The Gang Challenge in El Salvador: Worse than You Thought


In August 2015, El Salvador registered its bloodiest month since its 1980-1992 civil war. There were 907 murders, including 52 in a single day on August 27. The country is on track to end the year with over 6,000 murders in a population of just 6.4 million, making it the most violent country not at war in the world.

In March 2012, with the help of former guerilla leader Raul Mijano and Bishop Fabio Colindres, the Salvadoran government brokered a tenuous truce between El Salvador’s two principal gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (B-18), later joined by smaller gangs such as Mao Mao, Mirada Loca, and La Maquina. The deal, in which the Salvadoran government’s role was initially covert, cut the country’s murder rate almost in half. However, under the truce, the gangs strengthened their organizations and continued criminal activities such as extortion. At the same time, they concealed the large number of people still being killed by burying them in hidden graves. The collapse of the truce, already unraveling with expanding violence throughout 2014, was confirmed at the start of 2015, with the declaration by Salvador’s new President Salvador Sanchez Ceren that his government would not negotiate with the gangs, followed by the return of key gang leaders to the Zacatecoluca maximum security prison, from the more comfortable, lower-security facilities to which they had been transferred under terms of the truce.

The explosion of violence in El Salvador during 2015 highlights worrisome phenomena not previously seen in the country on the present scale. The gangs have not only targeted each other and civilians not paying extortion, but also law enforcement personnel. Violence killed an estimated 58 police officers in the first 11 months of 2015, with Salvadoran National Police recording over 400 attacks against their personnel in 2015, compared to 140 in all of 2013 and 200 in 2014. This year, the gangs have attacked police stations with grenades, assassinated at least 20 off-duty military officers, and have used improvised explosive devices against public buildings, including a car bombing in front of the Treasury building in San Salvador in September 2015. Security experts in El Salvador that I spoke to talked of gang members beginning to return fire against police-military detachments when confronted. Previously, they had simply fled. Salvadoran security experts interviewed off-the-record also described gang members gathering in the Salvadoran countryside for training in military tactics and the use of assault weapons. Such training has reportedly been facilitated by former members of the Salvadoran military, either under contract, or who themselves have joined the gangs.

There has even been talk about the unification of the gangs into a new organization, “Mara 503,” although the majority of informed experts I spoke to were highly skeptical of the gangs’ abilities to overcome their long-standing, bloody rivalries in order to do so.

Beyond the military dimension, the gangs are also slowly usurping control of the civilian economy, expanding from almost-ubiquitous extortion of businesses to outright ownership of them, including those whose owners they have driven out of business. Gangsters now run bus companies, nightclubs, pharmacies, and even micro-credit organizations which loan money to local communities.

At the political level, Salvadoran experts told me of local mayors cutting deals with gangs to try to manage the violence in their jurisdictions. The ability of the gangs to deny political candidates and parties access to the substantial percentage of Salvadoran neighborhoods under their control allows them to influence political outcomes in the country. Indeed, the gangs have even brashly suggested that they have played a role in determining who was elected to the national government.

In 2005, as the gang problem was first taking off in El Salvador and other countries of Central America, U.S. Army War College scholar Max Manwaring characterized the gang threat as a “new urban insurgency.” The gang challenge in El Salvador, a grave concern even then, has evolved and expanded significantly in the decade since he wrote that article. Today, the power of the gangs to effectively exert control over territory, economic activity, and the social life of the country threatens to render hollow the concept of El Salvador as a market economy, a democracy and a free society with respect for human rights.

The Salvadoran Gang Problem

An estimated 55,000 persons are gang members in El Salvador, with an estimated 470,000 affiliated with the gangs, including family members, friends and helpers. In El Salvador, MS-13 is the larger and better organized of the two major factions. B-18, which split into the “Revolucionarios” and “Sureños” factions in a dispute over the distribution of income from extortion, is generally considered to be weaker, but more violent. The three previously mentioned smaller gangs — Mao Mao, Mirada Loco, and La Maquina — generally do not play a significant role in narcotrafficking or extortion.

In El Salvador, the gangs are generally much more territorial than they are elsewhere in the region. In contrast to Honduras and Guatemala, for example, there are far fewer cases in El Salvador where one gang cannot prevent the others from extorting businesses in the territory under its control.

Gangs in El Salvador also function more as a decentralized network than as a formal hierarchy. The basic organizational unit of both MS-13 and B-18 is the clica, of which Salvadoran security experts estimate there may be 560 nationwide. The 360 MS-13 clicas are organized into 96 “programs,” while the 200 B-18 clicas are organized as 35 “tribes.”

El Salvador is arguably distinct from its neighbors, Guatemala and Honduras, which are similarly beset by the corrosive, mutually reinforcing challenges of gangs, narcotics, and other illicit flows.

Like its neighbors, El Salvador is also a drug transit country, with two principal smuggling groups: the Perrones and the more refined and politically well-connected “Texis Cartel.” While increased counter-narcotics activities in neighboring Honduras and elsewhere have increased the use of drug transit routes going through El Salvador, the money generated from the relatively quick passage through the country is limited, and to date, there have not been indications of the significant use of the country for drug storage, or laboratories for the production of cocaine or synthetic drugs.

Although an important source of revenue for both MS-13 and B-18 is the distribution and sale of drugs at the local level (“narcominudeo”), their principal source of illicit revenue remains extortion. Moreover, while the cartels pay the gangs to permit the movement of drugs through territories under their control, the gangs have not yet demonstrated a serious effort to take the business away from the cartels.

The Evolution of Salvadoran Gangs

Over the past several years, the gangs have evolved in ways that expand their capabilities, and greatly complicate the ability of the government to manage the challenge that they present. The newest generation of gang members, adapting in part to law enforcement targeted against gangs, have largely eschewed visible tattoos and other public indications of their gang membership, although persistent indicators such as physical and vocal mannerisms still allow those familiar with the gang cultures to identify gang members.

MS-13 and B-18 have also selected members for training as lawyers and accountants in order to support the operational needs of their organizations to sustain significant economic enterprises. In some cases, gang members have also sought to infiltrate both the police and the military in order to gain intelligence. The Salvadoran security experts I spoke to generally concurred that the police are more penetrated than the military, mentioning differences between police and military culture, and the greater difficulty within the police of dismissing members suspected to have gang ties. Both institutions, however, have generally stopped attempts at penetration through screening at entry level institutions such as their respective service academies.

In a particularly worrisome development, many consulted in El Salvador for this article generally perceive that, with the exception of direct engagements involving the use of force, the gangs are coming to overshadow the government with respect to the exertion of effective control over national territory. Some suggested that the police are often not trusted or respected by the population to protect them, while the military lacks the budget and statutory authority to maintain a permanent presence throughout the country as they did prior to the end of the civil war with the “Territorial Service.”

In an increasing number of neighborhoods throughout the country, the gangs control who enters and leaves, and engage in criminal activity at their discretion. Residents are reluctant to approach the police and military for fear of retribution, believing that the temporary intervention of authorities will not protect them from the permanent gang presence that surrounds them.

Over the past decade, the Salvadoran government has criminalized gang membership and sustained an effort to imprison gang members. The Salvadoran prison authority estimates that 43% of gang members are currently in prison. Yet with the current imprisonment of over 13,600 gang members, the country’s prisons are at over 300% capacity.

The expectation that gang members on the outside will eventually spend time on the inside allows imprisoned leaders to maintain discipline over gang structures on the outside. Their ability to smuggle phones, money and other contraband past intimidated guards sustains the technical capacity to continue to do so.

The same ability of those on the inside to communicate with and obtain money from the outside allows MS-13 and B-18 to both bribe the prisons’ poorly paid guards and intimidate them through threats against their families. As a consequence, several consulted for this study argue that El Salvador’s prisons are run more by the gangs than by the government. Instead of isolating criminals and deterring further criminality, those institutions have become centers in which gang leaders recruit new members, strengthen discipline over their membership, and continue to run criminal operations.

The Government Response

The Salvadoran government has launched numerous initiatives to confront the gang challenge. There is no question that the government and its respective ministries are responding to the problem, but it is debatable whether that response is guided by an effective strategic concept, is well coordinated in both time and across agencies, and is adequately resourced.

For its part, the Salvadoran military has deployed over 3,100 troops to support police operations against the gangs and other criminal activity through its “Zeus” command, divided into 8 task forces and deployed to 31 municipalities throughout the country. Despite a track record of successful operations, intergovernmental coordination with the police and other government counterparts, including intelligence sharing, is reportedly limited by distrust. Coordination of those activities with development initiatives is ambiguous at best.

Beyond Zeus command, the Salvadoran armed forces have deployed 1,200 personnel to 19 penitentiaries and three juvenile detention centers across the country under the “San Marcos” command in order to help control those facilities. In early 2013, however, pursuant to an unofficial agreement with the gangs to facilitate “peace” between them, the military ceased its monitoring role inside the facilities, withdrawing to guard only the perimeter around them. Yet despite the breakdown of that truce in January 2015, prison authorities have not brought the military back in.

As a third major thrust against the gangs and delinquency, the military has deployed more than 1,300 troops under its “Eagle” command to help provide security to 651 schools, as well as tourist sites, public prosecutors, and other potential gang targets. However, the importance of avoiding improper interactions with civilians has caused the military to restrict how those patrols are conducted.

The military has also established a mobile rapid reaction force, “Thunder,” with 360 members, supported by helicopters and ground vehicles, for situations requiring an armed response beyond that available from local military and police forces.

Beyond the military, the government has further sought to combat organized crime with police and judicial initiatives, including a new legal process for going after the assets of criminal organizations. Although the prosecutor’s office in charge of the initiative has some successes to date, it is too early to tell whether the law will succeed in meaningfully undermining criminal structures in El Salvador, including the numerous small businesses owned by MS-13 and B-18.

At the national level, the cornerstone of the government’s strategy to address the gangs is its program “Secure El Salvador,” which contemplates spending $2.1 billion over five years on a combination of security and development activities. Yet a number of security experts in El Salvador consulted for this report are feeling the 5% surcharge on cellular telephones required to pay for the plan, and are skeptical whether the plan is sufficiently detailed, with a coherent concept for integrating security and developmental initiatives, to produce the hoped-for positive results.

The Path Ahead

In the face of El Salvador’s current crisis of public security, what the country most critically needs is not only resources, but also a plan that integrates all elements of government and society, and is designed to evolve over time. “Secure El Salvador” could be the foundation of that plan, but from the limited information publicly available, it appears that the Salvadoran government is now in a critical phase, in which it must work closely across its different ministries, with civil society, and with its international partners, to get the details right.

Such a plan must begin, but not end, with the-establishment of government presence in neighborhoods across the country, and the recovery of the nation’s penal institutions to serve as a tool of the government plan, and not of the gangs.

Such a plan must include incrementally augmenting and reforming security institutions. Reforms could include more extensive confidence testing and administrative reforms to permit the rapid isolation and removal of bad actors, and prevent future institutional penetration and compromise.

Equally important, the approach must expand and construct opportunities in the formal economy, as well as strengthen the rule-of-law and a values-based society. Little by little, these social changes will chip away at the social and economic space occupied by the gangs. El Salvador cannot instantly produce economic opportunities that cause marginalized youth to give up making thousands of dollars per month from extortion in exchange. Today, honest work may, at best, pay a tenth as much. But it can make illicit options riskier and less lucrative, while simultaneously providing dignified, viable alternatives that help at-risk youth make the right choice.

Finally, addressing the problem will require significant, sustained resources from the United States.

To date, the United States has provided El Salvador with modest but sustained assistance in strengthening its judicial, law enforcement, and security infrastructures through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), with the promise of expanded funding under the proposed new “Alliance for Prosperity.” Yet whatever the resources provided, the key to success will be the ability of program administrators on the U.S. side to work with their Salvadoran counterparts with a respectful but frank dialogue regarding what the country’s truly needs. U.S. assistance must also leverage the experience of El Salvador’s own experts in the security, law enforcement, economic, and other arenas to be as effective as possible in the context of local conditions.

Few states in the Americas have put their faith in the United States for their security and development as much as El Salvador, from the 1980-1992 civil war, to fighting alongside the U.S. in Iraq, to the present challenge. Reciprocally, few countries are as intimately connected to the United States as is El Salvador, which has a significant diaspora throughout the U.S. The neighborhoods of greater Washington D.C., such as Arlington, Alexandria, Herndon and Sterling will feel the effects if the cancer of El Salvador’s gangs continues to spiral out of control. The United States has a duty to El Salvador, and to itself, to help El Salvador manage the Mara challenge while it remains manageable.


R. Evan Ellis is professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own. The author extends his thanks to those Salvadoran scholars and security experts who provided inputs for this article during his December 2015 trip to the country, including Maria Jose Sanabria, Ricardo Gomez Hecht, Calixto Hernandez, and numerous others who cannot be named here.


Photo credit: Walking the Tracks