El Salvador is a relatively small but growing player in the drug trafficking business. It serves as a drug receiving and storage point along the Pacific Coast, and a bridge via the Pan-American Highway, the Fonseca Gulf and roads from Honduras that cut through relatively unpopulated areas.
As a small nation, El Salvador’s relatively high population density and mountainous terrain impede traffickers from transporting their goods by air. Nonetheless, the country is home to overland smuggling routes that have been used for decades to traffic humans, weapons, contraband, and more recently, illicit drugs. Porous borders with neighboring Honduras and Guatemala aid the movement of illegal goods in and through the country. Additionally, El Salvador’s short coastline provides traffickers numerous places to unload and repackage drugs into smaller quantities for the journey north, or for distribution and sale to the country’s domestic drug market.
After more than a decade of civil war in which over 75,000 people lost their lives, the Salvadoran government and leftist guerrillas signed a peace agreement in 1992. The peace accords were hailed as a success by the international community, particularly efforts to create an integrated police force that included members of the rebel coalition, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN). Yet violence in El Salvador did not end with the war. Instead, the accords opened a new type of violent criminal conflict, which has led to political and social turmoil that threatens to upend the achievement the accords once represented.
The first phase of this post-war criminal spree included both former military and ex-combatants. Some former guerrillas, for example, never gave up their weapons and instead created criminal enterprises, engaging in car theft, kidnapping and human smuggling.
The second phase came with the rise of street gangs, commonly referred to as “maras.” In El Salvador, there are two dominant gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and the Barrio 18. The myriad reasons for their growth include poverty, marginalization, lack of access to basic services and educational opportunities, dysfunctional families, rapid and unplanned urbanization, repatriation of gang members from the United States, a pre-existing culture of violence, and access to weapons left over from the region’s civil wars.
The government responded to the threat posed by gangs with a harsh “mano dura,” or “iron fist,” approach. This repressive approach, however, did not produce the desired effects, and served to further marginalize the country’s youth, stimulate gang recruitment, and double the prison population. Within prisons, the gangs built operational sanctuaries where they could manage their activities without fear of the law or rival gangs.
The gangs primarily engage in extortion, kidnapping and domestic drug distribution, selling crack, powder cocaine, amphetamines and marijuana in mostly poor neighborhoods. They have also been contracted by larger organizations for assassinations or other specific tasks, and there are some signs the gangs are looking to expand into bulk distribution and international trafficking.
In March 2012, the Salvadoran government and church secretly brokered a truce between the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs, granting concessions to imprisoned gang leaders in exchange for a reduction in violence. As part of the truce, the government implemented “peace zones,” or areas where the gangs pledged to halt criminal activity and the government promised to withdraw the military. After its implementation, the truce did lead to a drop in the murder rate, but violence began rising again in 2014 after the truce began to break down. However, many questioned the truce’s effectiveness, with some theorizing the homicide rate was artificially low because victims were being “disappeared” by gang members.
The disintegration of the truce contributed to an escalation in El Salvador’s violence levels. In particular, during 2015, the gangs stepped up attacks on Salvadoran security forces, which some observers viewed as a means of pressuring the government to reopen truce negotiations and grant the gangs certain concessions. Inter- and intra-gang violence also increased, and by the end of 2015 El Salvador had a homicide rate of over 100 per 100,000 — the highest in the world. Violence declined and stablized through 2016 and early 2017, though conflict between gangs and security forces has continued due in part to the government’s continuation of mano dura policies.
The experience of the truce led to debate over the nature of the gangs. More specifically, there were concerns the truce allowed the gangs to become more cohesive and sophisticated. Indeed, there have been reports of gang leaders meeting with Mexican criminal organizations — such as the Zetas — potentially indicating a move into the international drug trade. Yet security officials typically consider the gangs as lacking the discipline and sophistication to make reliable partners.
The last phase of El Salvador’s violent and tumultuous post-1992 period involved the emergence of increasingly sophisticated local drug transportation groups. These so-called “transportistas” have their roots in moving contraband across the borders with Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala during the civil war. They continue to use these routes to move cargoes that include migrants, contraband, pirated goods, precursor chemicals and illegal drugs.
These drug transport networks often operate with the aid of corrupt border, police and military officials. Two of the main transport networks in El Salvador are the Perrones and Texis Cartel. While these transportistas are not tied to particular drug trafficking organizations, their services are for hire to Colombian and Mexican cartels, including powerful Mexican groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and Zetas. While the transportistas are responsible for drug shipments transiting El Salvador, the gangs are largely responsible for much of the violent crime in the country.
El Salvador has around 16,000 active personnel in its armed forces and another 16,000 officers in the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil – PNC). Serving as a police officer in El Salvador is an extremely dangerous job, and PNC officers typically begin making less than $500 per month. Beginning in 2014, security forces increasingly became the target of attacks by gang members, driving desertions from the PNC. To supplement shortcomings and lack of resources, El Salvador routinely calls on the military to supplement the PNC in its duties. As gang violence in El Salvador has risen, there have been indications of armed forces members engaging in extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals.
Accompanying and exacerbating El Salvador’s general insecurity is a weak judicial system that promotes impunity. Indeed, the majority of crimes go unresolved — impunity rates are estimated to be around 90 percent — and suspects may spend years behind bars before facing trial.
Corruption within El Salvador’s judicial system is another key issue. Police are routinely found to be active or complicit in criminal activity, and firearms from government stockpiles regularly turn up on the black market or in the hands of criminals. Judges have also been discovered to be accepting bribes from organized crime groups in exchange for favoritism. In 2012, it was announced 80 percent of the country’s judges were under investigation for complaints made against them. Nonetheless, many officials may see little choice but to cooperate with criminals when faced with death threats and other forms of intimidation.
There has been some pressure from the international community for El Salvador to establish a body similar to the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) to compensate for its judicial shortcomings. Salvadoran political leaders, however, have so far refused to take such action, though they have established a special anti-impunity unit in the Attorney General’s Office.
El Salvador’s weak judicial system has also contributed to a death squad phenomenon, with instances surfacing of citizens and possibly police conducting “social cleansing” of criminals and others deemed undesirable.
El Salvador’s prisons are notoriously under-resourced, dangerous and overcrowded. Years of tough anti-gang legislation have filled the country’s penal institutions, to nearly 350 percent of capacity as of August 2016, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. Contributing to rampant overcrowding has been the use of pretrial detention, which can sometimes leave suspects languishing in prison for months or years before they see a judge.
El Salvador’s prisons have largely been divided along gang lines, with members of different gangs sent to different prisons. This policy has allowed the MS13 and Barrio 18 to establish complete hegemony over the prisons they control, turning them into centers for recruitment, criminal operations, and gang consolidation — de facto gang headquarters. This is facilitated by understaffed and under-resourced facilities, which means prison guards are typically relegated to simply standing watch on prison walls and leaving inmates in control of day-to-day life.
The dynamic between the gangs’ imprisoned leadership and members on the street is crucial for understanding El Salvador’s gang phenomenon. Free gang members are expected to provide for those behind bars by sending money and supplies, and incarcerated gang leaders not uncommonly direct criminal activity on the streets via cell phone and message couriers. This symbiotic relationship rests partly on the logic that all gang members will, at one point or another, spend time in jail, and, once there, will need the gang’s protection in order to survive — a form of “prison insurance.” The leadership of the MS13 and Barrio 18 has traditionally been held in maximum-security facilities, such as the infamous Zacatecoluca prison, also known as “Zacatraz.”