How did gangs in El Salvador operate before the state of emergency?

How did they operate and what has changed in the gang organization in El Salvador?

SAN SALVADOR – The power of gangs in El Salvador is a long-standing phenomenon: for three decades, the Central American country has seen how the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and Barrio 18 have strengthened their dominance by going from being street groups with operations in Los Angeles, United States, to become, one of them, in transnational criminal organization.

But it was in El Salvador that both gangs found roots after being deported from the United States 25 years ago. It was then that they decided to expand their gangster style in the Central American country: tattoos, clothing and language were some of the characteristics that made them gain followers, some 118,000 currently assure the government of El Salvador.

However, since the Central American country began an emergency regime on March 27, 2022, the purpose of which is to imprison everyone, the gangs have gradually begun to lose control of the communities. La Campanera, in San Salvador, is a neighborhood that has carried the stigma of being one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country for years, but the reality is different now, where gangs play no role. The same happens with other communities that for years were territories distributed among these groups to collect rent or kill.

Today, the government of El Salvador claims to have broken the gangs’ structure, undermining their territorial control and hierarchical structure.

A battered structure

The MS and the Barrio 18 have had their own hierarchy for years. At its apex is the national leadership, known as “ranfla”, which is made up of founding gang members.

A document of the Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which currently maintains an open case against 14 leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha, details that the gang began to organize itself in Salvadoran prisons in the early 2000s. “The organization created a formal hierarchy , a set of rules and a leadership body to control and take advantage of gang activities in El Salvador,” he says.

That group of leaders was initially named as “The Twelve Apostles of the Devil.” They were then renamed “Ranfla Histórica” or “Ranfla Nacional”, the highest level of leadership that, according to the fiscal document, was equivalent to a “board of directors”.

Borromeo Enrique Henríquez, alias “Devil of Hollywood” is one of the most renowned leaders within the Mara Salvatrucha. While in Barrio 18, the head is Carlos Ernesto Mojica, alias “Old Lin.” Both were convicted in El Salvador.

At the second level are the so-called “programs”, in the case of the MS, or “tribes”, in Barrio 18, which are operated by “the brokers” who seek to group the “clicas” or “canchas” , that is, groups of gang members with a presence in neighborhoods and neighborhoods that are in charge of the operational activities of the gangs.

According to a study on social inclusion in contexts of violence, from the United Nations for Development and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), there were more than 2,000 cliques and courts in 2014, distributed in the 14 departments of the country.

These groups have been operated by clique brokers, who give orders to “homeboys” or “hommies”, as those who have done surveillance work for years, collecting extortion, among others, are known in the colonies. Not everyone could enter the controlled territories, only the inhabitants of the place and whom the gang had authorized.

death and violence

Ever since the youngsters decided to “jump” into the gang, as the initiation ritual is known, they have known that death is a latent possibility. In fact, it has been common to hear its members, in interviews with local media, assure that they die “for the neighborhood.”

The ritual, which previously consisted of a 13-second beating to join the MS or an 18-second beating for the Barrio 18, “over time has changed to specific missions that include the murder of people,” adds the study of the United Nations and ECLAC.

Homicide has been the main parameter used by Salvadoran governments to measure citizen security. In fact, the government of Nayib Bukele decided to request an emergency regime after a wave of murders caused by gangs. Today, Bukele assures that March 2023 “closed as the safest month in the entire history of El Salvador.” Although it was not always so.

El Salvador had a rate of around 64 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010. In 2015, it almost doubled, rising to 103. This meant that the country experienced the most violent year in its democratic history, and also became one of the the most violent countries in the world. After that year, the levels of violence softened from 36, in 2019, to 7.8 in 2022.

A investigation of the United States Department of the Treasury, on officials of the government of El Salvador and jailed gang leaders, assures that these reductions occurred due to “undercover negotiations” between two Bukele officials and the Mara Salvatrucha “to guarantee that incidents of violence of gangs and the number of confirmed homicides in the country remained low.

Despite these accusations, Bukele’s attack on the gangs, through the regime, has achieved what appears to be the end of the gangs. Before March 2022, it was unthinkable to enter neighborhoods haunted by gangs. However, various media, including the voice of america, they have traveled several communities that for years carried the stigma of being the most dangerous neighborhoods in El Salvador.

This security policy in El Salvador has provoked applause and questioning. One of them is the United States, which is still awaiting the extradition of the gang leaders sought by the US justice system. So far, of the 14 founding leaders, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) hopes to capture two. The rest is being held in prison in Salvadoran jails.

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