A small number of Salvadoran gang members have reportedly elected to set up operations in neighboring Central American countries, in order to escape violent clashes back home.
Salvadoran newspaper El Diario de Hoy reported that some MS13 members have fled El Salvador and set up shop in Honduras, while Salvadoran members of rival gang Barrio 18 have been detected in Guatemala.
The report cited several unnamed sources, who claimed that gang leaders have fled in response to “increased persecution” by Salvadoran authorities. Gangs and security forces have been engaged in escalating rounds of retaliatory violence, including police station bombings, assassination campaigns allegedly targeting police, and paramilitary death squads allegedly targeting gang leaders.
Some MS13 members have moved into an isolated village in the western department of Lempira, and are recruiting youths and smuggling drugs and weapons across the border in canoes, town residents told Honduran newspaper La Prensa. The newspaper quoted one town resident who said the gang members have forced some families to take them in, while other gang members have built their own houses. According to El Diario de Hoy, at least 18 MS13 members have been reported in this area.
In response, a spokesperson for Fusina, Honduras’ interagency security force, said that a border security operation was in the works for the affected region.
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There have been previous indications that El Salvador’s gangs are looking for a reprieve from ongoing bloodshed — at least, that is how they have apparently presented themselves in certain public statements. While the gangs struck a more confrontational tone in a statement released in January, a more recent press release attributed to the gangs included talk of “repentance and a request for society’s forgiveness.”
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However, the Salvadoran government has given no indication of straying from its hardline policies. It is not implausible that some gang members may see a residency in Guatemala or Honduras as a better option.
Unfortunately for El Salvador’s neighbors, this is a classic example of the so-called “cockroach effect,” in which criminal groups facing increased pressure in one area move somewhere else where they face less resistance. While Honduran authorities have vowed to tighten border security — and have already made motions towards doing so along its other frontiers — it wil be a significant challenge to extend state control over the isolated, rural areas near El Salvador.