Jailed Barrio 18 members

Criminal gangs in El Salvador make annual profits of around $60 million, according to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a surprisingly small figure that brings into question the recent US decision to class one of the gangs, the MS-13, as a transnational criminal organization.

Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, an economist at UCLA who led the research, described the figure as “relatively small," especially when compared to the amount ($2.6 billion) that the country spends on combating crime each year.

Despite organized crime being one of the most serious obstacles to economic growth in the Central American nation, Hinojosa-Ojeda told La Prensa Grafica that it is not very profitable for its members. He pointed out that in the United States, for example, “the gang members earn less than employees of McDonalds.”

InSight Crime Analysis

UCLA’s figures are interesting in light of the recent surprise US decision to include Salvadoran street gang the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) on its list of transnational criminal organizations, alongside powerful groups such as Mexico’s Zetas and Japan’s Yakuza.

While the Zetas are one of the most powerful crime syndicates in Latin America, with earnings estimated to stretch over $1 billion from its vast international drug trafficking operations and financial structures in the United States, the MS-13 is a highly decentralized street gang which is not thought to be deeply involved in transnational crime.

Analyses have highlighted the incongruity of MS-13’s inclusion on the US list, which is aimed at targeting the “economic power” of large criminal organizations by imposing financial sanctions on their members.

The designation, which freezes the assets of gang members in US territory, was questioned by El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes, who said it overestimated the economic risk posed by the gang.

The US decision coincided with ongoing government-facilitated truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18, and could be seen as undermining this process, which has cut murders by two-thirds since March.