Are Mara Salvatrucha Gangs Expanding in Costa Rica?

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The head of the Honduran armed forces has claimed that powerful gangs are expanding their presence in Costa Rica, but the extent of this criminal migration might be overstated.

In a recent interview with Costa Rican news outlet Diario Extra, Francisco Álvarez Urbina said that the Honduran military’s anti-crime efforts have driven some members of the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs into nearby countries like Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Previous reports have indicated that Barrio 18 and MS13 have begun to expand their presence outside their traditional stronghold in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

In 2012, Salvadoran media outlets, citing police reports, claimed these gangs had established a presence in Belize. And in 2014, Nicaraguan news sources suggested that hundreds of gang members affiliated with MS13 were operating in the north of that country.

The Honduran military chief said that some of this migration may be due to the gangs seeking to build connections with transnational drug trafficking groups, in order to supplement the revenues they derive from kidnapping and extortion. “We have had information on [gang members’] approaching drug cartels,” Álvarez said.

InSight Crime Analysis

There are many reasons why groups like Barrio 18 and MS13 would want to establish a presence in Costa Rica. Costa Rican security forces do not currently employ anti-gang tactics as aggressive as those in the Northern Triangle, and the country plays an increasingly important role as a transit point for drugs, which has likely contributed to the growth of lucrative domestic drug markets.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Costa Rica

However, Diario Extra reported that Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Unit has captured 11 members of Barrio 18 and MS13 in the past decade — hardly signaling a robust presence for either group. Moreover, Costa Rican officials have grown increasingly alarmed by the rising violence associated with drug-trade related turf battles being waged by local gangs. It seems unlikely that sophisticated criminal groups like Barrio 18 and MS13 would forge ahead with expansion plans at a time when Costa Rican authorities are planning to ramp up anti-crime efforts.

In sum, Barrio 18 and MS13 probably maintain some presence in Costa Rica, but more substantial evidence points to the evolution of local Costa Rican groups as the major criminal threat facing the country.

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