Spanish police have arrested an alleged leader of the Barrio 18 gang, a further indication that Central America’s street gangs are seeking to expand their presence in Europe.
Spain’s National Police announced on September 12 that it had arrested in Madrid a Barrio 18 leader known by the alias “Mexicano.” According to the police, Mexicano was wanted on several criminal charges and was carrying false identification documents at the time of his arrest. Although his alias suggests he may be a citizen of Mexico, authorities did not specify the suspected gang leader’s nationality.
Mexicano’s capture stemmed from a joint investigation involving Spanish, Honduran and Salvadoran police forces. The investigation found that Barrio 18 leaders in those Central American nations had ordered members to begin gang operations in Spain.
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Mexicano’s presence in Spain suggests that Barrio 18 is making a concerted effort to establish stronger ties to Europe. Arrests last year confirmed the gang is also operating in Italy. While Spain seems like a natural landing spot for gang members given that there is no language barrier, Italy is also attractive because it is home to Europe’s largest population of Salvadoran expatriates. Officials and non-governmental organizations estimate there are at least 40,000 Salvadorans living just in the metropolitan area of Milan.
Barrio 18’s apparent push into Europe is matched by its archrival, the MS13. Raids conducted by Italian and Spanish police in 2013 and 2014, respectively, led to the arrests of dozens of suspected MS13 gang members.
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Barrio 18 and MS13 are concentrated in the Northern Triangle region of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and they also have a presence throughout much of the rest of Central America, as well as Mexico and the United States. Nonetheless, the extent of the gangs’ transnational ties remains an open question, as the links between the different branches are often highly tenuous.
The presence of Central American-based gangs in Europe is not a new phenomenon; both the MS13 and Barrio 18 have had a presence in Italy since the mid-2000s. There is increasing evidence, however, that the gang members in Europe are taking orders from Central American bosses. In addition to the recent case involving Mexicano, the gang members arrested in 2014 in Spain were reportedly Salvadorans sent overseas to build up MS13 operations in the country.