Mara Salvatrucha: Teenage Gangs, Not Al Qaeda

4 MINS READJan 12, 2005 | 00:40 GMT

Honduran police arrested a Nicaraguan man Jan. 9 in connection with a December plot to assassinate Honduran President Ricardo Maduro. Police found an assault rifle, a grenade launcher and 40 rounds of ammunition when they arrested Jose Leonidas Alvarez, who reportedly is a small-arms expert affiliated with Nicaragua's Sandinistas. Honduran authorities allege that youth gangs contracted Alvarez to kill the president. They did not mention Mara Salvatrucha (MS) specifically, but this confederation of small territorial gangs is their likely suspect.

Concerns about MS also were raised in a Jan. 5 Boston Herald article, which outlined efforts of local police to crack down on the gangs. In the article, police officials linked MS to al Qaeda, an assertion that has been circulating in Washington for some time now, backed by little proof — and despite evidence to the contrary from the U.S. Justice Department. Considering that many MS members are heavily tattooed and thus easily spotted, many of their members are barely teenagers, and most are Catholic, it seems unlikely that al Qaeda would seek to cultivate such a partnership.

MS was formed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and made up primarily of the children of Salvadoran immigrants who fled to the United States during Central America's civil wars of the 1970s. Over the last two decades, MS cliques — as the gangs are called — have cropped up in about every U.S. city with a large enough Hispanic population, as MS has expanded to include other Central Americans as well. MS took its gangland culture back to Central America when U.S. authorities deported members in the 1980s.

In the United States, MS continues to be a criminal enterprise comprised predominantly of youth gangs very loosely — if at all — affiliated with one another. Although the gangs are a definite U.S. security concern, allegations that they are linked to al Qaeda — likely stemming from the fact that al Qaeda-linked suspect Adnan El Shukrijumah was in Honduras in June 2004 — seem groundless. The U.S. Justice Department, in fact, has determined that any links between MS and al Qaeda are purely coincidental and rooted in the belief that al Qaeda might contract MS members for their knowledge of smuggling routes. This is possible but unlikely, considering that Mexican gangs have a virtual monopoly on smuggling operations along the U.S. southern border. Although there have been some reports of Mexican gangs emulating MS and MS members working in concert with Mexican drug cartels, Mexican gang control of smuggling routes into the United States remains virtually absolute. That said, there have been reports of MS cliques showing up in Mexican slums. In comparison to the United States, MS poses a much bigger threat to security in Central America, where weapons are cheap and plentiful and law enforcement is much less equipped to deal with the gangs. In Honduras, for example, law enforcement has been largely unable to prevent the most violent MS attacks, such as the December attack against a public bus that left 28 people dead. Eleven suspected MS members were arrested later in connection with the attack. MS members also have been known to "shake down" travelers along northern migration routes and to control local bus transportation. In fact, one theory regarding the December killings is that MS attacked the bus as a warning to authorities to back off of efforts to regain control of this transportation system. Over time, strong leaders may emerge with the idea of consolidating MS cliques in the model of regional drug cartels, eventually producing an organized threat to both law enforcement and the security of Central America. To suggest that criminal gangs of teenagers are in league with al Qaeda, and that they pose a hemisphere-wide threat, however, takes a genuine concern a few steps too far.

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