El Salvador's Special Operations Group

Over 480 gang members or collaborators reportedly infiltrated El Salvador's armed forces and police between 2010 and 2015, but these figures are likely inflating the gangs' true level of influence within the security institutions. 

Over the past five years, at least 435 members of the armed forces were fired for being gang members or having ties to gangs, according to data by the Defense Ministry's Public Information Access Unit that was accessed by EFE. The military officials' alleged gang affiliations were not divulged, despite requests from EFE that this information be provided.

Another 39 aspiring police officers were expelled from the National Public Security Academy over the same period, of which 25 "belonged to" the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, while 13 were from the Barrio 18 gang. Nine more active police officers were also dismissed for alleged gang ties over the five years.

SEE ALSO:  MS13 News and Profile

Among the military officials dismissed from their posts were members of specialized units, including the Presidential Guard and the Special Forces Command.

2015 was by far the year with the most dismissals from the armed forces due to gang ties with 265 cases, an almost 200 percent increase from the number of cases reported in 2014, according to EFE. (See graph below)

InSight Crime Analysis

To be sure, corruption within El Salvador's security forces is a critical issue. But the notion that nearly 500 gang members have infiltrated the security forces since 2010 should be taken with a grain of salt.

As recent InSight Crime field research has found, the number of gang members in Central America's Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala) varies widely, depending on the agency doing the counting. This is due, in part, to the confusion over what does and does not constitute a gang member. 

For example, police officials may include girlfriends, lookouts, and family members as part of a gang, even though they are not core members and are not considered members by the gangs themselves. Although a collaborator and a full-fledged member have vastly different roles within the gang, they are often lumped together in statistics such as those in the Defense Ministry report. 

SEE ALSO:  El Salvador News and Profiles

These statistics can also be self-serving. If gang infiltration is seen as a serious and credible threat, it follows that the government will be more likely to allocate greater resources to the security forces in order to combat these seemingly sophisticated criminal organizations. In reality, El Salvador's street gangs are more akin to subsistence groups that are occasionally involved in high-level criminal operations.