El Salvador President Denies Zetas Train Street Gangs

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El Salvador President Mauricio Funes has rejected claims the country’s street gangs work with Mexico criminal group the Zetas and denied his administration is being extorted by gang leaders over the government-orchestrated gang truce as political pressure builds over the controversial agreement.

Funes dismissed claims made in a recent report from Washington DC-based International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) that the Zetas had possibly trained factions of the Salvadoran street gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in El Salvador, saying there was “no evidence to make us think that,” reported El Diario de Hoy.

The president also denied that gang leaders were forcing the government to pay them so the MS-13 and its rivals, the Barrio 18, maintain a ceasefire, which led to a 40 percent drop in the murder rate in El Salvador after it was implemented in March 2012.

“It is not true the gangs are blackmailing or extorting the government [over the truce],” he said.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Zetas – mara question is a sensitive and unresolved issue. Funes has been quoted on the record in the past as saying the Zetas have been “exploring” possible alliances with criminal groups in his nation, including with street gangs. And the United Nations, in a recent report (pdf), talked about Mexico’s organized criminal groups moving south with the help of local allies. (See video below)

However, there is no solid evidence to illustrate that this has produced any steady institutional working relationship between street gangs and transnational criminal organizations in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras, the three Central American countries with the strongest mara presence.  

The irony is that the above-cited IASC report, which InSight Crime reviewed, actually downplayed the Zetas – gang connections. And its author, Douglas Farah, told InSight Crime that he saw more evidence of the mara connections with El Salvador transport groups. To be sure, the report emphasized attempts by certain gang cells, known as “clicas,” to become more involved in the drug trade on their own terms. 

Funes’ comments also come at a time of increasing doubts over whether the gang truce can last and whether it is an effective tactic in reducing the violence and criminality associated with the gangs over the long term. 

The truce has been undermined by a recent increase in murders and suggestions that the true murder rate is being concealed by the practice of “disappearing” dead bodies. Earlier this month, a prominent opponent of the truce, who was used as a source for the IASC report, claimed his close colleague had been murdered in retaliation for his criticisms of the truce.

The report also claimed the truce has caused tensions between the MS-13 leaders in prison and those on the streets.

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