The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Forced Criminal Activities along Mexico's Eastern Migration Routes and Central America Department of Public Affairs and Security Studies

El Salvador

The smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, El Salvador has the highest concentration of gang members in the Northern Triangle countries. Gangs in El Salvador have fought over territory between them and against the government. The rise to power and transformation of gangs in El Salvador is a result of various factors, including: economic marginalization, US deportation policies in the 1990s, a series of failed government policies, and a culture of extrajudicial violence from state institutions and civil society. Experts reported that gang-related violence has led to a displacement of 269,000 people in a population of six million. The lack of opportunities for young generations, the weak social tissue, and a government more concerned with adopting severe anti-gang laws than with formalizing and institutionalizing effective agencies are just a few of the push factors. The interviews we conducted provided a panorama for the current issue of human trafficking.

Human trafficking in El Salvador has been poorly documented. Official reports from 2004 to 2010 reported the investigation of 370 human trafficking cases, with more than half of the victims being from El Salvador. El Salvador only passed its first anti-trafficking legislation in 2014. However, the definition of human trafficking it adopted is inconsistent with the U.N. Protocol, as it treats force, fraud, and coercion as aggravating factors, rather than as essential elements of the crime. The experts we interviewed reported that the government is currently identifying other modalities of human trafficking besides sexual exploitation.

The dynamics of human trafficking in El Salvador are not extensively known. Experts we interviewed agreed that human trafficking rings and transnational criminal organizations are not connected. The interviewees stated that human traffickers in El Salvador belonged to local trafficking rings. Nevertheless, we were told of a case where Mara Salvatrucha members were supposedly involved with human trafficking. According to our source, gang members lured young women with job offers, and then forced their victims into sexual servitude. Still, experts said there is no permanent relation between human trafficking rings and gang members in regards to human trafficking cases.

Gangs engage in human trafficking through forced recruitment methods for compelled labor for criminal activities. The average age of new recruits range from 9 to 15 years of age. Children are often recruited at schools and within their communities. Their activities often involve firearms, drugs, and homicide. Gils are victims of sexual violence or are forced to act as “girlfriends” of gang leaders. Young people are physically harassed, assaulted, threatened, and left with little option other than joining gangs. Interviewees also reported that health professionals are coerced to attend injured gang members.

A highly discussed topic among experts was the violence among gangs in El Salvador and its connection to current unprecedented emigration rates. Raul Mijango, former congressman and former Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) guerilla leader, told us that today there are approximately five gangs in El Salvador, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Barrio 18 (which is divided into two factions, Ala Sureña and Ala Revolucionario), Mao Mao, Mirada Locos 13, and Mara Máquina. Gangs in El Salvador are complex multilevel organizations with several cells, known as clickas, that operate with relative autonomy. Mijango mentioned that MS-13 is comprised by 54 programs. Each program is formed by various clickas, each with their own structure and direction.

The evolution of El Salvadoran gangs was influenced by various reasons: economic marginalization, US deportations in the 1990s, several failed government policies, and a culture of extrajudicial violence from state institutions and civil society. After the massive deportation of convicted criminals in the 1990s from the United States, the issue of violence has become more complex. The government reacted by adopting tougher policies – known as Mano Dura, - including repressive law enforcement, military tactics and mass incarceration of gang members. The strategies failed as mass incarceration led to a prison crisis. Gangs were segregated by gang affiliation allowing for the transformation of gangs into sophisticated organizational structures. Also, hard policies allowed the surge of armed civilian groups to engage in vigilantism. Experts expressed their concerns over the surge in extrajudicial killings and human rights violation in the country. As a response to government actions, gangs began to diversify their operations, specifically in relation to extortion and kidnappings. Gang leaders order and coordinate their men from inside the prisons.  

In March 2012, a truce was accorded between the MS-13 and both factions of the Barrio 18. The truce led to reduced homicide rates in El Salvador. The exact terms of the truce remain unclear, but they included transferring 30 gang leaders from El Salvador’s only maximum-security prison to minimum-security prisons. In return, gangs ceased hostilities against law enforcement and military personnel. Decrease in violence led to lower civilian casualties. Even though violence was reduced to an unprecedented 41.2 per 100,000, support for the truce was not unanimous. Some sectors of the society did not believe that the government should negotiate with criminals. Thus, the truce ended in June 2013 and violence and crime rates rose again.