Since El Salvador's government began a campaign of mass arrests two months ago in a gang crackdown, fewer than 60 suspected gang members fleeing the country have been arrested in Honduras and Guatemala – a figure that calls into question the beefed-up security and panicked official rhetoric.
The latest arrest was on May 30, when Guatemalan authorities detained an alleged Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang member in the border department of Jutiapa, according to a news release from the Interior Ministry. Officials said in the release that authorities had arrested 43 suspected gang members from El Salvador since March 29, when Guatemala launched its own security campaign in response to El Salvador's state of emergency.
On March 27, El Salvador's legislature approved emergency powers that loosened rules on arrests and suspended civil liberties after a record-setting weekend of gang killings. Since then, authorities have jailed more than 36,000 people suspected of being gang members.
Yet the 43 arrests in Guatemala account for less than two percent of the nearly 2,700 people deported from the country for migration issues during its security operation from March 29 to May 25.
In neighboring Honduras, authorities reported the capture of 16 alleged Salvadoran gang members since the start of El Salvador's state of emergency, according to a May 13 report by news outlet Proceso.
Honduran and Guatemalan authorities both launched new operations to boost security along their borders with El Salvador, including increased numbers of checkpoints, police officers and even anti-gang units, which were positioned on the borders at the end of March.
Four suspected gang members were arrested in Belize as of early May, according to a local news report.
InSight Crime Analysis
The hard-charging campaigns by the Honduran and Guatemalan authorities in response to the supposed mass migration of El Salvador's gangs are out of proportion to the threat. Instead, a gang expert told InSight Crime, these governments should be focused on the movement of a few gang leaders, the already-entrenched nature of these gangs in their countries and the larger civilian exodus.
Honduran authorities may be reacting to how a 2016 Salvadoran gang crackdown led to the birth of a violent MS13 clique there. However, the cell mostly comprised locals led by a senior Salvadoran gang boss, known by the alias “Isaías.”
The El Salvador government, for its part, appears to have not been forthright with neighboring Guatemala about the release of a dangerous gang member there. In early May, news outlet El Faro published a bombshell report that revealed an audio clip in which Carlos Marroquín, the head of the government’s Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit (Unidad de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social), claims he released MS13 gang leader Elmer Canales Rivera, alias "Crook," from prison and drove him to Guatemala. Crook, a member of the MS13's leadership board known as the Ranfla Nacional, is wanted by the US on terrorism charges.
“Due to its political, diplomatic and symbolic implications, Crook’s escape is more worrying than the migration of 100 gang members,” said Juan Martínez d'Aubuisson, a Salvadoran anthropologist and gang expert.
Crook "got out with the intention of establishing new points, new hubs and new international connections for the Mara Salvatrucha," he told InSight Crime.
Yet it is not just criminals fleeing El Salvador's sweeping arrests, which include many reports of arbitrary arrests of citizens. Fear of such detentions has led many people to leave their homes, according to Martínez d'Aubuisson.
“There’s a lot of people whose strategy to protect themselves, and above all their [teenage sons], is to flee El Salvador,” he said.