MS-13 and Calle 18 Developing Strong Relationships with Drug Cartels
By Dialogo December 19, 2011
Central America’s notorious street gangs, most notably Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18, are on the verge of evolving into major transnational crime organizations.
That’s partly due to continuing to develop relationships with Mexican cartels, say government officials and independent observers in the region.
The gangs’ transformation from loose associations of small-time criminals devoid of strategic long-term planning into more coherent syndicates has alarmed authorities in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — all three of which are seeing the encroachment of Mexican cartels on their territories.
The Honduran Congress in December overwhelming voted to follow a model used by Mexican President Felipe Calderón and deploy the army to combat organized crime.
“This legislation will allow the armed forces to take on policing roles to confront organized crime and drug traffickers operating across the country,” said Congressman Oswaldo Ramos, a member of the country’s ruling Conservative Party.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said that an earlier temporary deployment of the military to support the police in November resulted in a 36 percent drop in homicides for that month. On a per-capita basis, Honduras leads the world in homicides, with 82 murders per 100,000 inhabitants last year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC).
The army deployment enjoys widespread popularity among Hondurans, say opinion surveys, with respondents telling pollsters they feel safer now that soldiers are patrolling the streets.
Violence on the rise throughout ‘northern triangle’
The scale of the crime challenge is daunting for governments and law enforcement agencies throughout Central America’s “northern triangle.” That challenge was outlined by departing Guatemalan President Alvaro Colóm, who in a BBC interview said one of his biggest concerns were the alliances forming between transnational drug cartels and the street gangs, or “maras” that sell drugs at the retail level and are involved in robbery, kidnapping and extortion.
Honduran Interior Minister Carlos Menocal has warned that Mexican cartels, such as Los Zetas, are supplying the maras with modern weaponry and coaching them in crime management skills.
“Two and a half years ago, we could tell that the maras were still using makeshift rifles. Now they use AK-47s, Galils, AR-15s, machine guns with laser visors, plus 9mm and .40 brand new guns,” he told the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Guatemalan authorities estimate that between 1.2 million and 1.8 million weapons are in use in the country.
The MS-13 was founded by Central American immigrants in the “barrios” of Los Angeles in the 1980s, and still has a major presence in California and several other U.S. states. MS-13 as well as its arch-rival, Calle 18, quickly expanded throughout Central America via deportees.
The virulent growth of the gangs in Central America has been rapid. Estimates of the number of gang members across the region vary, from 70,000 to 100,000. UNDOC has cited country membership totals of some 10,500 in El Salvador, 36,000 in Honduras and 14,000 in Guatemala, though some academic observers argue the numbers may be higher.
The seven nations of Central America are particularly susceptible to gang growth and violent crime because of an increase in drug trafficking, caught as they are “between the world’s largest drug-producing and drug-consuming countries,” according to UNODC’s report, “The Destabilizing Influence of Drug Trafficking on Transit Countries.”
Other traits that make some Central American countries at risk are chaotic urbanization, growing youth populations and high unemployment rates, according to UNODC’s report. UNODC officials questioned a year ago whether the main gangs such as MS-13 and Calle-18 would become more involved in drug trafficking. And they suggested this was unlikely as most of the gang strongholds were inland and “far from the maritime routes along which most cocaine flows before arriving in Mexico.”
Gangs become far more sophisticated
Law enforcement authorities in El Salvador now say there are signs this is changing. While the gangs are still highly focused on their neighborhoods and on extortion and kidnapping, human trafficking and auto and weapons smuggling, they are also moving into transnational drug trafficking, possibly under the tutelage of Los Zetas.
Salvadoran officials say that some MS-13 factions now control trafficking along the coast of the southwestern province of La Unión, especially the Gulf of Fonseca — a highly strategic location adjacent to Honduras and Nicaragua.
MS-13 members have been extorting money from fishermen and businesses and using fast-speed boats to smuggle drugs, illegal aliens and guns. Also of concern to Salvadoran law enforcement is how this smuggling involves a high degree of planning and coordination between MS-13 factions, including the Heister, Coronados, Satellite and Pinos Locos Way groups, or cliques as they are known.
“That means that these cliques and their leaders are becoming more sophisticated and ambitious,” said private security analyst Samuel Logan, who advises foreign businesses working in Central America.
“Our intelligence suggests there are bulk drug shipments taking place. The area is strong with MS-13 trafficking,” Jesus Manuel Elías Barquero, a military commander in La Unión told reporters. He said the MS-13 factions involved seem intent on expanding their operations from the mainland to the islands of the Gulf of Fonseca.
Naval officials agree. Capt. Juan Antonio Calderón said the Salvadoran Navy is increasing interdiction patrols in the Gulf of Fonseca, but he concedes that the MS-13 traffickers are managing to evade them.
“We are trying to alter the way we conduct these patrols to make them more effective, [but] we do not rule out the possibility they are moving to the islands of the Gulf of Fonseca,” Calderón told reporters, adding that marine units are likely to moved into the area to help the interdiction effort.
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes acknowledged in an interview with reporters last year that, like Guatemala, his country was witnessing a tie-up between MS-13 and Mexican cartels, especially Los Zetas. He said he was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the struggle with both the gangs and outside crime organizations and cartels.
“Just a few days after I came to office, I received an intelligence report saying that Los Zetas were exploring the territory and that they had started to make contacts with Salvadoran narcotraffickers and Salvadoran gangs, particularly the MS,” he said. “The change that has occurred lately is that the gangs have become involved in the business. At the beginning, the gangs were just a group of rebel youngsters. As time moved on, the gangs became killers for hire. Now the situation is that the gangs have become part of the whole thing.”