El Salvador's land smuggling routes have been revived of late, and some cells of the country's largest street gang -- the MS13 -- have made inroads in border territories once exclusively controlled by El Salvador's large trafficking groups.
InSight Crime tracked these changes in El Salvador's drug trafficking and gang dynamics during a two-year investigation that included visits to seven border departments and to San Salvador, the country's capital.
Here are three main takeaways from the investigation, which culminated with a public event March 23 to share some of our findings:
Land Routes Reignited
A spike in trafficking activity along land routes in eastern El Salvador -- routes that begin near the El Amatillo customs checkpoint on the border with Honduras -- became evident in bumper seizures of cocaine sent to El Salvador from Nicaragua.
El Salvador authorities seized 2.7 tons of cocaine between January and November 2020 -- 1.3 tons more than in all of 2019, according to official data.
The short-term spike in seizures came at a time when the decline of El Salvador's most powerful drug groups -- namely the Texis Cartel and the Perrones -- had left behind a fragmented narcotics trade managed by smaller networks, none of which appear to have become dominant.
"What we are now seeing is a mix of factions or former cartel members that in some areas compete with aspiring groups," said Angela Olaya, InSight Crime's project manager on the investigation.
In the eastern department of San Miguel, historically an operational center for drug traffickers, the resurgence of land routes has coincided with the re-emergence of businesses previously linked to money laundering, including hotels, nightclubs, car dealerships and hardware stores, according to local experts interviewed by InSight Crime.
Omnipresent Gangs, Evolving Ambitions
Both the MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs enjoy widespread territorial control in El Salvador, and have managed to use this control to hold sway with mayors and politicians who often rely on the gangs as interlocutors.
The relationships include an alleged informal pact negotiated between parts of El Salvador's national government and the gangs, which has allowed for a reduction in the national murder rate.
Homicides dropped by nearly half nationwide between 2019 and 2020. But the reasons have been far from transparent. President Nayib Bukele denies having established any dialogue with the gangs, though his interactions with the MS13 and Barrio 18 date back to his time as mayor of San Salvador, according to an InSight Crime investigation.
The MS13 Takes Over an International Cocaine Route
Possibly the MS13's most successful venture into transnational drug trafficking has been in the Pacific Coast department of La Unión, where the gang has taken over a stretch of the maritime cocaine route connecting Nicaragua and El Salvador via the Gulf of Fonseca.
The area was previously controlled by a trafficker who had taken it over from the detained leaders of the Perrones drug clan, but was later killed by his own cousin. The cousin then claimed the route with an MS13 cell known as the Hempstead Locos Salvatruchos (HLS), according to an InSight Crime investigation in La Unión.
The gang then set about using a fleet of small motorboats to move cocaine across the narrow stretch of water that separates Nicaragua from the beaches of La Unión, from which it delivered drug shipments to intermediaries in eastern El Salvador.
The MS13's operation in La Unión is an uncharacteristically sophisticated one for a gang normally engaged in extortion and local drug sales.