A poster celebrates the achievements of the Salvadoran gang trace

A Salvadoran judge said that 90 percent of the organized crime cases he has dealt with in the last six years have been committed by "mara" street gangs, raising the question of how far the gangs are responsible for crime in the country, and the region.

Judge Tomas Salinas, who works in a specialized organized crime court in the province of Santa Ana, said that of the 5,500 people who had cases processed in the court in the last six years, some 4,950 of them were members of street gangs, reported El Mundo.

The crime most processed by the court was murder, followed by extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and human trafficking.

The judge said that he knew the detainees belonged to gangs, because they would ask to be sent to prisons where other members of their gang were locked up.

InSight Crime Analysis

The judge's statistics are worth questioning because it is not clear that the court relied on legal procedures to determine whether the defendants should be considered full-fledged gang members or not. In the past, under El Salvador's "iron fist" (mano dura) policy, authorities would sometimes arrest alleged gang members and charge them with crimes, using no further evidence besides body tattoos.

Nevertheless, the judge's assertion does raise the question of how much responsibility the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 groups bear for El Salvador's crime rates. The idea that they are responsible for a large proportion of killings in the country is supported by the outcome of the current truce between the gangs and the government, which has led to a signficant drop in homicides. Under the deal, the street gangs agreed to cut violence and other criminal acts, in exchange for improved conditions for imprisoned members, and the expansion of gang reintegration programs. The fact that the groups could order this massive drop in killings underscores their involvement in a great proportion of the violence that takes place in the country, backing the judge's assertions.

Besides their role in keeping El Salvador's homicide rates high, the gangs are also believed to be behind much of the extortion in the country. Extortion is thought to be the biggest earner for these "mara" groups, who often collect payments from homes and businesses in neighborhoods where they are present. In an effort to address this, the maras are currently working with the Salvadoran government to create "peace zones" in which they will cut crimes such as extortion, theft, and kidnapping, reportedly in exchange for a reduced police presence.

But while the maras undoubtedly played a significant role in keeping El Salvador's crime rates among the highest in the world, it is less clear whether they should be considered a transnational drug trafficking organization. The US government asserted that they should be, when the Treasury Department added the MS-13 to a list of transnational criminal networks, alongside other groups such as Mexico's Zetas. Even El Salvador's president expressed skepticism over whether this was an accurate interpretation of the level of threat presented by the MS-13.

The MS-13 and Barrio 18 have not generally played a major role in the drug trade, working as street-level distributors rather than international dealers. In El Salvador the transnational drug trade is mostly handled by networks such as the Perrones and the Texis Cartel. In contrast to the maras, these groups keep violence relatively in check, relying more on strategies such as bribery and the corruption of government officials.

So while evidence seems to support the theory that the MS-13 and Barrio 18 are responsible for much of El Salvador's crime rates, this doesn't necessarily make them a high-level organized criminal group. The maras, for their part, have been quick to defend the recent security improvements in El Salvador, which have come about thanks to their current truce with the government. After the US State Department recently issued a travel warning against El Salvador, citing high violence levels, the gangs swiftly issued a rebuttal, called the United States' information on El Salvador "out of date" and and "insult to the dignity of the country."