El Salvador: 20 years of struggle and anxiety for gangs

SAN SALVADOR (HPD) — Considered terrorist organizations since 2015 by the Supreme Court of El Salvador, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs have been generating anxiety among Salvadorans for 20 years, despite the heavy-handed policies implemented by the governments in power. Involved in drug trafficking and organized crime, the United States included them in 2012 on its list of international criminal organizations.

The same strategy of persecution, protected by a nine-month state of emergency that suspends constitutional guarantees and which has been strongly criticized for human rights violations, was the one chosen by President Nayib Bukele and the one that is generating popular approval for him as to consider re-election in 2024.

The first traces of gang activity were detected in the 1980s. El Salvador experienced a bloody civil war in which the government, supported by the United States, fought the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). . The war that affected almost all Salvadorans with extreme violence and cruelty left a balance of more than 75,000 dead, some 12,000 disappeared, and more than half a million Salvadorans who emigrated.

In these migrants who sought to escape the war, mostly bound for the United States, is the origin of the gangs.

Salvadoran migrants mainly arrived in the city of Los Angeles, California, where they found a difficult environment. To protect themselves, many joined the Barrio 18 gang, which initially consisted only of Mexicans.

Barrio 18 accepted the Salvadorans, from which the Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang emerged. They functioned as allies and began to have influence in the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles, but over time they became rivals.

What began as a Mexican gang, Barrio 18, became Central American. Already in El Salvador, in 2005, it was divided into two factions: Revolutionaries and Sureños.

El Salvador, considered one of the most violent in the world, registered 6,656 homicides in 2015, with a rate of 106 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. This indicator has been declining, according to official reports, in recent years. In 2021, it ended with 18 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and it is estimated that it will close 2022 with a rate of less than 10 murders per 100,000 inhabitants and a number of homicides of more than 600.

The maras or gangs are made up of more than 76,000 young people and adults, most of whom are members of the Mara Salvatrucha. They are found in populous neighborhoods and communities and according to the authorities they are involved in drug trafficking, extortion and organized crime.

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Internal structure:

The gangs are directed by what is known as the national ranfla, a kind of collective decision-making body that governs all gang operations nationally and internationally.

They are divided into cliques, which are cells or groups that have their own name, their palabreros or clique leaders, and a variable number of members. Gang members are known as ‘homeboy’.

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Timeline of key moments:

— 1992: After the signing of the Peace Accords, which put an end to 12 years of war in El Salvador on January 16, the United States began the deportation of Salvadorans residing in that country and who had been convicted of different crimes. Upon their return, many joined rebel youth groups and organized themselves to become their leaders.

The governments on duty did not pay enough attention to them and alluded that they were only “rebel youths” causing street disorders. Police operations focused more on combating common crime, while the maras or gangs grew.

–July 23, 2003: The “war against gangs” MS-13 and Barrio 18 began when President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) implemented the so-called Plan Mano Dura. For a year it consisted of the deployment of extensive and publicized police operations to carry out massive captures of gang members.

–August 30, 2004: President Tony Saca (2004-2009) launched the Super Mano Dura Plan, which emphasized criminal prosecution of both groups.

–June 20, 2010: with a cruelty never seen before against the civilian population, organized as revenge by the Barrio 18 gang against their rivals from the Mara Salvatrucha, they seized a bus in the municipality of Mejicanos, in the northern outskirts of the capital. They diverted it to an isolated area, shot at the vehicle, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire with approximately 32 people inside. Those who tried to escape were fired upon and forced back up. 17 people burned to death.

At almost the same time that night, another minibus was fired upon, killing two people in Mejicanos. The authorities considered it was to distract the police. Three years later, 10 gang members were sentenced to 66 and 400 years in prison for the crime.

–March 9, 2012: after the municipal and legislative elections, with the support of the government of Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), the leaders of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 made a pact to reduce deaths from violence. At this time, 14 daily were recorded.

To facilitate the agreement and improve communication between the leaders and their structures on the streets, the authorities removed them from the maximum security prison known as Zacatraz and sent them to other medium security prisons where, according to criticism at the time, They enjoyed facilities to continue operating.

Homicides dropped to five a day, but the numbers spiked when the truce was broken in 2013 after the removal of the Minister of Justice and Public Security by order of the Supreme Court. The new authorities withdrew benefits from the imprisoned gang members.

–October 11, 2012: The Office for the Control of Foreign Assets of the United States Department of the Treasury included the Mara Salvatrucha in its list of international criminal organizations.

It was the first time that this designation was granted to a gang, which is widespread in other Central American countries and several states in the United States.

–June 1, 2014: the former guerrilla commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén assumed power in El Salvador (2014-2019) and the gangs increased their actions of violence to pressure a negotiation, but the government closed any possibility of a truce.

–August 24, 2015: The Salvadoran Supreme Court concluded that the MS and the Barrio 18 are terrorist groups, so that the courts can impose harsh sentences of up to 60 years in prison for gang members.

–April 2016: After a massacre of 11 workers that shook the country and that the authorities attributed to gangs, the government declared a state of emergency in seven prisons and isolated the leaders of the organizations.

–July 27, 2017: US President Donald Trump vowed to “destroy” MS-13 because, he said, it is “particularly violent.”

–February 15, 2018: “Operation Cuscatlán” became one of the most important blows that the authorities dealt to the finances of MS-13.

More than 1,500 special forces police officers, accompanied by prosecutors from the Public Ministry, intervened in businesses such as used car stores, restaurants, bars, beauty parlors, breweries, private homes, luxurious beach ranches, and even a public transport company that they were allegedly run with money from the MS-13 gang.

In the operation, the authorities seized $27,000 in cash, $194,000 in bank accounts, 63 vehicles and 14 properties.

–June 20, 2019: a few days after assuming power, President Nayib Bukele (2019-2024) ordered the deployment of the police and the army in the commercial areas of the historic center of the capital and other inland municipalities affected by the presence and extortion of gangs.

–October 7, 2019: In a historic trial in El Salvador, some 17 leaders of the MS-13 and another 400 gang members of this structure were prosecuted for homicide, arms trafficking and belonging to terrorist organizations. They received sentences of up to 60 years in prison.

— March 27, 2022: one day after registering 62 homicides in the country, the Congress controlled by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, decreed a state of emergency that limited freedom of association, suspended the right to be duly informed of the reasons for the arrest and the assistance of a lawyer. In addition, it extended the term of administrative detention from 72 hours to 15 days and allowed the authorities to seize the correspondence and cell phones of those considered suspects.

The Salvadoran government declared war on the gangs and launched a persecution against criminal structures with a deployment of soldiers and police in populous neighborhoods and communities, gang strongholds. Without any legal restrictions, they went from door to door, dragging out hundreds of people who, supposedly, were considered gang members or collaborators of these criminal structures.

In nine months of emergency regime, according to official information, they have captured 60,000 gang members, including 8,000 leaders of cliques or groups from the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.

–October 2, 2022: more than 2,000 soldiers and a thousand specialized police forces completely closed the municipality of Comasagua to persecute members of a faction of the Mara Salvatrucha, after the murder of a peasant from the area .

On the access road to Comasagua, located 29 kilometers southeast of San Salvador, detailed searches were made of the people who entered and left the place in order to identify and locate the suspects.

After 48 hours of patrolling, they captured 50 presumed members of the Mara Salvatrucha, among them those responsible for the murder of the peasant.

–December 3, 2022: More than 10,000 members of the armed forces and the police, supported by elite security forces, completely closed off the third most populous city on the outskirts of San Salvador to persecute gang members who continued to operate in the area.

After three weeks of operations in Soyapango, the capture of 500 members of the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs was reported.

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