previously observed that some gang leaders based in Central America have communicated regularly with gangs cells in the US. There has been one documented case in which an MS-13 leader contacted fellow gang "clique" members in Maryland in order to coordinate assassinations and collect debt payments, as InSight Crime has previously reported.
The gangs certainly operate transnationally to an extent -- they are able to use their networks across all the countries where they operate to carry out cross-border crimes. However, they fundamentally remain a loose-knit network, more akin to criminal franchises than a genuine mafia structure, such as Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, and claims that rank them alongside such organizations should be treated with caution.