Are Salvadoran ‘Maras’ Infiltrating Belize?

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El Salvador’s “mara” gangs may be moving into Belize, according to reports, with both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 having a presence in the capital of the tiny Caribbean country.

According to a report by La Prensa Grafica, El Salvador’s maras have increased their presence in Belize over the last decade. The article cited police reports which say that El Salvador’s two largest gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, have a presence in the country’s capital, Belmopan. Other police reports suggest that in the district of Cayo, where Belmopan is located, an unnamed Salvadoran gang with 400 members operates with impunity. There is a large Salvadoran community in Belize — the Foreign Ministry estimates that around a fifth of the 315,000 or so people living in the country are Salvadoran citizens, according to the newspaper.

One reason for the growth in gang activity in Belize could be the use of the free economic zone in Corozal, close to the Mexican border, for contraband smuggling. Another report by Prensa Grafica detailed the rise in smuggling of goods bought in this zone, which are illegally taken into Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico.

InSight Crime Analysis

The reports of increased presence of Salvadoran gangs in Belize lack detail, but could be a worrying sign for the authorities. El Salvador had one of the highest murder rates in the world last year, at 72 per 100,000, which the government blames largely on gang violence.

Belize also has local gangs. A truce made between 13 gangs in Belize City last year brought a sharp reduction in violence, but now appears to be fracturing.

Last year, the White House placed Belize on a watch list of countries involved in the international drug trade. The murder rate has climbed to about 40 per 100,000 people, outstripping Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica, which all have rates of below 25, and edging past Guatemala, which had an estimated 38 last year.

The Corozal free economic zone seems to have prompted smugglers to take advantage of its cheap prices to make a profit, which could open the door for more serious organized criminal activity. There is precedent for this: Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este, in the tri-border area of Brazil and Argentina, is both a cheap retail destination (due largely to the availability of smuggled and counterfeit goods) and a key hub of drug, arms and human trafficking.

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