2018-11-07 18:31:39 UTC
Why Are People Fleeing Central America? A New Breed of Gangs Is Taking
Gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 prey on their own neighborhoods in a
violent, chaotic model spreading through the region
By Robbie Whelan, Nov. 2, 2018, Wall St. Journal
APOPA, El SalvadorThe Congress of El Salvador agreed in April to
extend the authority of jailers to keep gang leaders in solitary
confinement. Over the next five days, the two reigning street gangs
killed more than 100 people.
With the highest homicide rate of all countries in the world, El
Salvador is a nation held hostage.
Law-enforcement officials estimate that one gang, MS-13, operates an
extortion racket with little pressure from authorities in 248 of the
262 of the countrys municipalities. It battles for neighborhood
control with another gang, Barrio 18, which runs its own protection
scheme in nearly as many regions.
Politicians must ask permission of gangs to hold rallies or canvass in
many neighborhoods, law-enforcement officials and prosecutors said. In
San Salvador, the nations capital, gangs control the local
distribution of consumer products, experts said, including diapers and
Coca-Cola . They extort commuters, call-center employees, and
restaurant and store owners. In the rural east, gangs threaten to burn
sugar plantations unless farmers pay up.
They have grown so pervasive that you dont know where the state ends
and the criminal organizations begin, said Mauricio Ramírez
Landaverde, El Salvadors minister of justice and security, who
oversees the national police force.
Latin America accounts for 8% of the worlds population and a third of
its homicides, which makes it one of the worlds most murderous
regions. At its violent core is El Salvador, where an imported
American gang culture rivals government authority, and its leaders
hold sway with a surplus of money, guns and willing young men.
Unlike the major drug cartels that for years produced much of the
regions violenceusing murder in the service of selling marijuana,
cocaine and heroin largely to Americansgangs in El Salvador, Honduras
and Guatemala profit from extorting their own neighborhoods.
The gangs have evolved a more violent, chaotic economic model, one
that is advancing in drug-trafficking countries, including Mexico,
where large cartels have splintered into many warring groups.
Weve left behind the era of the cartel and the kingpin, said
Alejandro Hope, a security consultant in Mexico City. Today, most
violence in Latin America is the result of a new system thats more
diverse, harder to control, and much more local.
While drug cartels collect profits from customers abroad, with dollars
and euros trickling into local communities, these gangs steal from
their own people. Documents collected in a recent federal
investigation in El Salvador found that MS-13 earns as much as
$600,000 a month in extortion payments from bus companies, retailers
and other businesses. The payments range from a few dollars a day on
each vehicle operated to hundreds of dollars a month charged to
vendors in public markets.
Drug enforcement officials said El Salvadors gangs earn about $20
million a year from extortion, with an estimated $3 million coming
from businesses in San Salvadors historic center. The gangs also sell
drugs and stolen cars, adding to the revenue from legitimate
businesses they have seized.
Cementing their national role, MS-13 and Barrio 18 may be El
Salvadors largest employers. The defense ministry estimates the gangs
hire as many as 60,000 people as lookouts, collectors and assassins.
By comparison, the two largest private employers, underwear makers
Hanesbrands Inc. and Berkshire Hathaways Fruit of the Loom, together
employ about 20,000.
A 2016 study commissioned by the countrys central bank estimated the
economic cost was more than $4 billion a year, or roughly 16% of gross
domestic product. That accounts only for law enforcement, medical
bills, property damage and lost investment.
The highest cost is human, said Javier Simán, a textile and
department store magnate and one of El Salvadors most successful
businessmen. Were losing the best people we have. They either flee
the country, they get killed or they are constantly forced to move
around. They have to pay the gangs just to enter the neighborhoods
where they live and work.
San Salvadors homicide rate of 95.7 killings per 100,000 people makes
it the worlds sixth-deadliest city. Across the capital, municipal
workers scrub gang graffiti from walls as fast as it appears.
Gauging the Misery of Countries Gripped by Gangs
Street gangs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala profit from
extorting businesses and residents in their own neighborhoods. The
protection rackets are enforced with violence and threats of violence
that far exceed U.S. levels.
Intentional homicide rate
Gun deaths rate
People try to keep track of which group controls the streets where
they live, work and travel each day. A wrong turn risks robbery,
assault or death. Many in San Salvador wont say gang names aloud. If
they have to ask, they say, Numbers or letters? Numbers for Barrio
18; letters for MS-13.
The plight of Salvadorans is one explanation for the steady stream of
migrants north. Thousands seek to enter the U.S. each year, either by
petitioning for asylum or by crossing the border illegally.
Researchers found most are propelled by fear of violence. Mexico and
U.S. immigration officers apprehended 335,545 Salvadoran migrants from
2014 to the end of 2017, according to government data.
As one caravan of migrants now makes its way north through Mexico,
hundreds of Salvadorans this week joined a new one pointed toward the
José Gualberto Claro Iglesias, a 48-year-old trucker from Suchitoto, a
former Spanish colonial town in central El Salvador, sent his wife and
four children to Los Angeles in 2015, after the family narrowly
survived an attack by MS-13 members. The gang set fire to his pickup
truck while Mr. Claro and his family were inside because he had
refused to make extortion payments.
In August 2017, Mr. Claro tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border near
El Paso, Texas, to reunite with them. He was caught and held nearly 13
months in a U.S. immigration detention center before he was deported.
He owns three properties and two 18-wheeler container trucks in El
Salvador. He plans to sell them to pay for a move to Panama, where he
will bring his wife and children.
As a worker and as a human being, you cant live in this country in
peace, Mr. Claro said. You spend all your time and energy trying to
defend your business and your family.
The Dr. Jose Antonio Rodriguez Porth Scholastic Center, an elementary
school, sits on a dirt road lined with open sewers in Comunidad
Iberiaon the fault line between two neighborhoods, one controlled by
MS-13, the other by a faction of Barrio 18.
Across the street is a national police post. A few blocks away is La
Tiendona, the citys largest wholesale market, which police allege is
the source of roughly $300,000 a month in extortion payments made to
Barrio 18 by fruit and vegetable vendors.
On a recent morning, as students in blue-and-white uniforms kicked
around a soccer ball, school principal Amilcar Rivera described their
prospects. Many of his students, he said, start working for one or the
other gang as lookouts when they are as young as 10 years old.
The only opportunities they have are working at the market nearby,
where they can unload or load trucks. Its either that, or they can
join one of the gangs, Mr. Rivera said. You can earn $300 a week
doing manual labor, or you can get $1,000 a week from extortion. Which
one do you think these young people will choose?
The choice is stark in a weak economy. One-third of Salvadorans live
in poverty, according to World Bank data, meaning they earn less than
$5.50 a day. The average annual growth of the national economy, which
relies on coffee, sugar and textiles exports, has been about 2.5% for
the past 25 years, slower than most developing nations.
Brutal crimes by MS-13 members in the U.S. attracted the attention of
President Trump, who has promised to expel them. Attorney General Jeff
Sessions announced in October a new task force to take them off the
The reach of the gangs in the U.S.they are found mostly in Central
American immigrant neighborhoods in California, New Yorks Long
Island, Maryland and Virginiadoesnt compare with their dominance in
Its not the same here as in the U.S., said René Del Cid, 25, who
was deported to El Salvador from Frederick, Md., in December 2017.
Police pulled him over for a traffic violation while he was driving
with an expired license. He had lived in the U.S. since he was 11. As
an adult, he worked on landscaping crews and as a parking-garage
When he returned to El Salvador, Mr. Del Cid got a job fielding
customer service complaints for banks at a call center in downtown San
Salvador. He lived with relatives in a Barrio 18-controlled section of
San Vicente, a city about 40 miles away. He took three buses in a
circuitous three-hour commute to avoid passing through areas
controlled by rival gangs.
In March, MS-13 gunmen stopped his bus and demanded to see the ID
cards of riders. When they saw that Mr. Del Cid lived in Barrio 18
territory, the gang members pulled him off the bus. They held him at a
house for nearly three weeks, he said, demanding ransom money and
threatening his life.
Mr. Del Cid was able to phone an MS-13 member in Maryland, a man he
had befriended at an immigration detention center. The friend
negotiated his release. By then, Mr. Del Cid had lost his job and the
$200 hidden in his sock.
Everywhere I go Im a target, he said. If I join the gangs, Ill
die either by them or by the police.
Manuel de Jesus has Barrio 18 tattoos covering his chest, arms and
neck, marking a decade in gang life that, he said, was now behind him.
He credits the church, which now provides a place to live for him, his
wife and children. Gangs keep growing with recruits from home and
abroad, he said: The U.S. is deporting a ton of people to here.
Theyre just reinforcements.
These same gangs had their origins in Los Angeles. MS-13 and its rival
Barrio 18 were founded in the 1980s and 1990s by refugees of El
Salvadors 12-year civil war. When the conflict ended in 1992,
Salvadorans lost their protected immigration status, and thousands of
gang members in U.S. prisons were deported.
Once in El Salvador, dozens of autonomous cliques operated under the
loose direction of gang leaders. Over the next two decades, the
rapidly expanding gangs gained influence, eventually co-opting
politicians and judges.
Drug cartels have historically put a premium on profits, which acts as
a check on random violence. Street gangs are bound by allegiance to
their clique, a neighborhood group that operates largely on its own.
Common killings include suspected informants and policeas well as
people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In a measure of the gangs power, the president of El Salvador,
Mauricio Funes at the time, brokered a 2012 truce with MS-13 and
Barrio 18 to reduce the killings. Under the deal, the government moved
leaders from solitary confinement and maximum-security penitentiaries
to more permissive detention. Gang leaders were allowed to communicate
with the outside world as well as order deliveries of food, alcohol
and visits by prostitutes.
By the next year, the national homicide rate fell by 42%. Business
leaders, lawmakers and many voters said the ruling leftist FMLN
government had bowed to the same threats used by gangs to terrorize
The governments credibility was destroyed by the truce, said Martín
Rogel, an auxiliary judge who sits on El Salvadors Supreme Court. It
was as if Salvadorans stopped believing in God. Salvadorans have
stopped believing in the rule of law.
Under pressure from the U.S., the government ended the truce after a
little more than a year. Murders spiked almost immediately. By 2015,
El Salvadors homicide rate hit 103 per 100,000 residents.
It has since fallen but remains the worlds highest. El Salvador, a
country of 6.6 million people, had a homicide rate last year of 60.1
per 100,000 inhabitants, nearly 12 times the rate in the U.S.,
according to the United Nations.
Prosecutors and police officials said gangs have become even more
powerful since the truce. It showed gangs how the threat of violence
could help them achieve their political ends: keeping a grip on
neighborhoods, more lax prosecution and winning government contracts
for gang-owned businesses.
Earlier this year, the former mayor of Apopa, José Elías Hernández,
became the first municipal leader convicted of gang corruption,
Mr. Hernández, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison, was found
guilty of funneling money to Barrio 18 leaders and allowing the group
to use municipal ambulances for private transportation, court
documents said. Gang members were hired to manage garbage collection
and a city property office.
Mr. Hernández, a member of the right-wing Arena party, denied
wrongdoing, saying he was targeted by the ruling FMLN party.
During the killing spree that followed the April decision over
solitary confinement, authorities pulled two bodies from a ditch in
Apopa, a densely populated suburb of San Salvador.
The two young men, ages 17 and 23, were apparently abducted on their
way to play in a soccer game, police said. They were each stabbed 20
times with a Phillips-head screwdriver.
When you see a killing with this many wounds, when one shot would do
the job, it means that the gangs wanted to send a message, said Dr.
Juan Carlos Durán Chavarría, the coroner who examined the bodies.
Killings over the law extended through summer. On July 20, agents from
the national police intercepted a cellphone call between an imprisoned
MS-13 leader and one of his lieutenants outside. The message
instructed gang members from nearly a dozen MS-13 cliques to pick
three police officers or soldiers to assassinate, according to a
report viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The following month, three officers were killed, including Elmer
Mauricio Beltrán, a 43-year-old father of two who lived in the rural
town of San Rafael Cedros. He had worked for the national police since
he was 19.
Police told his widow, an elementary school teacher, that four gunmen
had surprised her husband, jumping out of a car while he chatted with
friends outside a convenience store. The friends escaped unharmed.
No arrests have been made. The slain mans brother, Raúl Beltrán, also
a police officer, said he always carries a gun, even into the shower
The gangs kill with total impunity, he said.