Are Central American Gangs Growing in Southern Mexico?

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Authorities in Mexico’s southern border region have detained a growing number of gang members in 2017. Their affiliation, however, is reportedly with two Central American gangs, the MS13 and Barrio 18, raising questions about whether or not these crime groups are having a resurgence in Mexico.

So far in 2017, authorities in Mexico’s southeastern state of Chiapas, which shares a border with Guatemala, have detained 148 gang members believed to be affiliated with Central American “maras,” as the MS13 and Barrio 18 are known locally.

This figure is more than ten times the total number of mara-affiliated gang members (13) the state detained in 2016, according to statistics from the Chiapas Security and Citizen Protection Secretariat (Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana del estado de Chiapas), El Sol de México reported

However, the detained gang members are not solely Central American. Forty-four percent of those detained were Salvadoran, 36 percent were Mexican and 20 percent were Honduran, though all of them identified with either the Barrio 18 (55 percent) or the MS13 (45 percent).

Violence in Chiapas has also reportedly increased with the return of Central American maras, according to El Sol de México. Twenty-eight homicides have been committed so far this year by members of the gangs, double the 14 homicides committed in 2016 and triple the seven homicides committed in 2015. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

If these numbers are to be believed, the presence of Central American maras in Mexico is not new. While the maras are a Central American brand, they are multinational organizations whose ranks are filled with members from around the region. Both the MS13 and Barrio 18 have expanded to Europe and established a presence in Spain and Italy in the past, and they maintain a strong foothold in many areas of the United States. 

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One theory behind why the gangs are trying to expand into Mexico is that they are seeking the help of locals to “open a drug corridor” in order to capitalize on the weakening of the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels. But the maras have tried this before, and both the MS13 and Barrio 18 “do not yet appear to be a formal part of the transnational drug logistics chain,” according to the US State Department.

Drug routes naturally flow through Mexico’s highly disputed southern border region, and Central American gangs would have to work with Mexican organizations in order to use them. But the uptick in the number of detained gang member affiliated with the maras may be more related to increased enforcement, rather than a sign of their expansion into transnational drug trafficking.

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