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Home Investigations The Future Looks Bleak for El Salvador’s Gangs

The Future Looks Bleak for El Salvador’s Gangs

The gangs’ demise has radically altered the country’s criminal landscape, liberating swathes of territory and illegal markets from criminal control. The nation’s homicide rate, which had already sunk to historic lows before the state of emergency began, is now at its lowest level since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992.

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On a scorching July afternoon at an urban park in El Salvador’s Apopa municipality, just north of capital city San Salvador, InSight Crime sat down with a woman and her mother. It was one of dozens of group interviews held throughout the country to discuss how life has changed in former gang strongholds since the start of President Nayib Bukele’s historic crackdown on the criminal groups.

*This article is part of a six-part investigation, “El Salvador’s (Perpetual) State of Emergency: How Bukele’s Government Overpowered Gangs.” InSight Crime spent nine months analyzing how a ruthless state crackdown has debilitated the country’s notorious street gangs, the MS13 and two factions of Barrio 18. Download the or read the other chapters in the investigation

With the beating sun cooking the gritty asphalt of a weathered basketball court and the sizzling, rusty metal frames of a jungle gym, the woman told us this type of interview would have been impossible just a few short months ago.

“We might have been shot, or maybe kidnapped,” she said. “They would have been watching us. There’s no way you could just come to the park.”

Over our nine-month investigation into what the government terms the régimen de excepción (state of emergency), we heard dozens of similar stories in former gang strongholds throughout the country. Residents spoke freely in community centers and soccer pitches previously off limits — a testament to how the gangs’ rapid decline has radically changed life for people who weathered years of terror.

On this day, just meters away, a group of neighbors chatted next to a thick concrete wall. The wall, according to the residents, once represented an impassable line between territories controlled by rival gang factions. Street gangs like the MS13 and Barrio 18, the residents told us, occupied public spaces and imposed strict rules forbidding outsiders — most journalists included — from entering their space.

“That was an ugly time,” the woman said. “You couldn’t go out at night.”

The gangs’ demise has also radically altered the country’s criminal landscape, liberating swathes of territory from criminal control. The nation’s homicide rate, which had already sunk to historic lows before the state of emergency began, is now at its lowest level since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992.

But critics and some supporters of the Bukele’s measures, interviewed during InSight Crime’s visits to El Salvador in 2023, have questioned the long-term sustainability of such aggressive security policies, which have relied on the suspension of constitutional rights for over a year and a half and opaque management of the budget.

What’s more, in Apopa and elsewhere, hopes for a future without rampant murder and extortion were tempered by concerns that the gangs could one day return, mutate, or be replaced by other criminal actors. Below, we consider this and other possible outcomes of the historic crackdown.

Can Gangs Regroup in El Salvador?

A key question going forward is whether the MS13 and the two factions of Barrio 18 in El Salvador can regroup, reclaim territory, and resume violence and crime, as has occurred after previous crackdowns.

This is not a likely scenario in the short- or medium-term, given the legal tools at the government’s disposal for keeping people in jail and the imminent threat of detention for any gang member. President Bukele also plans to seek re-election in 2024 and has a commanding lead in the polls, meaning his administration could remain in government for at least another five years.

Rattled, gang members appear to be in survival mode. Deprived of territory and revenue, regrouping is not an immediate option. They have also suffered from an apparent collapse in communication between cells following the onset of the state of emergency. Gang members that have stayed out of jail have largely been left on their own, according to gang sources interviewed by InSight Crime.

MS13 & Co.

Still, MS13 and Barrio 18 have a history of evolving and adapting to continue operating in the face of state aggression, and some of their members could return to criminal activity. Former gang cells, for example, could mutate into new structures and revive criminal economies such as extortion or drug peddling. Police, military, and gang sources told InSight Crime that remnants of the MS13 and Barrio 18 are still committing extortion and petty crimes in some areas.

Over 21,000 fully-fledged gang members remained at large as of the end of September 2023, according to police estimates. The government also estimates that 53 armed groups remain in El Salvador, suggesting at least some gang structures remain, even if dormant.

But barring a radical shift in government security policy, it seems unlikely these groups will be able to establish the kind of territorial control that once allowed the gangs to operate criminal rackets nationwide.

Still, the seed remains.

The MS13 and Barrio 18 emerged in urban or rural areas with precarious socioeconomic conditions, including widespread poverty, high unemployment, limited education, fractured families, and high levels of domestic violence and abuse. Mass arrests may have exacerbated social issues by breaking up families, reducing household incomes, and further marginalizing thousands of at-risk youths by linking them to the gangs, often without evidence.

The government does not appear to have a comprehensive plan for addressing these root causes of gangs. This places a disproportionate burden on community, and civil-society and religious organizations to fill these social and economic needs, something they have not been able to do in the past.“The government chopped down the tree, but left the roots,” said Estuado Escobar, a Salvadoran lawyer and outspoken critic of the state of emergency.

The scale of future gang-related crime in El Salvador may also depend on the government’s security plan. Maintaining this level of force is costly. Political priorities could change even within a Bukele presidency.

But the state does have a powerful, if controversial, tool for containing the gangs and other delinquent groups going forward. Anonymous tip-offs formed the basis of many arrests, including of innocent people, according to civil-society sources. Residents of gang-controlled communities in the San Salvador area told InSight Crime that locals had used an anonymous hotline to inform the police of gang whereabouts. In other words, the gangs were partly undone, and could continue to be undone, by the communities they once controlled.

The Possibility of Prison Gangs

As of the end of September 2023, Salvadoran authorities had arrested overpeople during the state of emergency. The country’s prisons now house over 105,000 detainees and may be operating at double their capacity.

The mass incarceration has raised questions about whether the gangs could capitalize on severe prison overcrowding to consolidate their presence behind bars and begin operating as prison gangs do in places like Brazil, Venezuela, and the United States.

There is some historical precedent to back up this assertion. Mass arrests made during El an earlier mano dura (iron fist) campaign in the mid-2000s led to a reorganization of El Salvador’s gangs. Within a few years, the gangs had converted the jails into their epicenter of operations inside and outside the prisons, as well as centers for recruitment and discipline of their rank and file.

Successive governments have since tightened security in the prisons, which, although controversial and possibly in violation of international law, has proven more effective in controlling gang activity.

Multiple accounts from people detained during the state of emergency suggest security forces have established near-total control in jails, often subjecting gang members to physical and psychological abuse. Authorities have also cut off communications with the outside world, including family members and legal representatives.

GameChangers 2022: El Salvador’s Gang Crackdown Has Steep Human Rights Cost

For the moment, these extreme measures appear to have achieved their goal of isolating the gangs and impeding a collective response, both inside and outside of prisons. Repression behind bars has also restricted communications between gang members in jail, with no signs that members of the MS13 and Barrio 18 can plan criminal activities or impose rules outside individual cells, according to multiple accounts from people detained in jails housing gang members.

But this bleak outlook for the gangs could change. Prison gangs require a steady turnover of recruits to give them leverage over members on the outside and provide access to key criminal economies. And the flow of gang members in and out of prisons may increase with the gradual release of state-of-emergency detainees and future arrests. Regaining that leverage and re-establishing communications with street-level gang members could provide a stepping stone to the reactivation of some dormant cells and, by extension, a foundation for the masses of imprisoned gang members to reassert their influence as a criminal force behind bars.

A more likely scenario is that the gangs draw from a large pool of imprisoned youths, resentful of the government, to create new gangs or facsimiles of the old ones.

The costs associated with maintaining around 1.7% of the country’s population in prison are very high. Any drop-off in resources allocated to prisons could weaken state control behind bars, potentially playing into the hands of the gangs.

The current regime also depends on the systematic violation of due process and other fundamental rights, and it requires a steady diet of physical and psychological repression inside the penitentiaries. This combination of factors is what led to the emergence of the now-dominant criminal structures in places like Brazil.

Gang Members in Exile

With waves of Salvadoran gang members fleeing to nearby countries following the onset of the state of emergency, there have also been questions as to whether these exiles could regroup in countries where the gangs already have a presence — namely Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

There is now little evidence that Salvadoran gang members are seeking to re-enter criminal life abroad. Instead, signs suggest they are lying low in the hope of evading arrest and deportation. But this situation could also change if fleeing gang members with minimal employment prospects gradually seek revenue streams and support systems abroad, or if foreign governments decrease deportations of Salvadoran gang members.

The scenarios would likely differ between countries.

In Mexico, the MS13 has a limited presence, mainly channeled through its so-called Mexico Program. The Mexico Program, formed by expatriate and fugitive Salvadoran MS13 members between 2014 and 2015, is involved in drug trafficking and human smuggling. Several Salvadoran gang leaders are now operating from Mexico, according to a US indictment against top MS13 leaders unsealed in March 2023.

One of those leaders, Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” was arrested in Mexico in November 2023 and subsequently extradited to the United States. Many consider Crook the second highest-ranking member of the MS13. His capture confirmed the presence of MS13 gang leaders in Mexico, also noted in Salvadoran police reports. The Mexico Program now appears the most likely vehicle for Salvadoran MS13 leaders to organize gang cells outside of El Salvador.

But while Salvadoran gang members could boost the Mexico Program’s ranks, it is unlikely to alter the gangs’ position in a criminal landscape dominated by sophisticated drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).

Reported ties between the MS13 Mexico Program and Mexican drug groups could provide financial opportunities for Salvadoran experienced gang members. But the dominance of Mexican drug groups will likely restrict gang members to a supporting role.

In Guatemala and Honduras, the gangs will also struggle. The MS13 and the Barrio 18 both have a presence in urban areas and jails, though the gang’s clout has never been as strong as in pre-state of emergency El Salvador. So far, there is little to suggest that the influx of Salvadoran gang members has altered the complexion of gang life.

Filling the Void

The collapse of El Salvador’s gangs has raised the question whether other criminal networks could fill the void. Delinquent groups formed by remnants of the gangs or affiliates could attempt to revive street-level criminal economies once monopolized by the gangs. But the government’s success in neutralizing the MS13 and Barrio 18 could also pave the way for state-embedded criminal networks to monopolize the criminal landscape.

The gangs’ downfall has gone hand-in-hand with the Bukele administration’s consolidation and centralization of power. The state of emergency’s success stems, in part, from leveraging control of all branches of government to repress criminal actors while simultaneously removing checks on government actions.

The Bukele administration has already faced allegations of corruption. The government’s health minister and finance minister both came under investigation for allegedly misspending public funds following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Prosecutors also launched preliminary investigations into prisons director Osiris Luna for allegedly diverting $1.6 million in food aid during the pandemic.

These investigations stalled when legislators aligned with Bukele ousted the attorney general who was leading the corruption probes. None of the officials have faced formal corruption charges. They replaced him with an attorney general with questionable ties to criminal operators, including one with close ties to the MS13.

Bukele’s party also leveraged its supermajority in parliament to reshuffle the composition of the country’s highest court — a controversial move slammed by critics as unconstitutional. These legal maneuvers have virtually eliminated scrutiny on government spending. The high courts have also made controversial decisions, such as overturning a money laundering case against an alleged criminal figure and refusing to extradite gang leaders wanted on terrorism charges in the United States.

Likewise, state security forces and prison authorities have faced minimal scrutiny on their actions during the state of emergency, despite widespread allegations of arbitrary arrests and other human rights abuses.

Unprecedented power in the hands of security forces with a questionable past — factions of the El Salvador police have been linked to death squads and corruption — could create the conditions for officials to engage in crime or even usurp criminal rackets left behind by the gangs. In August 2023, for example, one police investigator was arrested on suspicion of extortion; prosecutors say the official demanded $10,000 from an individual in exchange for not arresting them under state of emergency powers. Prosecutors have also arrested police officials on suspicion of setting up unauthorized roadblocks to shake down civilians.

There may also be some scope for crossover between state-embedded criminal networks and remnants of the gangs. Top gang leaders have spent years cultivating strategic ties with successive El Salvador governments, at times negotiating payments in exchange for political support. The connections include some of Bukele’s closest political allies, such as prison director Luna, blacklisted by the US government for his alleged role in facilitating secret gang negotiations before the state of emergency.

The Bukele administration also released a series of MS13 leaders from jail, including Crook, prior to the state of emergency and has failed to extradite gang leaders wanted by the United States.

A criminal landscape dominated by a powerful state could take different forms. At its most vertical, power would rest on a strong criminal enterprise run from the top of the government that leverages its monolithic control of the state to eliminate all political and criminal opposition. This profile is in line with the centralization of power surrounding the Bukele government and mimics other criminal governments in the region, most notably Nicaragua.

In a more horizontal model, various state-embedded mafias could hold control over some major criminal economies, namely high-level corruption schemes, forming several criminal blocs who exert control over their fiefdom. But competition among these blocs, as well as competition for less glamorous criminal rackets, could still generate violence and crime. This scenario, which resembles Venezuela and, in some respects, Guatemala, requires strong control over key parts of the government, in particular its security forces and judicial powers.

*With additional reporting by Steven Dudley, Carlos Garcia, César Fagoaga, Bryan Avelar, Roberto Valencia, and Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson

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