Alleged Al Qaeda-Mara Salvatrucha Link: More Smoke than Fire?

4 MINS READOct 25, 2004 | 17:30 GMT

Media reports about an al Qaeda connection to Central American criminal gang Mara Salvatrucha continue to surface, despite the lack of solid evidence connecting the El Salvador-based criminal network to the Islamist militants.

The alleged connection between these two widely disparate networks first surfaced in a Sept. 28 Washington Times article, which said unnamed U.S. law enforcement sources provided the background. In subsequent reports, Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez seconded these allegations. To date, however, no other U.S. or Central American authority has publicly alleged a Mara Salvatrucha-al Qaeda link. Despite the lack of substantiation, reports continue to appear on the relation between the Mara gangs and al Qaeda — most centering on Adnan El Shukrijumah.

Shukrijumah, a suspected al Qaeda operative who is wanted in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and subsequent plots against U.S. financial institutions, is on the U.S. Justice Department's most-wanted list. He has evaded capture for more than three years and reportedly has been traveling through Central America and Mexico in recent months. Although he may indeed be in that region, allegations about his connection to the Mara Salvatrucha seemingly stem more from a need for U.S. aid than from any real security concern.

Mara Salvatrucha is a network of street gangs — with few members older than 28 — that originated in El Salvador and subsequently spread throughout Central America and Mexico to more than 30 U.S. states, the U.S. Justice Department says. It is involved in standard street crime and drug trafficking and appears to have little motivation other than crime for profit. As such, it seems somewhat unusual that al Qaeda would be recruiting these hoodlums.

In fact, a number of gang members have gone on record explicitly denying the allegations reported in the media. Additionally, many members of the clergy who work with the gangs in Central America have called the government allegations "an attempt to distract the public." If al Qaeda were indeed attempting to recruit young criminals into its ranks of Islamist militants it would face several obstacles.

Beyond the fact that Mara Salvatrucha is a simple criminal network, there is no evidence to suggest that the Maras share any ideology with al Qaeda, or that its members are Muslim. Furthermore, El Shukrijumah has been smart enough to evade capture since Sept. 11, so contacting known criminals who might not think twice about turning him over to authorities would involve a huge security risk. That said, however, there is an argument to be made that the Maras, as a profit-centered criminal network, might do just about anything — for the right price.

The numerous media reports and Department of Justice documents suggest it would not be too difficult for al Qaeda to exploit the Maras links to people-smuggling operations from Mexico into the United States. The problem with this theory is that the Mara gangs do not have known ties to Mexican gangs that smuggle people into the United States illegally. In fact, the Maras are at odds with these gangs because they are known to rob and/or extort money from Central American immigrants making the overland trip though Mexico.

Why, then, do these allegations continue to surface? For the Salvadorans, who have remained mum on the subject — letting Washington make its own assumptions, perhaps — it may come down to a matter of funding. In the second week of October, Salvadoran National Police Chief Ricardo Menesses Orellana met with U.S. law enforcement officials in southern California in what might be seen as a first step toward securing greater U.S. assistance for its domestic anti-crime efforts. The alliance between Colombia and the United States, and the dollars that pour into Colombia each year in the fight against "narco-terrorists," is a good example. El Salvador, as the cradle of Mara operations, might also stand to gain some aid money. For the United States, the political reason behind supporting El Salvador is fairly obvious: El Salvador maintains the only Latin American contingent in Iraq.

But in this case, it appears Honduras is trying to promote an agenda that has little to do with al Qaeda and a lot to do with its domestic battle against street gangs.

If Honduras can establish a connection — or establish the fear of a connection — between the Maras and al Qaeda, perhaps it will be able to parlay that into some form of U.S. economic aid as well. After all, if such a link were developing throughout the region, the United States would have more of a reason to finance the war against "narco-terrorists" in Central America.

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