The Nature of the Maras: Douglas Farah – a Rebuttal

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

As part of our ongoing debate over the nature of Central America’s most powerful street gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), we publish a letter from Douglas Farah responding to criticism from other writers published on InSight Crime.  We encourage all manner of debate.

Mr. Farah, a longtime friend and mentor to both directors of InSight Crime, felt that one of the articles we recently published crossed the line from constructive criticism to personal attack. That was certainly never our intention and we leave all the articles that form part of this latest coverage of MS13 for readers to make their own judgements. We publish Mr. Farah’s letter without edition of any kind and welcome his criticism. We thank him for taking the time to respond and moving the debate to the next level. 

To The Editors

InSight Crime

In February InSight Crime reprinted a piece I wrote in Foreign Policy on the changing nature of gangs in Central America. The editor told me he had asked some regional experts for a response. Knowing the reputation of one of those proposed for ad hominem attacks and lack of substance, I requested and received multiple assurances that the discussion would be professional and respectful.

Given the rapidly changing, dynamic nature of the gangs, the difficulty in gaining access to them and the violence associated with them, I have long been engaged in a respectful dialogue with other investigators because none of us has a monopoly on the truth and we all benefit from understanding how others put the pieces of the puzzle together.

The first response, by Carlos García, falls well within those parameters and I have responded more fully below. But I was taken aback when InSight Crime chose to publish an attack on my person, character and reputation by Juan Martinez D’Aubuisson, whose piece reads like something from the mind of Donald Trump – a series of deliberate mischaracterizations, falsehoods, innuendo and repetition of things Mr. Martinez D’Aubisson knows to be untrue. The incoherent attacks on me as a fear-mongering tool of the U.S. military are despicable. There is no way to respond to such vicious nonsense. You can read my extensive work on gangs in multiple peer reviewed and academic journals on my website (, and decide for yourself.

Further debate on these issues would have been a welcome addition to the discussion on gangs. Unfortunately “academics” like Mr. Martinez D’Aubuisson who traffic in slander and falsehoods, and InSight Crime, which allow him a platform, have made such discussions much harder. The piece by Martinez D’aubuisson does not meet the ethical and moral standards one would expect of a publication of the stature of InSight Crime and diminishes the enterprise’s reputation and credibility.

I enclose my response to Mr. Garcia’s more thoughtful and coherent commentary. Mr. Garcia laid out six perceived misconceptions about the MS 13 gang, some of which are relevant to my piece. I agree with most of the six, and, again, differ on some. There seems to be a lack of understanding, in both responses, that my article was primarily about San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and not El Salvador.

1) The MS 13 is a homogenous group worldwide: Without a doubt the gang varies from country to country, from clica to clica and the main point of the FP piece was to show how a specific clica in Choloma, San Pedro Sula, was evolving in new and different ways from other groups. This is interesting precisely because the gang is not homogeneous, but fragmenting and evolving in different ways in different places.

2) Members always commit crimes on behalf of the MS 13: Clearly many of the killings, abductions and other criminal activities are for personal gain. I do not address this specifically in the piece, but have in other writings.

3) The MS 13 works for the cartels: I have been a leading voice in trying to debunk this myth, stressing in my writings and discussions that some clicas are seeking a much closer alliance – or in some cases displacing – the traditional transport networks. There are only a few documented cases of the MS 13 moving large loads of cocaine, but a growing number of cases in Honduras, particularly, of the MS 13 protecting loads, being paid in kind, and taking over the retail cocaine and crack business in many parts of San Pedro Sula. But I have stressed they do not have a direct relationship with the Mexican organizations, although many would like to.

4) The MS 13 kills those who refuse to enter the gang: This is where we perhaps have differences of interpretation and language. They often kill those they select to recruit into the gangs, or at a minimum drive them from their homes. But they do not kill everyone who wants to join the gang and cannot.

5) There are millionaire gang members: While I agree, I think Mr. Garcia may underestimate the wealth acquired by the gang leaders through the truce process. But I have never reported there were millionaires and have reported extensively how the money is distributed. It was a source of deep discontent within the gangs on the streets in El Salvador when the leadership in prison received thousands of dollars from the government – not because the money came in but because that leadership did no distribute it in the expected way to gang members across the board.

6) The MS 13 had an enviable infrastructure: Here again I would disagree in part. The mention of the drone, which operates with cell phones attached to record activity, is known because several have fallen from the air in San Pedro Sula. Perhaps that is why they are not known in El Salvador. The point was that the gangs in San Pedro Sula are actively seeking new technologies and are experimenting, not that such low-tech things take the place of the traditional lookouts who provide the gangs with their best intelligence. The recent revelations of significant gun purchases and the MS 13 private clinic in San Pedro Sula all point to an infrastructure that many groups would envy.


Douglas Farah

President, IBI Consultants

Visiting Senior Fellow, National Defense University Center for Complex Operations

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+