In 2015, El Salvador, with an alarming 104 homicides committed per 100,000 residents, was named the world's most violent country. It is a place with a long history of violence — from the Spanish incursion in the 16th century fiercely resisted by Pipil warriors to the military government's massacre of thousands of rural indigenous citizens in 1932. And then there was the civil war that raged between 1979 and 1992, killing an estimated 75,000 people in a country of just a few million. Today, El Salvador's legacy of violence is most evident in its gang culture, most notably perpetrated by Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and the 18th Street Gang, or Calle 18. Both groups emerged from a migratory channel opened between the United States and El Salvador. Beginning in the 1980s, Washington gave thousands of El Salvadorans, largely from poor, rural areas, temporary protective status in the United States. But those migrants were given little support, and were deported en masse after the war ended. They took back with them Los Angeles-style gang culture and replicated it throughout major urban centers in El Salvador and eventually throughout Central America.
A History of Conflict and Subjugation
El Salvador is an anomaly among its Central American neighbors. It is the smallest and most densely populated country in the region, and it has been defined by one geographic constraint in particular: Because it is the one Central American country without access to the Caribbean Sea, it has had to depend on Guatemalan and Honduran port infrastructure and road connectivity for its Atlantic import and export business. Similarly, throughout Central America's colonial history, Guatemala exploited El Salvador's relative isolation by controlling the movement of its main cash crops — coffee and indigo — into Mexico, the biggest market for Central American goods in colonial times. Consequently, the Guatemalan elite largely shaped the development of El Salvador's economy.
Meanwhile, for all the influence others have had on it, El Salvador exerted little power outside of its borders. The country defended against multiple invasions from the bigger and stronger Guatemala, but it remained largely isolationist, mainly because of geographic considerations. El Salvador was able to resist foreign takeovers because of its strong national identity, forged by the geographic isolation caused by the Sierra Madres. To survive, El Salvador had to develop a tough — and often violent — stance toward the outside world. And it is this stance, manifested in its citizens, that has helped foster El Salvador's gangs.
Because El Salvador is unique among Central American countries, I wanted to learn more about how its gangs might differ from others in the region, especially in their command structure and coordination networks. I traveled to the Guatemala-El Salvador border to meet with reformed gang members. This is what they told me:
The Making of a Salvadoran Gang Member
During the 12-year civil war, in which the U.S. government backed the military-led Salvadoran government against leftist militants, thousands of Salvadorans fled to the United States, where some were granted temporary protection but others lived as undocumented migrants. Many stayed behind at home, however, where high death tolls resulting from the conflict deeply impacted communities.
"For us that were born in the 1980s, we saw our mothers and fathers leave for Los Angeles, which meant that we had to be raised by our grandparents. Unfortunately, our grandparents lacked the strength to raise us. And because our moms and dads were in the United States working illegally, they were not able to visit El Salvador. So they compensated by sending money, which our grandparents kept. In my case, my grandparents saw me as a burden, and never gave me a penny or, even worse, love. As a result, I left my home bound for the streets."
Many children were among those who fled to the United States during the war, particularly to Los Angeles. After 1992, their temporary protection ended, forcing them back to El Salvador, a country ravaged for years by a war they hardly remembered. One deportee and reformed Calle 18 member told me about the rough conditions in his L.A. neighborhood that led him to join a gang.
"I grew up in Los Angeles during the 1990s. My parents had to work two to three jobs just to put food on our plates, and I barely saw them at night. But because we lived in an area where Mexicans and African-Americans ruled, and individually we couldn't do much, me and other Salvadorans united to confront the others. And as we united and fought, I realized that I had a sense of belonging with my friends more than I had with my own family. They took care of me."
As the saying goes; once a gang member, always a gang member. The powerful sense of belonging that comes from joining a gang, and the sense of loyalty and duty was evident in all the conversations I had. Members do whatever necessary to climb the ranks within the organization. One interviewee described it thus:
"Once we are initiated, we then become soldiers and obey whatever we have to do in order to gain hierarchy and command. But at the end of the day, whether you are a clique leader or enforcer, our choices are very simple: kill or be killed."
International Command and Control
Currently, most violent crimes in El Salvador can be directly or indirectly attributed to gang activity, including intergang warfare between MS-13 and Calle 18. Then there is the conflict between gangs and the government, as well as internal gang power struggles. This last factor is not insignificant. Calle 18 is divided into four factions just within El Salvador: Barrio 18, Nortenos, Surenos and Revolucionarios.
Yet, what interested me most was the degree of organization and the links between U.S.-based factions and Central American ones. Little is known to outside observers about the internal structure of MS-13 and Calle 18 and whether they operate under a direct hierarchical model. Most intelligence officials, however, surmise that the gangs are highly factional and decentralized into smaller groups known as cliques. However, that assertion was contested by the gang members I interviewed. One reformed Calle 18 leader explained:
"To what degree are we coordinated and have connections outside of El Salvador? I'd say it's a 50/50 split. The intellectual half comes from Los Angeles leadership and the operational half lies in El Salvador, which is further divided into prison leaders and non-prison leaders. Los Angeles' leadership dictates the how and the why, whereas San Salvador molds those ideas and then applies them in the streets. Eventually, they spread out through all of the cliques and associates that we have, be it in Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula or Tapachula."
When I asked how much autonomy cliques have, he continued:
"Cliques have enough leeway when it comes to the way they want to operate and recruit. But if a following member decides to deviate from the gang's general rules and codes, we must put him to sleep. For instance, if a soldier makes or notifies someone of a coming extortion, he or she cannot deviate from the way we extort because that only attracts more police. The best example I can give you is that I cannot throw a grenade onto a bus just for extortion. There are certain codes and procedures that I must abide and comply by, because if I do not comply, the big guys in prison who call the shots will put a price on my head."
Each gang's clique has its own leader, or ranflero, and members, known as soldiers. Ranfleros communicate with incarcerated sector leaders, who are a part of a dizzying hierarchy of leaders in prisons across El Salvador. These leaders, who coordinate with higher-ups serving time in El Salvador's maximum security prisons, determine the direction the gang is headed, outlining tactics, philosophies and even terms for political participation (such as a 2012 peace accord among gangs that has since fallen apart). Imprisoned Salvadoran leaders communicate with others in Honduran, Guatemalan and U.S. prisons through ranfleros and other intermediaries.
Though the network structure will never be completely transparent and so will remain a subject of debate among security professionals, it is clear that El Salvador's gangs are becoming more powerful and more organized. MS-13 and Calle 18 have traditionally focused on street-level crime in urban areas, but because of El Salvador's proximity to key Guatemalan cities located along lucrative smuggling routes, gangs are fighting to significantly expand their purview into international drug smuggling — an effort funded by street-level pursuits including extortion and drug dealing. Still, the clique system, under which each subgroup is afforded significant autonomy, will hold.
Breaking the Cycle
The social, political and economic toll of gang violence cannot be overstated. From 2014 to 2016, slightly more than 100,000 unaccompanied Central American minors fled from gang-related violence in Honduras and El Salvador to the United States, and as long as violence persists, Central Americans will continue to flee to the United States, through legal and extralegal avenues.
Religion, however, is playing a pivotal role in interrupting the trend. As far as gang leadership is concerned, finding religion is the only acceptable reason for a gang member to distance himself from his clique, and even then there are strict guidelines for how to do so. Those I interviewed never defined themselves as former gang members, but rather as reformed gang members. This is because, though they have moved further from the gang and closer to God, they still consider themselves part of the gang. In order to be considered reformed, a soldier or leader must first prove to his ranflero that he is true to God for two years. Then, he must keep his ties to his gang by preaching and attempting to reform other gang members. Of course, some ranfleros are more accommodating than others, and a clique member can do nothing without the approval of his leader. In Central American gang culture, la palabra, a person's word, is everything. In practice, this means that a leader's directives are synonymous with his honor and his position — and he will stop at nothing to defend them.
As is the case the world over, Salvadoran gangs would be weakened by increased legal economic opportunity. Meanwhile, however, they will have no problem finding willing recruits for their dangerous but lucrative exploits, which they are working to expand. The Salvadoran gangs are seeking to replicate the operational and financial capacities possessed by Guatemalan and Honduran drug organizations, since it is they who have traditionally transported South American drugs through Mexico to the United States, the world's largest consumer market. In a sense, the same geographic constraints that historically enabled other Central American countries to overshadow the development of El Salvador's legitimate economy are now hindering its criminal enterprises and pitting them against more powerful gangs in nearby countries. But rather than allow foreign criminal enterprises to move into El Salvador, the country's gangs will continue their bloody extortion campaign in the hopes of expanding their reach. All the while, the violence so endemic to El Salvador will continue to tug at the fabric of society, making the devastating cycle that much harder to break.