Barrio 18 in El Salvador: A View from the Inside

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A series of anonymous testimonies from Barrio 18 gang members taken by El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office reveal the innards of the gang’s structure, operations and rules.

The testimonies come from four “criteriados,” or protected witnesses, whose identities are kept hidden for their protection. They are part of an indictment against 68 members of the upper echelon of the “Revolutionaries,” one of the Barrio 18’s two factions in El Salvador, for the murder of a fellow gang member and that of a policeman, as well as an assortment of other charges. 

Barrio 18 is one of the two largest gangs in El Salvador. The other, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), is thought to be slightly larger in membership than the Barrio 18. The Barrio 18 is known as the more violent and less sophisticated of the two.

Still, the gang has a hierarchy, which is delineated in the testimonies. At the top are the gang’s leaders, or “palabreros,” in the jail system. In the case of El Salvador, the prison that holds most of them is in the municipality of Izalco, in the state of Sonsonate. However, at least one of these leaders was moved to a maximum-security prison recently after the government officially decided to stop facilitating a gang truce between the Barrio 18 and its rivals in the MS13.

There, the palabreros “coordinate all the criminal activities of the gang,” the Attorney General’s Office’s account of the testimonies states. (The Attorney General’s Office does not give a transcription but rather a summary of the gang members’ statements, and while it gives codenames of the witnesses at the onset of the document, it does not say which of them is giving testimony in the document itself.)

Barrio 18 Gang Hierarchy

  1. “Palabreros” in the prison system: coordinate all criminal activities. One palabrero keeps a notebook that keeps track of all finances, homicides, drugs, and weapons. 
  2. “Palabreros” outside the prison system, aka, “en la libre.”
  3. Leaders of the “canchas.” A cancha is a territorial division that isn’t necessarily based on municipal delineations. Each cancha has several “tribus,” or tribes.
  4. Leaders of the “tribus.” There are thought to be 28 Barrio 18 “tribus” in El Salvador, according to one study. Each tribu leader may be responsible for dozens and perhaps hundreds of members.
  5. Collaborators: those who are not quite or never will be gang members. They help the gang with small jobs, like gathering intelligence, and moving or holding illicit goods.

One of these palabreros has the “notebook” keeping track of the gang’s activities, which include homicides, money collected from extortion, the drugs that are sold, the weapons obtained, and the money in the group.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

“Everything that the other leaders [in the street] are going to do, they ask permission,” the document states. “Homicides, extortions, disappearing people; they [in the prison] give the go-ahead to pressure the families of protected witnesses and sometimes give the go-ahead to kill them; they are the only ones who can authorize attacks on the police.”

The El Salvador online outlet El Faro, which also obtained the document and gives an accounting of its veracity, says this is consistent with its research on gangs. 

Since April 2014, the Revolutionaries have been involved in numerous confrontations with the police. Dozens of gang members have been killed, and more than 40 police have also been shot, many of them while off-duty.

This organization may help explain the chaotic nature of the Barrio 18 in comparison to its counterpart, the MS13…

The Izalco jail is controlled by the Revolutionaries, since Salvadoran authorities group prisoners by their gang affiliation. It is in this prison where those implicated in the case allegedly killed Mardoqueo Adalberto Hernandez Acevedo, alias the “Boxer,” because he had supposedly become an informant.

One witness described how he went for a coffee and saw several gang members holding Hernandez by his legs and arms in one of the cells. It should have been difficult, since Hernandez trained many of the gang members in jail in self-defense, henceforth his nickname. But another witness says that Hernandez simply succumbed to his fate.

When the one who went for a coffee came back, the Boxer was dead, the witness said. (See another account of this murder at El Faro.) It is not clear how he died, but his alleged killers later put a noose around his neck and hung his body from the prison rafters in an attempt to fool authorities into believing that he had committed suicide.

Below the palabreros in jail are the palabreros on the street, or “en la libre,” as they like to say in gang-speak. The Revolutionaries have at least three leaders on the street in all of El Salvador, according to the witnesses. These leaders are responsible for carrying out the orders that emanate from the jail, including organizing the extortion system and coordinating homicides.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

Below these palabreros are the leaders of what Barrio 18 calls “canchas.” Canchas literally means courts or fields. One Salvadoran gang expert, Luis Amaya, contacted by InSight Crime, said that these divisions were used to delineate a large territorial space, but that they had no connection to the political borders of the country. In other words, these divisions are not based on municipal delineations but are more topographical, he said, referring to the rivers, mountains and other natural geographical boundaries.

Each MS13 “clica” might have a few dozen members, but each Barrio 18 “tribu” leader would be responsible for dozens and perhaps hundreds of members.

Each cancha has what are called “tribus,” or tribes. The tribu is a way to denote what appears to be a rather large gang cell, Amaya said.

This organization may help explain the chaotic nature of the Barrio 18 in comparison to its counterpart, the MS13. In an academic work published for the Francisco Gavidia University in 2012, Amaya and another researcher, Juan Jose Martinez, cited police statistics indicating that there were 28 tribus in all of El Salvador, compared to 246 of what are called “clicas” for the rival MS13.

Given that each of these gangs has thousands of members, it would appear that the MS13 has a far more intimate and coordinated structure, Amaya said. Each clica might have a few dozen members, but each tribu leader, for instance, would be responsible for dozens and perhaps hundreds of members, leading to numerous de facto leaders amongst the rank and file.

Finally, the Barrio 18 has “collaborators,” those who are not quite or never will be members, who help the gang in gathering intelligence, moving or holding illicit goods, and other small jobs.

All the gang members have to follow the rules established by their palabreros in the jails, the witnesses said.

Barrio 18 Gang Rules

  • Respect and attend meetings
  • Speak the truth at the meetings
  • Respect the “palabreros”
  • Be a good example to the recently initiated members
  • Don’t walk around drunk or sleep in the streets
  • Respect relatives of the gang members, including their girlfriends
  • No crack, including the type coated in paint thinner
  • Fight with the enemy, not amongst themselves
  • Don’t mention “the letters” [rival gang MS13]
  • Don’t use a red bandana or red hat [rival gang colors]
  • Search out weapons for the gang
  • Take revenge for the members who have died for the cause
  • Don’t leave any members behind
  • Don’t graffiti in red
  • Don’t talk about gang business around outsiders
  • Members who want to tattoo their faces need to ask permission
  • Carry out “a mission” before getting initiated [getting beaten up during 18 seconds by four members while another counts]
  • Don’t allow women into the gang [since the year 2000]
  • No rape
  • No snitching
  • Don’t talk shit about homeboys

There are different punishments for violating different rules. For example, one witness says the following are punishable by death: leaving a member behind during a fight; snitching; rape. Other transgressions are met with beatings that can be 18 or 36 seconds, or without a count.

In order to delineate territory, the gang marks it with graffiti, one witness said. The symbols include XVIII, BEST, 8P, and 187. According to the witness, BEST is a reference to following orders; 8P means they have killed a policeman in that area; 187 means Barrio 18 is “killing” seven days a week.

Tattoos are also a prominent feature in Barrio 18 culture. One of them, DC8, is a reference to the biblical “AD,” or, as the witness described it, “after Christ there is Barrio 18.” Another, X8, is a reference to absolute loyalty to the gang. 


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