Street Gang No More, MS-13 Moves into Organized Crime

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El Salvador’s infamous street gangs, including the Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13), are getting more deeply involved in drug trafficking and are poised to become major players in transnational crime, indicates a new media report. This marks a further step in the group’s evolution from a loose-knit association of small-time street gangs to become a much more formidable and organized force.

According to El Salvador’s principal newspaper, El Diario del Hoy, sources in police and military intelligence say that certain factions of the MS-13 now control prime drug-trafficking territory on the coast of the southwestern province La Union. Several of these groups have reportedly divided among themselves the strategic area around the Fonseca Gulf, a bay whose perimeter is also shared by Honduras and Nicaragua, and are seeking a foothold on islands in the gulf.

The gangs have upped their game; sources told the newspaper that, instead of escaping on bicycles or in cars, the MS-13 now speed away from crime scenes on go-fast boats. The MS-13 cells in this area are also reportedly moving away from small-scale activities like extorting local businessmen and are getting more deeply involved in international trafficking, using landing spots in the coastal municipality of Conchagua. The gangs active in this area go by the names Heisten, Coronados, Vias Satelite and Pinos Locos, according to the newspaper.

Reports from El Diario de Hoy in February 2010 warned that the local branches of the MS-13 were battling for control over Conchagua’s coastline, following the April 2009 arrest of local kingpin Daniel Quezada, whose drug gang the Perrones had previously controlled the area and its valuable landing sites. The anti-narcotics police force told El Diario that the MS-13 were no longer content with the street-level distribution of drugs, but wanted to move up the supply chain to become bulk distributors in control of the market.

This marks a qualitative shift for the El Salvador-based activities of the MS-13, which began as a self-protection gang for Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s. It expanded into Central America after many gang members served prison sentences in the U.S. and were deported back to their homeland.

Despite the fact that MS-13 has a strong presence in several countries, including the U.S., Mexico, and Guatemala, it is traditionally considered a gang rather than a fully organized criminal cartel, made up of a loose collection of local groups lacking central leadership, coordination or long-term strategic planning. This means the MS-13 historically has not had the kind of resources or quasi-political aims associated with big centralized groups, like the Mexican cartels, and lacks the manpower and firepower to carry out long-term or large-scale projects. The gang is better known for its acts of purposeless brutality than for organized, profitable criminal activity.

This could be changing. The latest reports on the evolution of some branches of the MS-13 suggest ambitions to move beyond low-level extortion and drug rackets into the world of transnational organized crime. An InSight investigation in January 2011 highlighted the developing links between El Salvadoran gangs like MS-13 and international crime cartels, specifically Mexican groups, and warned that this could be a game-changer for crime in the region. The investigation found that, as well as moves to control La Union’s drug routes, MS-13 factions further west along the coast towards the Guatemalan border may also be seeking control over bulk distribution of drugs.

The MS-13’s relationships with major international groups are encouraged by the fact that security drives in both Colombia and Mexico are squeezing these countries’ crime syndicates, pushing them towards using Central America as a more loosely-policed theater of operations. In particular, the MS-13 appears to have a blossoming relationship with the Zetas, a Mexican cartel.

A faction of the MS-13, the Fulton Locos Salvatruchas, had allegedly received training from the Zetas, while police suspect other branches of the MS-13 use weapons supplied by this Mexican group. These concerns were publicly acknowledged by President Mauricio Funes in a September 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, when he said not only that Salvadoran cartels have links with Colombian, Guatemalan, and Mexican cartels, but that according to intelligence reports MS-13 are forming ties with the Zetas.

Another factor driving these relationships forward is the El Salvadoran government’s hardline policies, known as ‘mano dura,’ or iron fist, which have been adopted towards groups like the MS-13 since the mid-2000s. The state crackdown may have been a factor in encouraging MS-13’s disparate factions to organize, forge links with foreign groups, and expand their revenue sources in order to survive.

As reported by InSight, one of the unwanted side-effects of the mano dura policy involves the mass round-up of gang members. This led to overcrowded prisons, which in turn has led to huge prison riots. The government responded by keeping rival gang members in seperate facilities. But the concentration of MS-13 leaders in jail gave them the time to make contacts, network, regroup, discuss strategy, and institute more centralized command structures – all steps in the move towards the world of transnational organized crime.

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