MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.

Honduras: The Need to Differentiate among the Gangs

By Steven Dudley

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Honduras street gangs – often inaccurately lumped into a single category – are a complex, deep-rooted social and criminal phenomenon that is driving violence and migration in record numbers. InSight Crime, after investigating them for most of 2015, found that the catch-all term “maras” is at once ominous and ill-defined. The two largest gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 – have similar criminal revenue streams, but different approaches to obtaining those proceeds. Recognizing these differences is an important part of undermining their power and influence.

  • Extortion is a critical source of funding for both groups. This includes the public transportation system and taxi cooperatives in the largest urban areas, which account for a huge percentage of the gangs’ earnings. InSight Crime talked to one member of a bus cooperative that was paying four gangs extortion fees and was being pestered by a fifth.
  • The groups’ approach to local extortion targets – small businesses, shops, or local delivery services – is different. The MS13 does not extort where they operate; the Barrio 18 does, with huge implications for the gangs’ relations with the neighborhood’s residents and local police. The Barrio 18 is seen as predatory; the MS13 is often seen as a protector.
  • The MS13 is more focused on local drug sales, which allows it to forgo the easy extortion proceeds. Because it meddles less with residents, the MS13 has better relations with the local police, who, in turn, target the Barrio 18 with more resources and vigor. This also positions MS13 for better relations with community leaders and politicians, and it reportedly can, in some cases, act as the unofficial social services operator in cases of child or spousal abuse. In one area InSight Crime visited, the MS13 gives accused abusers a warning after the first report, a beating after the second, and banishment (or worse) after the third.
  • While they may operate under a single umbrella, the MS13 and the Barrio 18 also vary widely in sophistication and reach, wherewithal, and infrastructure. They are semi-autonomous and prone to violent spasms that have wide-reaching implications for the communities in which they operate. The Barrio 18 appears to be less disciplined and less focused on bigger goals than the elements of the MS13 InSight Crime studied. Barrio 18 members give the impression that their struggle is more about human survival than expansion in the underworld. They live by “codes,” such as “respect the barrio,” that are evoked as a pretext for nearly any action, violent or otherwise, against outsiders and fellow gang members alike.
  • The violent ethos that guides the Barrio 18 and the MS13 is shared by their rivals, who include offshoots of the two main gangs, vigilantes, and soccer hooligans. Almost all live from the same income sources – extortion and local drug peddling. Some days they are allies; other days they are enemies.

The repercussions of oversimplifying the situation – treating all gangs as the same – are not trivial. Honduras continues to struggle with record levels of violence, and the United States is grappling with record levels of asylum applicants from gang-riddled countries like Honduras. There are times for a hammer, with criminal groups that only seem to understand force. But there are also moments when negotiation, accommodation, and social programs are more persuasive, and long-lasting, than simply sending in more troops and arresting more youths with tattoos. The trick is to know the difference, but we can only do that if we start to see these groups as complex and dynamic organizations with different criminal economies, social relations, and political ambitions.

December 14, 2015

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSightCrime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS. The full report “Gangs in Honduras” is available in English here and in Spanish here.

Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015

Belize: An Outlier in the Middle of the Mess

Belize - Boy carrying water. Photo credit: Blue Skyz Media / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Belize – Boy carrying water. Photo credit: Blue Skyz Media / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Though off the radar of most analysts, Belize appears to be the latest casualty of the drug trade and criminal violence.  It debuted on the Obama Administration’s annual blacklist of major drug-transit and -producing countries back in September 2011, alongside El Salvador, filling out the roster of Central American countries.  That U.S. government spotlight, however, has done little to halt the Mexican drug cartels’ expansion into Belize.  The U.S. State Department now estimates that about 10 metric tons of cocaine are smuggled each year along Belize’s Caribbean coast – partly the work of local contacts established by the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel.

Like its neighbors’ security challenges, Belize’s problems are not limited to drug trafficking.  Urban gangs and the rivalries among them are the main driver of the escalating violence, which is rooted in the same causes as in neighboring countries – institutional weakness, rampant corruption, impunity, and unemployment.  The government-sponsored gang truce negotiated in 2011, which featured “salary” payments to members who ceased violent activities, collapsed last December when funds dried up.  (Click here for details documented by our colleagues at InSight Crime.)  Belizean authorities tallied a record number of homicides last year, edging out neighboring Guatemala for the sixth place slot in global per capita homicide rankings.  Porous borders make Belize attractive to transnational gangs, particularly El Salvador’s MS-13 and Barrio 18, both of which have established a significant presence in the capital city, Belmopan, and elsewhere.  About one-fifth of the country’s 325,000 people are Salvadoran citizens, making it difficult to track criminal elements.

The deteriorating conditions in Belize raise questions about the effectiveness of U.S. counternarcotics and “citizen security” programs in the region.  The patchwork of U.S. initiatives under the umbrella of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) has not reversed regional trends even in tiny Belize.  While the country’s law enforcement agencies welcomed the heavy equipment, training, and technical assistance that make up the bulk of CARSI funding, the tactical gains have been obscured by a worsening strategic outlook.  The U.S. Government Accountability Office has voiced its concern that the State Department is confusing efforts with results.  Moreover, neither the Belizean nor U.S. government has mapped out a preventative strategy.  The most recent data show that less than half of the funds allocated to Belize from CARSI’s Economic Support Fund, used for programs to help at-risk youth, has been spent, and after handing out 1 million Belizean taxpayer dollars to gang members during the truce, for example, there is little to show for it.  In the run-up to President Obama’s summit with Central American presidents next week, Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s statement that “Obama hasn’t done anything for Belize” was subsequently qualified, but the fact remains that U.S. partnership with Belize, like with its neighbors, has not begun to work yet.

**An earlier version of this post inadvertently omitted the word “Belizean” before “taxpayer dollars” in the concluding paragraph, giving the false impression that State Department funds had been used to subsidize Belize’s gang truce.

Salvadoran Gang Truce: Opportunities and Risks

By Héctor Silva, CLALS Research Fellow

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

Despite the general agreement that the truce between El Salvador’s two main gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, has lowered the homicide rate dramatically – from 14 killings a day in 2011 to some 5-6 in 2012 – many serious challenges persist. The truce was brokered by a former guerrilla commander and a Catholic bishop and, after two months of denying a government role, Security Minister General David Munguía Payés acknowledged that his office was the mastermind.  It is now entering a second stage in which six municipalities, ruled by both the governing FMLN and the rightist opposition party ARENA, have pledged to join the initiative. This new stage involves local ad hoc prevention plans aimed at gang members’ families and youth at risk. The truces have become the principal security policy of the Funes administration.

The lack of transparency around the planning and implementation – above all the origin of the initial pact –has fueled skepticism among journalists, politicians and the general public, and polling has not shown wide support for the truce.  The United States has become one of the fiercest critics of the initiative, with its first official reaction a few days after Salvadoran electronic news outlet El Faro revealed details in March 2012 of secret negotiations between the gangs and the Salvadoran intelligence service. U.S. Under Secretary of State María Otero, visiting San Salvador, declared that the gangs must disappear, suggesting disapproval of the appeasement implicit in secret talks, and U.S. law enforcement officials have always been privately skeptical.  The Treasury Department is helping local American police departments attack MS13’s financial networks, which some in San Salvador interpret as a political signal of Washington distancing itself from the truce – an ironic twist given that Munguía Payés was installed largely because of U.S. pressure.  The stakes were raised last week when the State Department issued a warning to travelers to El Salvador, expressing for the first time in writing doubts about the truce.

The Salvadoran state and society face a complex road ahead.  The reduction in the homicide rate is, of course, welcome, and opposition to the second stage of the plan, the municipal sanctuaries, will be muted in a preelectoral year.  (The ARENA candidate for President, Norman Quijano, has remained skeptical but seems likely to jump on the bandwagon.) But with its ambiguous public stance on the truce despite its Security Minister’s political commitment, the Funes administration has not pledged to fund the second stage of the truce, and it seems very unlikely that the United States will be stepping in.  Another factor is that while El Salvador´s security operations are constrained by the truce, other important problems – such as extortion, drug trafficking, impunity and corruption – remain untouched. Furthermore, evidence is slowly emerging that the organized crime rings are using the circumstances to expand their influence and take advantage of their relationship with some of the gangs’ most violent cliques to enhance trafficking routes. Washington’s skepticism about the truce is valid and should be followed up with an emphasis on the underlying causes of El Salvador’s ills.