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The Maras – an escalating problem in El Salvador


By Sonja Wolf*

el_salvador_dead“El Salvador is one of the most violent nations in the Western Hemisphere”With a murder rate of 71 per 100,000 inhabitants, El Salvador is one of the most violent nations in the Western Hemisphere. According to the National Civilian Police (PNC), a total of 4,354 homicides occurred in 2011 alone [1]. Annually more than 70 percent of killings are committed with firearms, and the capital city, San Salvador, is particularly hard hit by spiralling crime. One of the key drivers of this violence is the drug trade. Central America has long been a transit corridor, but pushed by President Calderón’s narcoguerra and pulled by lucrative drug routes traversing the isthmus, Mexico’s drug trafficking organisations have in recent times expanded their presence in the sub-region. Today over 60 percent of the cocaine headed for the United States is smuggled through Central America, mostly with the help of local operatives that include street gang members [2].

Often referred to as maras, street gangs, whose active members number 28,130 nationwide, are responsible for at least 30 percent of the homicides perpetrated each year [3]. The phenomenon, however, is more intricate than these numbers suggest. The two dominant and rival entities, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Dieciocho, were originally formed in Los Angeles’ immigrant neighbourhoods. Repatriations enabled the deportees to introduce US-style gang culture into their countries of origin. Both groups now have their stronghold in the United States and in northern Central America where their affiliates have been carrying out more and increasingly brutal offenses. The Mano Dura (“iron fist”) strategy that El Salvador and neighbouring states launched in 2003, focusing on area sweeps and mass arrests of suspected gang youths, merely led to the maras becoming more structured and more involved in organised crime. Individually or in cliques, their members play an important and growing role in four areas.

Extortions constitute the gangs’ chief source of income. Initially they approached community residents for comparatively small sums, but over the years the shakedowns have become more extensive and sophisticated. Mano Dura, which entailed the large-scale incarceration of gang youths and especially leaders, required street-based members to collect more funds to support their detained peers and hire defence lawyers. Extortions had been coordinated from within the prisons until stricter security measures made it more difficult to smuggle in mobile phones. The gangs have since changed their modus operandi, often dispatching children to deliver the extortion request to victims.

Nowadays shopkeepers, market vendors, teachers, and sex workers operating in gang territories all need to make regular payments, but public transport companies are particularly affected. Each year dozens of bus drivers are murdered and buses burnt in order to enforce extortion demands. In June 2010, Dieciocho members killed the driver and fare collector of a microbus and subsequently set fire to the fully-loaded unit, burning 17 passengers alive and injuring 14 more. Route 47, servicing the Mejicanos municipality in Greater San Salvador, had been exclusively extorted by MS-13, but when the Dieciocho sought to gain a share of the business, hostilities between the local cliques ensued and culminated in the bus massacre [4]. The maras make millions of dollars annually, profits that are laundered through loans to shopkeepers or investments in microbuses and night clubs. These entertainment venues in turn are sites of further criminal activities, notably the extortion of other establishments and drug sales [5].

The major trafficking organisations (DTOs) rely on their Central American partners to provide the logistics and protection needed for safe drug smuggling operations. Gang members work in both areas, though minors, whose age is a mitigating factor in sentencing, are increasingly employed as sicarios (contract killers) [6]. Since the gang phenomenon is now in its third generation, scores of gang youths know no life other than one of drugs, violence, and promiscuity and are reported to be more ruthless than their predecessors. There are signs that some gang members seek a more prominent role in arms and drug trafficking in order to reap greater profits [7]. However, the maras participate chiefly in local sale of drugs, notably crack, cocaine, and marijuana. The products are retailed both in bars or discotheques, and on the streets of marginal communities, where they also locate clandestine laboratories to transform cocaine into crack.

Supplied either on the streets, in houses or from stores that serve as a front for illicit activities, drugs may be peddled by civilians, including single mothers or entire families in need of subsistence income. If operating in gang territories, cliques will tax these vendors for their commercial pursuits. Otherwise individual gang members may run their independent drug business and pay a quota to the gang, or a clique may deal in drugs and retain the profits for its daily survival. These schemes are facilitated by police corruption, since notoriously underpaid agents are often prepared to look the other way or to warn gang members of pending raids in return for a kickback [8]. Territorial disputes have triggered deadly clashes not between but within the maras, but in some zones the violence has been deliberately kept at low levels in order to deter the presence of the police.

maras_salvadorThe maras whose active members number 28,130 nationwide, are responsible for at least 30 percent of the homicides perpetrated each yearThere are activities, however, which are less high-profile in nature, but are no less important to understanding the impact of the gangs. Members of both MS-13 and the Dieciocho have turned to raping girls, sparing only those, such as relatives or girlfriends, who are already linked to the groups. These acts, perpetrated with alarming cruelty, have developed into a systematic practice in schools that are located in gang-affected communities. In one case the victim had been chosen as a birthday present to one of the gang members and was raped by at least 15 youths, some as young as twelve, for more than three hours. When the physical agony had ended, the female was threatened with death if she broke her silence [9]. The occurrence of these incidents is widely known among teachers, but these feel powerless to put a halt to them. The power of the maras, combined with pervasive impunity, means that these crimes are generally not reported to the authorities. Instead, the victims simply try to put the experience behind them. Many consider that rape is the lesser evil in areas where murder is a daily possibility.

Finally, the maras have widened their influence over many public and private schools situated in Greater San Salvador and over the youth groups based at these institutions. The barras, school-based gangs that are chiefly associated with the INFRAMEN (Instituto Nacional Francisco Menéndez) and INTI (Instituto Nacional Tecnico Industrial) – secondary education centres – have existed since the 1940s. Their rivalries, however, have become more frequent and lethal since the early 1990s, when the street gangs began establishing ties to teenagers at these institutions. Barras members, identifiable by their school uniforms, battle each other in public places and take trophies from their enemies. Affiliation with these groups is transient and generally ends once students have finished their education. These crews maintain no formal links to the street gangs, but their members generally reside in one of the capital city’s marginal neighbourhoods and may in some cases also form part of the maras.

Regardless of students’ feelings towards the street gangs, the latter’s reach has become ubiquitous. Today the INFRAMEN is effectively allied with the Dieciocho and the INTI with the MS-13. Both gangs essentially determine which schools youths can attend. For a student who lives in MS territory, the decision to attend the INFRAMEN is equivalent to a death sentence. Annually dozens of students are killed, and the crimes are seldom solved. Police tend to claim that the victims had connections to the street gangs. It appears, however, that while some die as a result of the barras fights, some are murdered for resisting the maras’ recruitment attempts. Yet others are slain simply for living in a community controlled by a gang other than the one which controls their school [10]. In some educational centres the children of gang members have begun to replicate their parents’ behaviour, intimidating and trying to extort money from their classmates [11].

Clearly, both the drug trade and the maras are major, but not the sole, drivers of crime in El Salvador. Reducing the current levels of violence will require not only more resources, but above all sustained efforts to implement comprehensive security and justice policies. Thus far the Funes government has chosen to continue, if not increase, the army’s participation in the fight against gangs and organised crime. Indeed, the military has requested even broader policing powers (investigations and house searches without a warrant) and has proposed a compulsory two-year military service for gang-prone youth. Although the Armed Forces’ contribution to public security has been favourably viewed by much of the population, their involvement augurs more violence, diverts already scarce resources from the PNC and exposes the military to corruption. Transnational law enforcement cooperation is one step in the right direction. But El Salvador also needs to adopt stronger domestic measures, such as strengthening the police and justice system, stricter gun control, and social policies aimed at preventing more youths from joining gang and drug activity.

[1] Redacción ContraPunto, ‘El 2011 terminó con 4.354 homicidios,’ ContraPunto, 1 January 2012,

[2] United States Department of State (USDOS), International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2011, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: USDOS, 2011), p. 270.

[3] Douglas González, ’28 mil 130 pandilleros registra la policía en el 2011,’ La Página, 21 December 2011,

[4] Carlos Martínez, Rodrigo Baires, and Daniel Valencia, ‘El sistema en prueba de fuego ante la 47 y pandillas,’ El Faro, 27 June 2010,

[5] Carlos Martínez, ‘Howard Cotto, subdirector de investigaciones de la PNC: “Hay pandilleros que compran microbuses y así lavan el dinero,”‘ El Faro, 6 October 2011,; Hugo Sánchez, ‘De drogas, pandillas y fisuras,’ ContraPunto, 9 October 2011,

[6] Alexander Renderos, ‘Nos estamos enfrentando a los hijos de pandilleros que están presos: Ramírez,’ Raíces, 1 September 2009,

[7] Carlos Martínez and Roberto Valencia, ‘Douglas Omar García Funes, director del Centro Antipandillas Transnacional: “Hay pandilleros que hasta dan tumbes de droga en altamar a narcotraficantes locales,”‘ El Faro, 24 April 2011,

[8] Fundasalva, ‘Relación entre drogas y violencia: Estudio comparativo,’ in PNUD, El impacto de las drogas en la violencia (San Salvador: PNUD, 2004), p. 37.

[9] Roberto Valencia, ‘Yo violada,’ El Faro, 24 July 2011,

[10] Daniel Valencia Caravantes, ‘¿Por qué mataron al estudiante?,’ El Faro, 6 November 2011,

[11] Hugo Sánchez, ‘”Herencia maldita” que mata estudiantes,’ ContraPunto, 25 July 2011,


* Sonja Wolf is a researcher based in Mexico City where she has completed post-doctoral fellowships at the ITAM and the UNAM. Her research focuses on security issues in Mexico and Central America, particularly street gangs and drug trafficking.

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