Authorities from six Central American countries are working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on important operations to dismantle violent gang - including Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18, also known as M-18.
Both gangs operate in several Central American countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. They also operate in the United States.
Those countries, along with Belize, Costa Rica and Panama are cooperating with the FBI in the initiative.
Joint training exercises are one of its most important components.
More than 20 police officers and civilian community activists from those countries participated in two weeks of anti-gang training provided by FBI agents at its campus in Quantico, Virginia. The program, which began in late April and ended in early May, covered combat skills, tactics, and gang prevention.
The training was part of the Central American Community Impact Exchange (CACIE) program, according to the FBI. Authorities established CACIE in in 2013.
FBI agents used a high-tech simulator to provide tactical training for confronting gangs to the participants.
The CACIE program is providing “concrete and specific” training in how to stop gang activities, said Armando Rodríguez, a security analyst from the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM).
Improving cooperation to fight gangs
The partnership between the six Central American countries and the FBI has several goals, Rodríguez said:
- Strengthening relationships between law enforcement officials among the six participating Central American countries and their counterparts in the U.S.;
- Improving those relationships among civilian government leaders;
- Furthering cooperation between police in Central America and the FBI in collecting, analyzing and sharing gang-related information; and
- Improving investigations of gang activities in Central America and in the U.S.
MS-13 and Barrio 18 operate in multiple locations Central America and in the United States. In Central America, they are most active in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In the U.S., one or both gangs operate in California, Maryland, Virginia, and Texas.
Gang leaders in Central American sometimes give orders and guidance to gang operatives in the U.S., according to U.S. federal court testimony.
The two gangs are known for using extreme violence. Both gangs engage in killings, extortion, robbery, car theft, human trafficking, and local drug dealing. And both have formed alliances with Mexican transnational criminal organizations - such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas - to protect drug shipments into Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Both MS-13 and Barrio 18 are comprised primarily of teenagers and men between the ages of 15 and 35. They’re also known to coerce younger boys into joining, usually as lookouts.
Cooperation between Central American law enforcement authorities and the FBI makes sense, because MS-13 and M-18 have increased their alliances with international drug cartels in recent years, according to Rodríguez.
FBI officials concur that these gangs are an international threat.
“We need to understand the enemy we will be fighting. Gang members do not respect borders,” said Jason Kaplan, FBI Legal Attaché in El Salvador, during a July 18 news conference. “We must establish programs to teach young people how dangerous gangs, drugs and violent crimes are.”
Gangs in Central America
While MS-13 and M-18 are the largest gangs in Central America, they aren’t alone. There are about 900 gangs in the region, according to www.envio.org and other publications, totaling about 140,000 members.
Most gang members work the streets, extorting, perpetrating threats and act of violence, forcibly recruiting young people, and robbing bus drivers and small business owners.
But some gang members are professionals. Among their ranks are physicians, attorneys, engineers and IT specialists.
Some MS-13 and M-18 factions have grown large enough to afford medical equipment so that they can treat members injured during battles, El Heraldo reported on August 6.
In addition to forming alliances with the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, MS-13 and M-18 have also formed partnership with regional drug trafficking groups, such as Los Chachiros, Los Mendozas, Los Lorenzanas and Los Perrones.
Gang activity in Costa Rica
Each of the countries participating in the training with the FBI has different challenges when it comes to gangs.
For example, since 2011, Costa Rican authorities have seen a steady increase in gang activity.
Authorities in Costa Rica must remain vigilant, because the gang problem there could get worse if the gangs in that country continue to grow, Rodríguez said.
There is no significant gang violence in Belize. However, that country is used by transnational criminal organizations as a strategic drug transshipment point to the Caribbean, according to Rodríguez.
Since 2010, Panamanian authorities have noted an increase in gangs transporting drugs through the Gulf of Uribe for transferring drugs.
“The challenge for authorities is to work together in prevention from a social standpoint,” Rodriguez said.
Cooperation is crucial in the fight against gangs and the international drug cartels they partner with, according to an FBI statement.
“We can only be successful in the fight against transnational gangs if we work together,” the FBI states on FBI.gov.