Anonymous intelligence sources say El Salvador’s street gangs held military training sessions for their most loyal and lethal members and are getting involved in international drug trafficking, a provocative allegation that comes amidst a volatile political transition and a highly contentious gang truce.
About 60 members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) — deemed “Special Operations of the Neighborhood” — were trained over two days last February in a number of military techniques, including how to ambush an enemy, engage in a firefight and use various weapons, newspaper El Diaro De Hoy reported.
The report, however, was cloaked in unnamed police and intelligence sources. The evidence presented amounted to a photocopy of a letter (not available online) allegedly composed and circulated by a gang leader, indicating that the gang should seek military training from former combatants in El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.
According to the report, the training was ordered by the “12 Apostles,” as the principal leaders of the MS13 are called, and held in a rural area of La Union, a department in the east of the country.
The report also alleges that three MS13 leaders are working with a Mexican cartel, and that the military-style training in the MS13 is part of a concerted effort by the street gang to expand from local microtrafficking into high-level transnational drug smuggling.
The MS13’s rivals, the Barrio 18 gang, the report adds, are also increasingly involved in organizing large-scale shipments of drugs.
InSight Crime Analysis
This report should be approached with caution, not least because it does not name a single source besides the unattributed letter. High-level military and police officials are known to have links with organized crime and drug trafficking networks, and they might be releasing this information as a way to implicate the gangs, which are rightly blamed for much of El Salvador’s ills but are not players in international drug trafficking.
What’s more, the report comes as El Salvador continues to sort out a highly-contested and still disputed election, which the left-wing Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren won by the slimmest of margins. It is still not known exactly what type of security strategy Sanchez Ceren will put forth, and the report might be a way for El Diario De Hoy, a staunchly conservative paper, to advocate for tougher tactics against the gangs and highlight how the previous FMLN administration’s efforts to forge a truce between the MS13 and Barrio 18 could backfire on the populace.
However, if proven true, the report would lend credence to concerns the MS-13 are looking to step up into transnational organized crime, and also confirm what many critics have said about the truce: that it has served to help strengthen and organize the gangs’ criminal operations.