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The notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) are behind the majority of extortion rackets in the Northern Triangle. The development of their criminal structures over the years has gone hand-in-hand with the boom in extortion.

Both the MS13 and the Barrio 18 are subdivided into cells known as “clicas(cliques) or “tribus” (tribes). Cliques are the basic and most important units of the gang and serve as the immediate family for gang members –- many of whom are poor, disenfranchised young men looking for a sense of belonging as well as a means to earn a living.

Cliques are semi-autonomous and not necessarily tied to a formal structure, which allows them a certain level of independence in controlling their criminal portfolios. Their criminal portfolios include micro-trafficking, car theft, prostitution, human smuggling, human trafficking, arms trafficking, hitmen for hire, and money laundering, as well as extortion. Extortion and local drug trafficking (either taxing it or controlling it) represent their most significant sources of income.

*This investigation into extortion in the Northern Triangle was carried out as part of a joint project with the Global Initiative.

However, the cliques’ degree of independence varies and is mainly dependent on geography, the social fabric, and the political makeup of the places where each operates. It can also be contingent on the personal histories of the heads of each clique, and their relationship to other gang leaders. Vast differences in the size of cliques and their respective criminal sophistication is also due, in part, to their semi-independent status.

Below the clique level are what are called collaborators. Collaborators are broken up into “paros” and “chequeos,” usually minors who are not formally part of the gang. Paros tend to carry out medial jobs such as buying groceries, SIM cards or food for the gang. Chequeos, also called “postes,” are a step above, and usually carry out tasks such as hiding money and watching out for police.

Multiple cliques can constitute what the MS13 calls a program, and what the Barrio 18 refers to as a “cancha.” Cliques that fall under a program are usually under much more control and follow the demands of the program leader, referred to as a “corredor,” or a “runner.” What is more, large cliques can eventually control smaller cliques and form their own programs. However, loyalty ultimately resides in the clique, and gang members state that the program “is mostly a means by which the gang’s highest leaders can channel communications, organize its criminal economy, and impart orders regarding strategy and direction.”

Programs submit to an oversight council called the “ranfla,” “mesa” or “table” depending on the geographic location. These councils are made up of the most seasoned and respected gang members, and most are currently incarcerated, thus pointing to the ongoing role that prisons serve as a base of operations for the gangs’ various criminal economies. Although there have been cases of council members attempting to exert more control over the gang’s logistics, these attempts have fallen short.

At the top of the hierarchy sit the “palabreros.” Palabreros can be leaders of programs or the national ranfla, work from within or outside of prisons and are responsible for coordinating all criminal activities, with extortion being one of the most important.

Although the MS13 and Barrio 18 are similar in terms of structure, differences exist between the two gangs, with the MS13 generally believed to be more sophisticated. For example, authorities in Guatemala told InSight Crime that the MS13 had evolved into a much more refined criminal enterprise than the Barrio 18.

*This investigation into extortion in the Northern Triangle was carried out as part of a joint project with the Global Initiative.

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