Mara members make gang signs

Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina blamed high levels of violence in January on rivalries between street gangs MS13 and Barrio 18, revealing the impact of these groups not just in El Salvador and Honduras, but Guatemala as well.

Violent death statistics rose to 488 in January 2015 from 484 in the same month last year, Prensa Libre reported. Perez said that 40 percent of January's violence was due to conflict between gangs. 

MS13 and Barrio 18 are Guatemala's most prominent street gangs. Both groups trace their origins back to Los Angeles but now operate mainly in the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In Guatemala the gangs mainly focus on extortion but are also involved in kidnapping and bank robberies, according to the nation's anti-gang unit.

January's statistics come despite the president's claimed security achievements during his first three years in office and his promise to make 2015 Guatemala's "year of non-violence." Criminal violence claimed 5,924 lives in 2014, a separate Prensa Libre report claimed.

InSight Crime Analysis

As general elections approach this year, Perez is likely hoping to protect the political legacy of his hardline "mano dura" security strategies and the election prospects of his conservative Patriot Party. While Perez may be seeking to divert some blame for the increase in violence, the gangs' influence in Guatemala and other Central American countries, is undeniable.

Within Guatemala the groups are linked to some 30 percent of the nation's extortion cases. In Honduras MS13 and Barrio 18's violent struggle for the city of San Pedro Sula have contributed to its ranking as the world's murder capital four years in a row. Meanwhile the disintegration of El Salvador's 2012 gang truce was widely considered the primary reason for rising homicide rates there in 2014.

SEE ALSO: Profile of Mara Salvatrucha (MS13)

The real question is whether these two groups, which have transnational presence, have any kind of centralized, cross-border leadership. While instances of cross-border cooperation have been documented, gang leaders' abilities to coordinate and control actions regionally or even on a national level, are debatable. The gangs may be transnational criminal organizations -- as the US Department of Treasury labeled MS13 in 2012 -- but appear to operate more under a franchise model than as a coherent and structured organization.

A new gang truce recently announced in El Salvador may be an opportunity to see how well MS13 and Barrio 18 exercise control over their disparate cliques. It remains to be seen if this truce will be respected throughout El Salvador, let alone in Honduras and Guatemala

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Perez said violence increased 40 percent in January. He said that 40 percent of violence in January was due to conflict between gangs. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

As Guatemala's Congress gears up to select new Supreme Court Justices and appellate court judges, InSight Crime is investigating how organized crime influences the selection process. This story details the interests of one particular political bloc vying for control over the courts and what's at stake: millions of ...

The Victory of the Urabeños - The New Face of Colombian Organized Crime

The Victory of the Urabeños - The New Face of Colombian Organized Crime

The mad scramble for criminal power in the aftermath of the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is over. The Urabeños, or as they prefer to call themselves, the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia," have won.

50 years of the FARC: War, Drugs and Revolution

50 years of the FARC: War, Drugs and Revolution

The possibility of ending nearly 50 years of civil conflict is in sight. While the vast majority of the Colombian public want to see peace, for themselves and especially for their children, the enemies of the peace negotiations appear to be strong, and the risks inherent in the ...

Mexico’s Security Dilemma: Michoacan’s Militias

 Mexico’s Security Dilemma: Michoacan’s Militias

Well-armed vigilantes in Mexico's Michoacan state have helped authorities dismantle a powerful criminal organization, but now the government may have a more difficult task: keeping Michoacan safe from the vigilantes and rival criminal groups.

Uruguay, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs

Uruguay, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs

After the lower house passed the controversial marijuana bill July 31, Uruguay is poised to become the first country on the planet to regulate the production, sale, and distribution of the drug, and provide a model for countries looking for alternatives to the world’s dominant drug policy paradigm. ...

The Zetas in Nuevo Laredo

The Zetas in Nuevo Laredo

After the capture of Zetas boss "Z40," Nuevo Laredo is bracing itself for the worst. This investigation breaks down what makes the city such an important trafficking corridor, and what it will take for the Zetas to maintain their grip on the city.

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives And Negatives

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives And Negatives

Whether it is sustainable or not, the truce -- which the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 put into place March 2012 -- has changed the conventional thinking about who the gangs are and what is the best way to handle the most difficult law and order ...

FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

The possibility of ending nearly 50 years of civil conflict is in sight. While the vast majority of the Colombian public want to see peace, for themselves and especially for their children, the enemies of the peace negotiations appear to be strong, and the risks inherent in the ...

Corruption in El Salvador: Politicians, Police and Transportistas

Corruption in El Salvador: Politicians, Police and Transportistas

Since the end of El Salvador's civil war, the country's police has become a key player in the underworld. This series of five articles explore the dark ties between criminal organizations and the government's foremost crime fighting institution.

Juarez after the War

Juarez after the War

As a bitter war between rival cartels grinds to an end, Ciudad Juarez has lost the title of world murder capital, and is moving towards something more like normality. InSight Crime looks at the role politicians, police, and for-hire street gangs played in the fighting -- asking who ...