Rethinking the El Salvador Mara – Drug Trafficking Relationship

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Political scientist Juan Carlos Garzon takes a closer look at the relationship between El Salvador’s maras and transnational drug trafficking, finding that these ties are often exaggerated and serve to obscure arguably more significant problems, such as the country’s role as a money laundering hotspot.

On page five of one of El Salvador’s main daily newspapers, one can find the following title: “Six people captured with cocaine in Ahuachapan.” The lengthy article describes an operation carried out by the National Civil Police (PNC). The result: the seizure of one kilo of cocaine. It is uncertain what the destination of the drugs was, but on the US market this small shipment could be worth up to $25,000 and on the local market, $12,000. The people arrested did not appear to be gang members. They were older men from rural areas, who undertook the journey from Guatemala or Honduras to sell the cocaine on the local market, or if they were lucky, to cross the border and increase its value.

This article was translated and reprinted with permission. It originally appeared in El Faro. See Spanish original here.

Why does the seizure of one kilo of cocaine deserve a full page in one of the principal newspapers in a country like El Salvador? According to the most recent report from the US State Department, in 2013 authorities seized 664 kilos of cocaine, approximately double the amount registered in 2012. As a point of comparison, 1.7 tons were seized in Honduras in 2013, and slightly over two tons in Guatemala.*

The marginal role of El Salvador as a drug corridor — in comparison with its Northern Triangle neighbors — and the small size of its local market (in a country with slightly over six million people) contrast with the reports and headlines warning about the dangerous alliance between drug cartels and the country’s maras in regard to this lucrative business. The reality is much more complex, and draws into question stories that refer to the maras as the next cartel.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

In terms of the global drug economy, the small Central American nation is a “corner store,” in which micro-trafficking and local drug sales are not much more important sources of criminal income than extortion. In regards to transnational drug trafficking, El Salvador is a “shortcut” controlled by domestic criminal structures with sufficient resources to exercise localized power, which are supported by corrupt state employees and institutions. The country’s role as a drug route is secondary, though significant enough to put the authorities in a bind, cause violence and allow criminals to buy off officials.

The true importance of El Salvador does not lie in its trafficking routes or the local sale of drugs — two activities in which the maras could be involved — but in its role in money laundering. According to Commissioner Howard Cotto, head of the National Anti-Drug Commission, the important thing in El Salvador is not so much the drugs that come north, as the money that flows south or stays there to be “washed” in El Salvador’s dollarized economy.

“This is drug trafficking’s bank,” said Rodolfo Delgado, head of the Organized Crime Unit of the Attorney General’s Office. For this reason, criminal organizations prefer not to “heat up” the region, in order to avoid drawing attention.

The noise generated by the gang truce signed in March 2012, and the monologue that uses the maras to explain the country’s problems, have obscured the true role that El Salvador plays for drug traffickers. For this reason, it is important to clarify the local dimensions of drug trafficking and its links to the maras, which is based on their relationship with the territory and local consumption.

The Local Dimension: Micro-trafficking and Street Sales in El Salvador

Until several years ago — it is uncertain exactly when — the local distribution of drugs supplying the domestic market was in the hands of local micro-traffickers who controlled distribution in city neighborhoods. As the “cliques” (semi-autonomous cells) of the maras gained a presence and territorial control, they began first charging a tax on the local distributors, and more recently, directly selling drugs in the streets themselves. In some areas, there are still street vendors who look to make their daily profits through the sale of marijuana or crack.

In relative terms, El Salvador is a small market, and its demand is easily met. Although there is no recent information available about drug consumption, the surveys that exist — given to university or high school students — indicate that marijuana is the most consumed drug, followed by inhalants and much more distantly by cocaine and “crack.” It is not common to find cocaine for sale in the streets — it is a luxury to have a line of the white powder on your table. The distribution of the drug is reserved for areas such as the so-called “Zona Rosa” in San Salvador, tourists, or clients with sufficient funds to do a line at a party or at the beach on the weekend.

Once a kilo of cocaine enters the local market, it is divided into seven parts, which are in turn divided into three or four portions. These are mixed with all kinds of products in order to obtain the substance sold in the streets: crack rocks. According to commissioner Cotto, a kilo of cocaine can produce up to 55,000 rocks. The math is simple: each rock is sold in the street for a dollar, which means a kilo fetches $55,000. The problem in this case is that the amount available exceeds the demand: in El Salvador, it is not easy to find so many buyers.

At some point, the “transportistas” — crime groups who work as independent contractors moving drug shipments — and local organizations began to receive payments in kind. For each 100 kilos of cocaine moved, most coming from Honduras and El Salvador, it is estimated that two stay in El Salvador. Part of this merchandise resumes the trip the north, destined for the United States, via the “hormiga” (ant) trafficking system, in which small amounts are moved by numerous drug “mules.” The other part stays behind to be distributed on the local market. There is little information about who is in charge of distribution and who the intermediaries are, although some reports indicate that certain mara cliques may be increasingly involved in trafficking small quantities. This has occurred in places like Sonsonate, Santa Ana, Chalatenango, La Libertad and San Salvador.

The gangs get involved in the local drug market in two ways: one is bottom-up, and involves taking over local sales, and the other is top-down, and involves acting as intermediaries between the trafficking organizations and the cliques. Their role in transnational drug trafficking continues to be marginal — at least in El Salvador. Although there is some evidence indicating the existence of relationships between some Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 members with larger drug trafficking structures, it is certain that the gang members have not stopped occupying a “secondary” role in the criminal economy of drugs.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of MS13

The maras are complex organizations that maintain hierarchies, but also horizontal relationships among the cliques. While a vertical structure has been useful for making members comply with the truce that led to a drastic drop in homicides, it does not apply in regards to the local operations of the gangs. According to commissioner Cotto, each clique has significant autonomy in managing its resources, procuring funds and managing its rents. This is one of the reasons it is difficult to make extortion part of the terms of any agreement. Even more complicated is the idea of forming a complex criminal network that manages to take control of key links in the drug trafficking chain, thus seizing the role of the transportistas and drug traffickers.

Rethinking the Mara – Drug Trafficking Nexus

A relationship between the maras and drug trafficking does exist, but there is no need to overestimate these ties. The idea of the growing role of the cliques and their leaders in the criminal drug economy is essentially a smoke screen to hide the face of bigger organizations, the complicity of government employees and the laundering of drug money. Little is said about any of this. It is rare to find whole newspaper pages or journalistic investigations that reveal illegal networks penetrating local institutions, the market and the legal economy.

As often occurs in the criminal world, the distance between the leaders and the membership base is immense. For this reason, it is important to separate the alleged ties of gang members from the involvement of entire cliques in drug trafficking. The generalizations that are commonly made lead to uniform responses to a diverse phenomenon, reinforcing the stigma attached to hundreds of youth who are involved in the maras: the image of the gang member as an “enemy” of society. This bias has been seen in security policies based on repression, which direct attention to the weakest links in the chain, while the big players operate with impunity.

In terms of the drug problem in El Salvador, the pressure of the maras on the local market and the overabundance of drugs, as well as the limited responses of the state, create a worrisome scenario in regard to the drugs on offer and the possible growth of the market. For now, the hemispheric debate on drug policy has a long way to go.

The history of drug trafficking and its true influence in the country still needs to be written; meanwhile, the threat of the maras will continue to be the catch phrase used to explain the violence and crime in El Salvador.

* The original article states over 4,000 kilos of cocaine were seized in Guatemala in 2013, but the US State Department report referred to in regards to El Salvador’s seizure figures states slightly over two tons.

*Juan Carlos Garzon is a Colombian political scientist, with a Master’s in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University. He is currently a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. This article was translated and reprinted with permission. It originally appeared in El Faro. See Spanish original here.

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