The sophistication of the MS-13 economy

Maras have evolved from national extortionists to international criminals


In spite of the existence of bigger criminal organizations, the world can’t look away from El Salvador, home of gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. The Salvadoran gangs have turned the Central American country into one of the most dangerous places in the world and have normalized crimes such as extortion, murder, and robbery.

The difference between criminal activities in El Salvador and other countries, such as Mexico or Colombia, is that Salvadoran gangs don’t have any additional resource on which they can rely on. Political scientist José Miguel Cruz, in an article published in The Economist, stated that “people” is the only resource that the nation can exploit. Certainly, that explains the nature of the country’s criminal activities.

The transportation system, as well as small and medium sized businesses, suffer from regular extortions. It’s said that bus companies, every year, must hand over at least 3% of their revenue to different gangs. This behavior is so ingrained in El Salvador that people see it as inevitable. That sort of response comes from the long tradition –close to 40 years of existence– and the integration of criminal activities with businesses and the government.

In the last couple of years, the extortion money has gone from the hands of gangs to the hands of those in the private and public sector. In 2012, the government tried to implement a program that would give certain liberties to the gangs, but it would –and it did– reduce murder rates. While it helped increase the feeling of safety among Salvadorans, it also gave the idea that gangs were infiltrating legitimate organizations.

The functions of Salvadoran gangs were clearly defined by two elements: loyalty and lack of opportunities. The reality shows that being a gang member is far from a difficult decision for Salvadorans when their opportunities of education and formal employment are scarce. Now, if the government doesn’t tackle these two evident deficiencies it is likely that the gangs will have a third element: a strong role in the public and private sector.

This sort of “gang culture” could affect the everyday life and the politic system, as it has happened in other Latin American countries. The dangers are clear: lack of trust from the general public, a culture based on illegal activities and a cloudy economy, tainted by unknown sources of capital.

LatinAmerican Post | Juan Sebastián Torres
Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto

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