Claims that El Salvador Street Gangs Control Drug Routes Remain Unfounded

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Authorities in El Salvador have identified a number of international drug trafficking routes and warned of the increasing involvement of the country’s street gangs in the drug trade, although similar concerns in the past have yet to be substantiated. 

In a press conference on June 30, El Salvador’s Anti-narcotics Division (DAN) chief, Marco Tulio Lima, said Salvadoran gangs were “mutating” into “narco-gangs.” He also stated that one of the international drug trafficking routes identified by the DAN — from Ecuador to Guatemala — is run by local gangs, reported La Prensa Grafica.

Lima pointed to a growing percentage of drug related arrests involving local gang members as evidence for these claims. Whereas only 23.9 percent of those arrested last year on drug charges were gang members, a total of 898 gang members have been arrested for drug trafficking in the first six months of 2014 — close to 45 percent of the total.     

So far this year, the DAN has identified at least 11 international drug trafficking routes passing through El Salvador, including routes from San Salvador’s Monseñor Romero airport to the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Spain and Egypt.

Additionally, the DAN discovered six routes for moving money during the same period, three of which are to Panama, two Colombia and one Ecuador.    

InSight Crime Analysis

Warnings from Salvadoran authorities of the country’s powerful street gangs — such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 — morphing into drug traffickers with links to international cartels are nothing new.

In the past, however, fears about Salvadoran gangs becoming transnational drug trafficking organizations have proven largely unsubstantiated. In October 2012, when the US Treasury Department designated the MS13 as a transnational criminal organization, many law enforcement agents questioned this classification and several law enforcement officials told InSight Crime the gang did not have the capacity or contacts to be classified as transnational.   

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

A 2013 report identified collaboration between factions of the MS13 and Mexico’s Zetas criminal group and stated that the gang had evolved from providing security for cocaine shipments to moving the shipments through El Salvador themselves. But the group did not appear to play a significant role beyond the country’s borders.

The growth in arrests of gang members on drug charges cited as evidence of their increasing role in drug trafficking is instead likely representative of the gangs taking over micro-trafficking networks and street level drug sales within El Salvador.

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