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Perrones

The Perrones are El Salvador’s most infamous transportation group. Made up of a mix of hoteliers, human smugglers, and contraband traders, the group’s activities stretch from Panama to Guatemala. Working from their eastern front, along the border with Honduras, many of them carry dual citizenship with the neighboring country, which allows them to move easily across the porous borders they use to move their products. They appear to answer offers of many suitors, mostly Colombian and Mexican groups but also Guatemalan organizations, that move large quantities of drugs and other contraband north toward the United States and bulk cash south. Many of the Perrones’ leaders have been arrested and charged with various crimes, but the cases against them have fallen apart in El Salvador’s weak justice system.

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Origins

Many of the Perrones’ bosses got their start smuggling the staples of everyday life into El Salvador from across the border in Honduras. Reynerio Flores, who grew up just a few miles from the border and was one of the gang’s foremost leaders before his arrest, began his career ferrying water into El Salvador by mule. Later, the men who would become the core of Los Perrones expanded into food and clothes, bringing them in not just from Honduras, but from as far south as Panama. Other gang leaders focused on moving contraband cheese, which earned them the nickname El Cartel de los Quesos.

Of course, the reward for smuggling cocaine is much higher than for cheese, so the networks shifted focus to where the profits were higher. The logistical requirements for each type of smuggling are largely the same, so Los Perrones were a natural link between the Colombian cocaine producers and the Mexican gangs that became ever more important in the 1990s and 2000s. The Salvadoran networks began to work especially closely with the Sinaloa Cartel, which was also busy establishing itself as the Mexican group most active internationally.

As the group grew, it divided into two geographical subdivisions: Los Perrones Occidentales and Los Perrones Orientales. The former group controls the smuggling cocaine, arms, and migrants from western El Salvador overland into Guatemala. Los Perrones Orientales focus on bringing the cocaine in from South American via maritime routes, and send it over to their allies in western El Salvador or northward to Honduras.

While the operated under the radar for many years, Los Perrones began to garner increased attention in the early 2000s, when several tons worth of cocaine shipments linked to the group were discovered in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. As a result of the increased attention, as well as infighting among different Perrones factions, many of the group’s original leaders --Daniel Quezada, Reynerio Flores, Juan Colorado, and Juan Natividad Luna-- have been captured. Indeed, the only heavyweight from the group’s formative days to avoid arrest is Luna. Nonetheless, Los Perrones have regrouped, and remain a major force in the nation’s underworld.

Modus Operandi

Rather than working to create Sicilian style dominance over the territories they control, Los Perrones, known locally as transportistas, are smugglers in the truest sense of the word. They are experts at moving merchandise through El Salvador and across the border into Honduras and Guatemala, for later transit to the Mexico and the United States. Typically, because of the small territory and underdeveloped airway system, they move drugs and other contraband through Central American via trucks.

The overland transit comes after they initially collect the cocaine from Colombia and Ecuador, usually via go-fast boats or semi-submersible vessels, both of which can carry large shipments of drugs and are effective at evading authorities on the open sea. The illicit merchandise is typically offloaded onto legitimate-seeming vessels like fishing boats, in which it is brought into the country along the country’s narrow coastline.

Their capacity to move merchandise from the open water to Central American highways makes them a valuable ally for the larger Mexican and Colombian gangs running drugs through the region, and they have developed ties with some of the most notorious gangs in the hemisphere, most notably the Sinaloa Cartel. However, some analysts say that Los Perrones’ links with the Zetas, who have become the dominant group in Guatemala, are growing as well. Authorities say that the wealthier and more notorious Mexican gangs represent something of a role model for Los Perrones. In an effort to emulate their senior partners, they have embraced varying elements of Mexican narco-culture, from narcocorridos to a love of thoroughbred horses.

The relationship between Los Perrones and the other dominant criminal element in El Salvador, the infamous Maras (Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha), seems to be a fluid one. There have been reports of the two groups fighting for control over smuggling routes, but for the most part, the relationship seems to be complementary: with the Maras controlling territory in cities like San Salvador with mass numbers of members, and the Perrones located primarily in more peripheral cities and needing only periodic use of their transportation networks when shipments come through, the two are not constantly at odds. Indeed, Los Perrones often contract groups of Maras as muscle.

Los Perrones have a presence over a wide swathe of El Salvador’s small territory. Los Orientales operate out of cities like San Miguel, Usulutan, and La Union, while the Occidentales are concentrated around the city of Santa Ana.

Los Perrones also developed deep ties to Salvadoran government as they grew, penetrating local security agencies and political circles in the regions where they operate. The gangs are thought to be particularly close to officials in the eastern portion of the country, where the ARENA and National Conciliation Parties are prominent. In one notorious case, Flores avoided arrest and fled to Honduras after being tipped off by a police officer that his detention was imminent in El Salvador. (He was later arrested in Honduras.)

Resources

  • "Organzed Crime in El Salvador: the Homegrown and Transnational Dimensions (pdf)," Doug Farah for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, December 2010.
  • “Drug Trafficking Organizations in Central America: Transportistas, Mexican Cartels and Maras (pdf),” Steven Dudley for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, May 2010.
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