Gangs in El Salvador: A New Type of Insurgency?

Gangs in El Salvador:  A New Type of Insurgency?

Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht

San Salvador, August 2017

... Not all armed conflicts can be categorized as “wars”

-- (Metz, 2012)[i]

This article was originally published in Spanish as Las Pandillas en El Salvador: ¿Un Nuevo Tipo de Insurgencia? at Small Wars Journal-El Centro on 4 September 2017.


The contemporary world is characterized by the emergence of new actors whose activities constitute a serious threat to the national security of States.  Most countries are struggling to maintain their political, economic and territorial integrity in the face of the challenges of various non-state actors.  These actors violate the sovereignty of States by preventing them from becoming the sole source of authority to legislate and enforce laws, as well as enforce within their territory, the universality of their decisions and regulate business between people.

The phenomenon described above reflects the failure of many States to effectively meet the minimum needs and expectations of order, tranquility, security and general wellbeing of their population.  In light of this, it can be asserted that the most insidious security problem faced by States today is the threat to their ability to secure and control their territory, as well as the actions of non-state actors seeking to generate change within the States themselves (Reed, 2007).

These violent non-state actors (VNSA) benefit from the significant changes that characterize the contemporary world and from the altered the nature of conflict and crime.  Changes in the technological and organizational domains have allowed the power of the VNSA to increase.  The information revolution has allowed them to exert their power and spread their influence rapidly across vast distances without geographical constraints.  Accompanying this access and the ability to transfer information through the Internet, cellular telephony and other emerging digital technologies, there is a shift from hierarchical organizational forms to the networked organization (Sullivan, 2000).

The fight against the VNSA is not a novelty; throughout history, the navies and armies of the different countries have spent more time fighting against banditry and piracy than against any other type of security threat (Metz, 1993).  At present the interesting fact on the issue, is that some of these VNSA can be categorized as insurgents.  These actors, in order to achieve their objectives, are undertaking new forms of insurgency with the potential of reconfiguring the states that affect them (Metz, 2012).  El Salvador is not alien to this problem. The country identifies gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street (Barrio 18) as non-state actors that threaten the viability of the Salvadoran state.

This phenomenon must be analyzed because: First, through their criminal activities, gangs generate considerable levels of violence, insecurity and instability; Second, because they reduce the effective capacity of the State to control segments of the national territory and; Third, because they erode state legitimacy and sovereignty.  In addition, by generating these pernicious effects, gangs can be categorized as a new type of insurgency and therefore can no longer be considered as a phenomenon of public security.

Traditionally, gangs have been conceived as a public security problem and insurgency primarily as a military activity.  However, the insurgent movements and so-called “third generation[ii]” gangs are immersed in a complex political act and political war.  Under these conditions, police and military forces should provide personal and collective security and tranquility, while other governmental institutions are involved in combating the causes of instability and political warfare, injustice, repression and corruption (Manwaring, 2005).

Therefore, it is important to determine whether gangs in El Salvador represent a new type of insurgency since confronting new security threats with obsolete or inappropriate ideas and strategies is a recipe for disaster (Metz, 2012).  Faced with a new type of organization, with different structures, methods of operation and strategic objectives require the formulation of new strategies and doctrinal approaches (Hoffman, 2007).

In the present investigation, the following thesis is argued: The gangs in El Salvador (MS-13 and 18th Street) can be considered to be a new type of criminal insurgency that threatens the viability of the Salvadoran State by generating Instability in the country, reducing the state’s ability to control parts of the national territory and eroding the legitimacy and national sovereignty, all with the purpose of guaranteeing themselves freedom of action to benefit commercially.


The research is of a theoretical nature with a qualitative approach. The method used is descriptive based on the case study. The research was limited to explore the theory related to the concepts of insurgency, public security and national security, in order to determine if the gangs in El Salvador could be categorized under the first and assess the effects of their activities on the latter. In this context, an exhaustive bibliographical review of books, specialized magazines, reports, manuals, periodicals, and web pages were carried out, related to the object of study.

In order to facilitate this analysis, the system analysis technique (Randers, 1980; Senge, 1990) was also used to identify its actors, relationships and dynamics and to construct a systemic diagram that would allow its comprehension as well as out of future usefulness for analysts and researchers with interest in the subject.

Theoretical Framework

The research focuses on several key issues: public security, national security and insurgency.  Topics whose theoretical elements are addressed below:

Public Security and National Security

Public Security is understood in Salvadoran military doctrine as: “... the internal social situation that allows the full exercise of individual and collective rights guaranteed by the Constitution and other secondary laws of the Republic, in the face of possible disturbances to tranquility and public order, which is a component of legal certainty at the domestic level” (CODEM, 2003, p. 25).

Public Security, therefore, is the internal scope of the dynamic and broader concept of National Security which subsumes it.  The National Defense Law of El Salvador (2002) in Article 4 No. 1 defines National Security as:

The Permanent set of actions that the State provides to create conditions that overcome situations of international conflicts, disturbances to public tranquility, natural catastrophes[iii] and those vulnerabilities that limit national development and jeopardize the achievement of national objectives (National Defense Law, 2002, p.2).

The concept of National Security is also related to and subsumes the concept of National Defense that is defined by the aforementioned law (Article 4 No. 1) as:

“A set of resources and activities that in a coordinated way the State develops permanently in all fields of action, in order to face a threat to national sovereignty and the integrity of the territory” (National Defense Law, 2002).

The relationship between the three concepts exposed can be represented in a systemic model (See Figure 1, Dynamic Model National Security).

When analyzing the figure it is seen that the model reflects that the National Security in favoring the achievement of the national objectives both in the Public Security area and in the field of National Defense generates a positive feedback[iv] (R+) dynamic that reinforces the system.  In this sense, the greater the National Security, the greater the achievement of national objectives, the greater achievement of national objectives in the areas of National Defense and Public Security plus National Security.  The system also receives positive feedback in an inverse way, that is, that the lesser National Security the achievement of the national objectives, affecting the whole system in the same direction.

Negative feedback or stabilization of the system is introduced by the relationship between threats[v] and the achievement of national objectives.  In this vein, there are more threats that hamper the achievement of national objectives in the areas of Defense and Public Security less national security and vice versa.

Every government is obliged to guarantee Public Security and National Defense.  In El Salvador it is expressly defined that “... National Defense and Public Security will be assigned to different Ministries. The Public Security will be in charge of the National Civil Police” (Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador, 1983 art.159).  In the field of National Defense the leading role is assumed by the Armed Forces. Likewise, the President of the Republic may use the military “... exceptionally, if the ordinary means for the maintenance of internal peace, tranquility and public security have been exhausted...” (Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador, 1983, art.168 No. 12).

There are three parameters that allow measuring the fulfillment of the obligations and the maintenance of their functions that must be fulfilled by the state governments:

1. Ensure security: the preservation of sovereignty over the whole territory, the maintenance of the monopoly of force and the protection of internal and external threats.

2. Guarantee basic services: attention to the development or maintenance of health, water, energy, communication and transportation systems at state level. Other services essential for development are not integrated, although they must be valued; such as the education system, the administration of justice, the promotion of economic activities and the protection of resources.

3. To guarantee the citizens liberties that legitimize the political system: the promotion and protection of constitutional guarantees, beginning with respect for human rights, are manifested as the most important instrument for obtaining social support (Sepúlveda, 2013).

The instability caused by the lack of any of the components of these guarantees and the presence of security deficits, services and legitimacy make the system weaken and fall to levels of non-governability (Foreign Policy in Sepúlveda, 2013). A prerequisite, therefore, for achieving governability[vi] is the government’s ability to extract, through the imposition of taxes, to provide those collective goods such as security and well being for its population, as well as a correct administration of the economy (Williams, 2015).


The essential aspects of guerrilla warfare, favored by any insurgent movement, to evade the enemy's fortresses, the “intelligent” use of the terrain and the hitting of logistic centers from unexpected places, has changed very little since the days of the Romans and Persians.  In the twentieth century, the addition of revolutionary thinking made guerrilla warfare a powerful form of conflict for the achievement of political objectives (Reed, 2007).

Despite this, insurgencies in the 21st Century diverge significantly from the “classic” insurgencies of the past.  The new types of insurgency are nestled in complex, multidimensional conflicts that have political, social, cultural and economic components. Contemporary insurgencies arise from the lack or weakness of the state and more general failures in cultural, social and economic systems.  Given their systemic nature, these new types of insurgency cannot only be confronted by military and security forces, their approach require the use of state power in all its spheres (Metz, 2012).

However, of the differences between the current insurgencies and those of the past, its three primary objectives have not changed: a) survive, b) strengthen themselves and c) weaken the State.  Likewise, the three major and interrelated struggles between the state and the insurgent movements have not changed: 1) The struggle for legitimacy; 2) the struggle for the perceptions of the population and; 3) the struggle for security versus the disruption of the system (Metz, 2012a; Hoffman, 2007).

Given their relative weakness, insurgencies continue to stick to the strategy of engaging the conflict away from the domains in which states are particularly strong, concentrating their efforts on achieving moral and psychological mastery that rewards them with greater benefits than challenging tangible power centers (Metz, 2012a).  The new types of insurgency do not intend to achieve a strategic victory, its aims are more like a violent and fluid competitive market, whose objectives are more limited and achievable, and therefore, it is not aspired to achieve total control of the market but only its domination (Metz, 2012).

Today’s insurgencies are not intended to overthrow governments but to wage a violent struggle against the state for the legitimacy and influence of significant portions of the population (North, 2008). In addition, the VNSA involved in this type of insurgency have a reticular base, are flexible and have a transnational focus.  The increase of these networks means that power is migrating to the VNSA, especially since these types of actors are able to organize themselves in extensive multi-organizational networks with greater facility than the traditional and hierarchical state actors (Reed, 2007).  It is also important to know the adage that runs through all the insurgencies today, which is synthesized in the phrase: “learning and adapting” (Hoffman, 2007).  In a contemporary world characterized by its volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA)[vii], adaptability is an essential quality to complement the present lack of predictability in the environment.

Another relevant aspect to consider is the amount and diversity of VNSA present in the battlespace of the irregular war.  This circumstance makes it difficult to define the nature of the opponent, as well as the evaluation of its strategy, structure and means. The credibility of governments will be increasingly challenged by VNSAs, forcing them to demonstrate to their people that they are capable of providing acceptable levels of governability and security.  Under these circumstances, the insurgencies of the 21st century focus on the struggle for the perception of the population in order to achieve their acceptance.  Any insurgency that operates within its own “community” is difficult to detect and combat (Hoffman, 2007).

The insurgencies of the 21st century can be conceptualized as “... the armed expression of organic, internal political disaffiliation[viii]” (Cable in Bach, 1996, pg. 34).  Under this concept the core of the struggle is the objective of establishing authority over a given population in a given geographical space.  The only two instruments with any effect on the struggle are constituted by the popular perception of legitimacy and credibility in the capacity to exercise coercion.  The perception of legitimacy is based on the ability of any group to gain the sympathy of the community.  In this sense, the implementation of ineffective government policies erodes the credibility of the government’s moral authority in the community (Bach, 1996).

As in regards to coercion, the indiscriminate use of violence and security measures erodes popular perceptions of legitimacy by triggering a vicious circle in which authority is forced to resort to repression and the greater use of coercion entails greater loss of legitimacy (Bach, 1996).  In the case of an insurgency, coercion is present when the state confronts insurgents; if it were effective, the feedback cycle becomes negative (1R-).

In the sense, the greater effectiveness of coercive measures, greater legitimacy, greater credibility and higher levels of governability, which in turn reduces the need to implement the measures.  Likewise, another negative feedback cycle is observed, in which the increase of the effectiveness of the state confrontation decreases the Insurgency (2R-) and in case of diminishing, the effectiveness of the state confrontation would increase the power of the Criminal Insurgency.  It can also be perceived that among the nodes of effectiveness, legitimacy, credibility and governability there is a positive feedback loop (R+), which means that the levels of the other nodes increase, but decreasing effectiveness will decrease the levels of all Cycle (See Figure 2).

Metz (1993) considers that in the analysis of insurgencies psychological factors prevail more than structural factors.  In this order of ideas, he envisaged that two types of insurgency would dominate the post-Cold War world.  One called the “Spiritual” insurgency, a descendant of the revolutionary insurgency of the Cold War, which is enhanced by the problems that arise from modernization, the search for meaning and justice.  The essence of the “Spiritual” insurgency is the rejection of the social, economic and political system.  The other, which he called “Commercial”, is empowered by the pursuit of wealth and whose psychological foundation is based on a distorted understanding of Western popular culture that equates wealth with personal value and power.  The commercial insurgency turns into a quasi-political distortion of materialism.  He also pointed out that in the “Third World[ix]” the nature of both types of insurgency was to be modified by an escalation in urbanization, population growth, environmental deterioration and the explosion in information and communication technologies (ICTs).

At the same time, Metz (1993) argues that currently at least two psychological factors enter the relationship between insurgency and the search for meaning.  The first is the link between violence and liberation.  In this factor, participation in violence liberates spiritually those who feel abused, repressed or alienated by a political-social system (Fanon, Les damnés de la terre, 1961).  The second factor is psychological stimulation, violence becomes addictive, and political violence provides a kind of stimulation that, contrary to crime, is morally uplifting.

With regard to the “Commercial” insurgency this derives when the citizens of the “Third World” compare their poor existence with the type of consumer life proper to the Western “First World.”  The disparity between the two types of life generates frustration and discontent in the former.  The easiest and fastest way to move up in a society devoid of social mobility is to venture into crime.  This decision is facilitated for the frustrated and discontented of the “Third World” by not feeling attached to the systems of dominant values ​​in their society.  The “Commercial” insurgency is synthesized in a widespread and sustained activity that expands to threaten the security of the State.  The emergence of a “Commercial” insurgency is dependent on a number of factors that allows criminal organizations to accumulate substantial wealth.  These factors include geographical location on trafficking routes of all types of illicit, weak political and legal systems, as well as a history of political violence and the presence of criminal organizations (Metz, 1993). In the evolution of insurgencies, we have moved from tort and vindication to ambition (Metz, 2012).

Based on Metz’s “Commercial” insurgency concept, Sullivan (2009) conceived the category of “Criminal” insurgency[x].  This type of insurgency has as its only political motivation to obtain autonomy and economic control of parts of the territory of a State in order to carry out its criminal activities in total impunity and benefit economically.

In the “Criminal” insurgency the VNSA take a significant position on the horizon of the conflict.  The various VNSAs[xi] with a reticular organization defy State power structures, by triggering high levels of violence, acts of terrorism and attacks on police, military, public and judicial officials.  They also generate high levels of insecurity and instability, thus constituting a threat not only to Public Security but also to National Security.  The Criminal Insurgencies (CI) are the result of criminal organizations competing against the state not for political power but rather to free themselves from state control to maximize the benefits of their illicit economic activities.  They challenge state legitimacy in order to gain an autonomous area outside state control (Sullivan & Bunker, 2011).

The CIs can exist in several levels:  a) Local Insurgencies: that exist only in a neighborhood or community failed where the VNSA dominate the territory and the political, economic and social life with the aim of forming a criminal enclave free of the state inherent; b) The CI that fights with the State in order to establish a parallel state, whose levels of violence affect the general public and police and military forces seek to contain violence to curb the erosion of governmental legitimacy; c) At the third level, the CI confronts the State to maintain or sustain its range of action. In this case, the state represses and takes action to dismantle the VNSA and they resist the state and counterattack; d) At the fourth level the State loses its capacity to respond to the CI, high-intensity criminal violence is out of control and the cumulative effect of sustained and unrestrained criminal activity undermines the legitimacy of the State, resulting in the implosion of State (Sullivan & Bunker, 2011) (See Figure No. 3).

The CI wages a battle for who rules.  The criminal organizations involved in it, defy the State in order to free itself from its control in order to maximize their profits from illegal global economic circuits.  The achievement of their objective is based on their freedom of movement, the legitimacy perceived by the exploiting communities or populations, and the complicity or acquiescence of political actors (Sullivan & Bunker, 2011).  The CI can be represented dynamically as seen in Figure 4.

In the model, a positive feedback loop (R+) can be seen in which the Criminal Insurgency unleashes greater levels of violence, which in turn generates greater instability, which allows establishing the necessary territorial control, to obtain autonomy, which allows it to act with total impunity and thus obtain greater economic benefits, which in turn strengthens the power of the CI.  This positive feedback loop is stabilized by the negative feedback dynamics (R-) generated when the State decides to confront the CI.  The greater effectiveness of the state confrontation weakens the CI, managing to change the cycle of CI, turning it into a cycle of positive feedback but weakening the CI.

By exchanging the threats in Figure No. 1 (Dynamic Model of National Security) with the Dynamic Model of Criminal Insurgency (Figure 4) and inserting the Dynamic Model of Interrelation between Coercion and Criminal Insurgency, we obtain the total model of how a Criminal Insurgency affects the National Security of a Country, seriously threatening its viability (See Figure 5).

Gangs as Non-State Violent Actors

Gangs are the type of organization where young people are naturally inclined to congregate and socialize.  Moore (in Bach, 1996) defined gangs as a group of people who form an alliance for a common purpose and engage in acts that are injurious to public health and morality, that pervert or obstruct justice or its administration, engage in criminal activity individually or collectively and create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the community.

A variety of societal and systemic factors may promote or discourage an individual’s propensity to enter gang activity.  Gangs are the result of a chain of interaction events “... reciprocal and cumulative in an environment of gaps and throughout critical phases of the life cycle” (Thornberry, Krohn, Lizontte and Tobin in UNDP, 2013, p.214). These include fragile family structures, lenient parental control, poor interaction between primary socializing agents, insufficient presence of social institutions, limited social and economic opportunities, and the existence of an informal economy (UNDP, 2013). In short:

... it is possible to group the factors that are behind the emergence and development of the Gangs in Central America in ten broad categories: a) processes of social exclusion; b) culture of violence; c) rapid and disorderly urban growth; d) migration; e) community disorganization; f) presence of drugs; g) dynamics of violence; h) problematic families; i) friends or fellow gang members and j) difficulties in building personal identity (Aguilar & Carranza, 2008, p.9).

Gangs exist “... by themselves and for themselves (and against another), and not according to the criminal activity of groups of another nature” (Hernández Anzora, 2015, p.260).  Gangs are also the product of a feeling of discontent or disaffection, generated by the causes mentioned above and the feeling that gang members themselves have to be excluded and ignored by society in general (Bach, 1996).  This circumstance causes hatred against society to arise and “...hate demands existence and he who hates has to show his hate in appropriate actions and behavior; in a sense, he has to become hate” (Fanon, 1952).  Furthermore, gangs arise in the face of their members’ need to defend themselves against exclusion, other gang’s violence and state repression.

The gang is the framework in which its membership flows, often through generations and in which its own set of conventions and rules prevails. Among these we can count on a stylized and secret gang history, initiation rites, classification system, rites of passage, rules of conduct and rituals to honor and dismiss dead members. Loyalty to the gang and its members is the maximum value of the gang member. The gang becomes for him his family and his primary source of identity, they become emotional communities that cover a series of affective needs of its members, providing them with identities that allow them to give meaning to their lives in contexts of marginalization in which their options life and development are extremely limited (Gómez Hecht, 2013, p.138).

“Gangs dominate the intersection between crime and war” (Sullivan, 2009).  Traditionally regarded as criminal organizations with varying degrees of sophistication and scope some have evolved into potentially more dangerous and destabilizing actors.  Gangs are essentially a form of organized crime that in the era of globalization and transnational crime can change the nature of war and politics (Sullivan, 2009).

It should be noted that gangs are prison criminal organizations, which means that it is within the prison system that they originate, grow, strengthen and socialize their culture. The above assertion means that a prison sentence does not constitute a dissuasive measure for gang members to desist from their illicit activities; on the contrary “serving time” in prison is a “sine qua non” condition for the gang member to rise in the gang hierarchy.  In the case of El Salvador, all top gang leaders are in prison, from where they direct their criminal structures and strategically plan their operations (Gómez Hecht, 2013).

The origin of gangs in El Salvador interlinks with gang culture in the United States. During the 1970s and 1980s thousands of Salvadorans immigrated to the United States, fleeing from social, political and economic exclusion, violence and internal armed conflict.  When they arrived in North American cities, especially in California, they began to organize into gangs with ethnic affiliation, in order to defend themselves against racial domination by other gangs in the “neighborhood”.   As its members were being imprisoned for committing various crimes, they became socialized in the gang culture present in the American prison system.

At the end of the internal armed conflict in El Salvador (1981-1992), not only is there a voluntary repatriation of Salvadorans to their country of origin, but also a massive deportation policy, which included many gang members with criminal records.  These gang members bring El Salvador gang culture, which finds fertile ground in youths socialized in war and violence.  The problem became transnational when many of the deported gang members decided to return illegally to the US and in their passage through the transit countries were spreading their gang culture, generating gangs in those countries.

Due to its transnational origin and the presence of affiliated groups in different cities in Central America and the United States, these two great identity franchises: MS and 18th St., have been considered for some time as transnational networks, which have moved towards a clear process of formalization (Cruz in Aguilar & Carranza, 2008, p.5).

It is in El Salvador that the gang phenomenon reveals it’s most bloody and organized version.  Both gangs have evolved from being gangs of juvenile delinquents, using artisanal weapons to being transnational criminal organizations[xii] that use high firepower (Von Santos, 2014; Luna, 2015).  These organizations have taken advantage of the weakness and fragility of the institutional framework of the countries of the Central American region to expand their influence, especially in the so-called Northern Triangle[xiii].

The force and the violence or the threat of its use, is the main means to acquire control of territories and power. Since the end of the last decade, gangs are considered ... the main source of crime in the region and even as one of the main threats to hemispheric security (Aguilar & Carranza, 2008, p.19).

In El Salvador, gangs/“maras” have been declared illegal and are outlawed, banning “... their existence, legalization, financing and support to them” (Proscription Law of Maras, Gangs, Groups, Associations and Organizations Of Criminal Nature, 2010; Art.1). In addition, as of August 2015, gangs were declared terrorist groups by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador (SCCSJ Resolution 4-2012, 2012).

Gangs, as well as insurgents, operate not only on purely criminal grounds but also from the perception of legitimacy and coercion (Bach, 1996).  These “terrorist” organizations will constitute a Criminal Insurgency insofar as they threaten the viability of the Salvadoran State by generating: a) instability in the country; b) reduce the state's capacity to control parts of the national territory; c) erode the legitimacy and national sovereignty, all with the purpose of guaranteeing the freedom of action to benefit commercially.

Gangs as Generators of Instability

The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy[xiv] defines stability as the “quality of stable” (DRAE, 2016) and, stable is defined as that “... which remains without danger of changing, falling or disappearing” (DRAE, 2016a). In this sense, preserving internal stability for the state of El Salvador translates into maintaining order, tranquility and the full exercise by its population of their individual and collective rights. These latter rights are summarized in the first paragraph of article 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador (1983):

Art. 2. Every person has the right to life, physical and moral integrity, freedom, security, work, property and possession, and to be protected in the conservation and defense of them.

Gangs, therefore, are actors generating instability by violating the country’s order, tranquility and all the rights mentioned above.  The main instrument used to provoke this effect is outright violence.

Although homicide is not the only indicator of violence, the homicide rate is the most frequently used indicator to determine overall levels of violence in a city or country.  This is because homicide is the most serious and publicly visible of all violent acts and is usually reported more accurately in statistics  of violent crime (Buvinic & Morrison, 1999).  Taking this indicator as a measure of violence in El Salvador, in 2015, with a homicide rate of 104 per 100,000 inhabitants, is the most violent country in the world with the highest rate for any other state in the last 20 years (Gomez, 2016).   All the violence described is unleashed with high impunity on the part of its perpetrators, in the face of extensive corruption and the weakness of the judicial system and the security forces (US Department of State, 2015).

The high number of homicides in the country “...are an important indicator that directly affects the sense of insecurity of many Salvadorans, as well as their perception of the performance of public security institutions and the presidential administration” (Hernández Anzora, 2015, p.260).

The truce between gangs in the years 2012-2013[xv], showed without a doubt that the majority of homicides were committed by members of the same. Immediately the truce came into force, the killings dropped significantly (see Graphic No. 1., Homicides in El Salvador by Year 2010-2015).

In addition, several authors agree that after the truce the gangs demonstrated not only that they had the capacity to reduce homicides, but also to use them as a mechanism of pressure on the government to comply with measures to benefit gangs (Hernández Anzora, 2015; Von Santos, 2014; Luna, 2015).

The situation of insecurity has been recognized by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, which has declared that gangs “... carry out systematic attacks on the life, safety and personal integrity of the population” (SCCSJ Resolution 4-2012, 2012, pp. 40-41).

In the economic field, the violence, insecurity and instability caused by gangs generate a high cost to the Salvadoran economy.  According to the Salvadoran Exporters Corporation (COEXPORT), 1,500 companies closed their operations in 2015 due to violence and insecurity (Martínez Avelar, 2016).  In addition, according to a survey conducted by the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP) in 2015, between the years 2013 and 2015 the perception of insecurity in the business sector has increased from 32.3% to 70.4% (Cidón, 2015).  Likewise, a recent study estimated that by 2014 the cost of violence in the country was 4,026.3 billion dollars equivalent to 16% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (Peñate, Escobar, Quintanilla, & Alvarado, 2016).

Extortion is one of the main problems affecting the operations and economies of companies. The sector most affected by this scourge is the one formed by micro and small enterprises, harming the livelihood of 1.5 million people who contribute to the national economy. Gangs have a disproportionate share of the crime of extortion, since 76% of extortions carried out are linked to them. (FUSADES, 2016a).

In addition, gangs dominate the informal sector of the economy, establishing small businesses and using violence and coercion to compete unfairly with legitimate businesses, while avoiding paying taxes and co-op government regulators (Sullivan, 2009).  The previous assertion is validated by an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office that revealed that gang leaders owned brothels, motels, used cars dealerships and public transportation buses (Mendoza, 2016).  It is also known that gangs have also ventured into other businesses: nightclubs, car wash, sale of drinking water and even provide security services.

The effect of the instability generated by gangs in the economy is such that according to the Global Competitiveness Report (2015), crime and robbery are the most problematic factors for doing business in the country.  El Salvador, in that report, is also classified as the country that is most affected[xvi] by organized crime in the business environment (WEF, 2015).

A sample of the power of gangs to generate instability was the “public transportation stoppage” of four days (26-30 July 2015) that bus drivers were forced to abide.  This incident kept the country in a state of disruption, paralyzing 142 public transportation routes throughout the country, which resulted in the mobilization of military, police and government transport units to try to mitigate the transfer of the thousands of affected users, who could not be moved nor to their houses, their works or their places of study (Flores & Peñate, 2015).  During the first 24 hours of the strike and to demonstrate the seriousness of the order not to circulate, seven motorists[xvii] were killed by gang members (Flores & Peñate, 2015a).  The economic losses caused by the “stoppage[xviii]” were high, only in the transport sector alone, was calculated by the guild to have increased from between 3.2 to 4 million dollars. (Peñate S., 2015).  This ability of the gangs to paralyze transportation at the national level and to undermine the life of public transport personnel was also recognized by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice in one of its resolutions (SCCSJ Resolution 4-2012, 2012).

In the light of the above, it is undeniable that gangs in El Salvador have “become in recent years the main source of fear and insecurity in the country” (UNDP, 2013, p.205), becoming the main generators of Instability in the country.

The Territorial Control of the Gangs

Gangs in El Salvador have gone from being present in some neighborhoods of the main cities of the country in the 90’s, to have presence in practically the whole country, both in urban and rural areas.  By 2014 it was estimated that gangs had extended their influence along “... 214 Municipalities[xix], 1054 colonies, 368 cantons, 180 neighborhoods and 422 territories (land lots, residential or community), totaling 2,238 territories in total” (Von Santos, 2014, pg.203).

Territories with gang presence are controlled through hierarchical structures. At the apex of the structure are the national leaderships of both gangs known as “Ranfla General”.  All national gang leaders are detained in prisons.  The next level of the structure consists of the Programs (MS-13) and the Tribes (18th St.) that are made up of a series of local “cliques” structures, under the command of a gang member known as the “runner[xx]” of the program/tribe which operates in a particular area or geographical area. Program/tribe “runners” are reported to the national leadership (Gómez Hecht, 2013; Luna, 2015). Strategic and administrative decisions of gangs are made at the level of the Ranfla General. The lowest level is local structures, which are

... generally known as cliques, they have a minimum of 15 members; each has 15 operating cells of 3 elements. For the commission of the crime, each structure has members with specialties or roles in criminal activity previously defined by the national commanders. In the MS-13 gang, the local structure is known as cliques and the colonies under the influence of these are called zones (SAY). In the 18th St. gang, this structure is called “cancha” and in the same way it has zones or “nuclei” (Luna, 2015).

The cliques/“canchas” are under the command of a gang member known as “el Palabrero[xxi]”.   The gang’s tactical-operative level decisions are made between the program/tribe “runners”.

According to police sources, in the year 2015 in the country 32, 310[xxii] gang members were accounted.  The two main gangs in the country (MS-13 and 18th St.) are network organized, the MS-13 through 96 programs conformed by 360 cliques, 18th St. by means of 35 tribes[xxiii] conformed by 200 cliques.

Gang-based networking is effective because its members are known and interconnected by strong personal ties based on friendship and twinning experiences that ensure high levels of trust and loyalty.

Extortion and “narcomenudeo”[xxiv] are the main sources of income of the gangs. In both illicit activities, the control of the territory is an essential prerequisite for the efficient and effective conduct of its operations. This territorial control is exercised through an extensive network of members, collaborators and relatives of gangs. The main players in this network are:

a) Imprisoned gang members in the various penal centers in the country, among which are their top leaders. These leaders form the elite within the penal center where they are and are primarily responsible for organizing and mobilizing the entire structure of the gang, through its orders and guidelines. All other members (detained and released) are assigned the various functions according to hierarchy within the gang.

b) The gang members who are free. This group is made up of all those who have passed all “rituals” and other conditions established within the gang to belong to it. These individuals have been socialized into the particular signs, symbols, and forms of gang communication. They also enjoy the credibility of other members and are respected as long as they demonstrate their loyalty to the band. The maximum test of loyalty is to murder in name or under the orders of the gang. The main link that binds all members of the gang whether imprisoned or “free” is their complete identification with the aims and objectives of the gang.

c) Collaborators: are people who sympathize with gangs but do not belong to it. They are linked to the gang mainly to get some economic benefit or other benefits within the community. Collaborators support gangs by providing information, such as serving as lookouts, victim selection, undercover, or minor logistical tasks.

d) Relatives of gang members, many of them depend for their livelihood on gang activity. Some family members are involved in gang activities performed tasks of little relevance in various stages of extortion and “narcomenudeo” (Gómez Hecht, 2013). The social or gang-dependent base is estimated at approximately 500,000 people.

In the territorial expansion of gangs, it is important to recognize that they behave like any other structure of organized crime (OC) compensating or supplanting the absence of, or state deficiencies in the provision of social services to certain communities.  
In this sense,

the weak or null social support of the state is quickly compensated by the OC, who expect in return, from the people who benefit, protection and loyalty.  In addition to the excluded, there are the cadres that will make up the structures that support the criminal groups either as active participants, collaborators or sympathizers (Fernández & Künzi, Flores Pérez, Hoffman in Gómez Hecht, 2012, pp.278-279).

Gang control over the various communities is exercised through a combination of protection, benefits and intimidation.  The phrase “See, hear, and shut up” seems to warn of the behavior that gangs expect from all people living in the community who have no ties to it.  Anyone who interferes with the activities of the gang or who in any way considers it represents a “danger” or for any reason “not pleasing” to the gang is forced to leave the community or is killed.  In 2014 it is estimated that 288,900 people were forced to leave their homes due to criminal activity and threats (NRC / IDMC, 2015).

Furthermore, their strict control over certain communities and the threats of gangs are one of the main causes for which approximately 145,000 Salvadorans a year, leave the country in search of better opportunities abroad (Gaborit, Zetino Duarte, Brioso, & Portillo, 2012).

Youth are the main source of recruitment of gangs, therefore, schools become a focus where they exercise this activity and deepen their control over the territory.  Those students who do not respond favorably to the gang’s progress or collaborate with it are simply killed.  Between 2010 and November 22, 2015, 392 students were killed by gangs (see Graphic 3).

Gangs are present in almost the entire public secondary education system, a recent study found that 80% of public schools have gang members as students and that between 2009-2013, 30,367 students had dropped out because of crime and violence (López Ramírez, 2015).  School teachers are also threatened by gangs: between 2014 and 2015, six hundred seventy-nine teachers asked to be transferred from their schools for lack of security (Joma, 2016).  The problem is so serious that the Armed Forces of El Salvador through the “Safe School” plan since March 2014 provides security to 651 public schools.

Control over territory has given gangs an unplanned benefit, These

... have acquired a certain level of political awareness and have received partial recognition as political actors, causing them to find themselves increasingly gaining ground in the Salvadoran political system ... one can affirm with certainty that the Salvadoran “maras”, in the current political context, already meet several of the elements necessary to be considered as potential political actors whose nature, at first, would be that of pressure groups[xxv] (Hernández Anzora, 2015, p.250 & p.267).

In addition, gangs have advanced from being an actor to be taken into account for local elections, to be considered also at national election events.

In the 2014 presidential campaign, the “maras” showed an increase in their influence in the electoral process at national level and on the main political parties ... Gangs not only influence the candidates’ speeches in the elections (local and national), but also can guarantee some type of security during its realization (Hernández Anzora, 2015, pp.262-263).

Gangs essentially seek to control territory to ensure that they have the maximum freedom of movement and action within it, to benefit economically through their illicit activities.  They also use intimidation and violence to maintain and protect those economic spaces of influence (Manwaring, 2005; Sullivan, 1997 & 2000).

Gangs and the Erosion of Legitimacy and National Sovereignty

A modern state is sovereign to the outside as well as to the interior of its territory. The external sovereignty is related to external relations with other States and is characterized by:

... the recognition of the exclusive and universal right of the State to enact in its territory legal rules that bind its nationals, that is to say, the recognition of the power to take the last decision on people and goods in its territory and to decide on the status of the physical and juridical persons and in foreign relations the non-submission to other states (Hillgruber, 2009, p.8).

Internal sovereignty is characterized by the monopoly that the State

... enjoys to establish compulsory right for all those who are subject to his authority, both citizens and guilds, dictates binding legal rules, whose application it imposes, thanks to the monopoly of force that it has legally and legitimately attributed. It enjoys the power to make the final decision in all public affairs, regardless of whether they fall within the competence of the Government (or) of the public administrations (Hillgruber, 2009, p.6).

In addition, internal sovereignty implies a relationship of the State with subjects submitted under its jurisdiction, which must be firmly based on legality and legitimacy. Therefore, three are the primordial characteristics of the exercise of sovereignty: the legislature, the monopoly of the use of force and the legitimacy that the ruler should enjoy over its governed.  In El Salvador, during the 21st century, the last two characteristics mentioned have been seriously threatened by the actions of the gangs.

In regard to the state monopoly of the use of force, it has been transgressed since the gangs have begun to obtain and use arms for the exclusive use of the Armed Forces. Worsening the situation, the gangs have considered themselves powerful enough to openly confront government forces from the year 2014.

Between 2006 and 2015 two hundred and twenty-one police officers have been killed.  In 2015 alone, sixty-two policemen were killed, representing a rate of 2.68 per 1,000 uniformed officers (see Graphic 4), a frightening figure if we compare that same year in the United States of America, 130 policemen were killed who represent one Rate 0.19 per 1,000 uniformed officers (ODMP, 2016).  In addition, in 2015, thirty-four members of the Armed Forces and ninety private security officers were assassinated by gangs[xxvi].

The confrontation between gang members and police has increased considerably between the years of 2013 and 2015 there were 835 shootouts in between them (see Graphic 5, Shootouts between policemen and gang members in El Salvador per year 2013-2015). In 2015 alone, 495 confrontations were reported in which 309 gang members died (Barrera, 2016).

As of August 2016, there have been 378 shootouts between gang members and police officers in which 358 gang members have been killed (EDH, 2016).  In addition, gang members have carried out several grenade attacks on police posts as well as heavy weapons, the year 2015 installed three bombs in cars of which only one exploded without causing greater damages.  Since 2010, gang members have begun to use terrorism as a tactic when they burned a bus with all its passengers inside, leaving eleven dead and thirteen injured (Iraheta, Vásquez, & Argueta, 2010).  These acts have continued with a maelstrom of homicides carried out in a single day.  This nefarious practice began in May 2014 with the so-called “Black Friday” gang in which thirty-eight people were killed.  This was the infamous record for one more than one year until between June and August 2015 it was widely surpassed, setting the new record in fifty-two homicides in a day on August 27, 2015 (Beltrán Luna, 2015).

During the same year (2015) gang members attempted to assassinate one judge, murdered one prosecutor, and attacked the installations of the Central American Parliament and the Judicial Center.  The act of terrorism that caused the gangs to reject the population was the murder of eight employees of an electric power company working on the power line and three peasants who witnessed the incident in San Juan Opico on March 2016 (Escalante & Marroquín, 2016).

The instability and insecurity associated with gangs generate a downward vicious circle that manifests itself in the decrease of levels of individual and collective security.  As well as diminishing levels of acceptance and popular and institutional support for the regime in power, and is evidence of declining levels of government capacity to control its national territory.  This situation of creating and maintaining a climate of violence, chaos and the inability of the regime allow gangs freedom of movement to pursue their enrichment and commercial gain (Manwaring, 2005).  It is also characteristic and characterizes criminal insurgencies the acute and endemic crime and violence that is unleashed, which is configured as a challenge to state political control (Sullivan, 2009).

The deterioration of confidence in the institutions related to security in El Salvador from 2001 to 2015 is evident when assessing Table No.1. This double-digit deterioration[xxvii] in all institutions is directly related to the increase in violence and insecurity in the country and is linked to the perception of citizenship of the state’s inability to respond to the threat of gangs.

Table No. 1 Persons surveyed that said to have little or no confidence in the institution

The distrust in the institutions is coupled to a considerable loss of legitimacy of the legally established authorities.  Legitimacy is directly related to the capacity of government, with the effectiveness and efficiency of the government to provide, through the formulation and implementation of public policies, timely responses to the requirements of citizenship.

In this sense, according to a recent survey (IUDOP, 2016 b) 67.5% of the people surveyed considered that the country in the year 2015 was in a worse general situation compared to the year 2014; 82.5% considered that the crime situation in the country had worsened, 66.7% considered that the government security plans are giving little or no result and 55.5% considered that the government in turn represented a negative change for the country, a fact that agrees with another survey (LPG, 2016) in which 55% of respondents disapproved of something or much the management of the government on duty.

Another affront to national sovereignty is represented by the fact that gangs abrogate the state’s tax capacity by imposing a type of tax on “individuals” and businesses through “rent” or extortion (Sullivan, 2009).  This crime undermines family and commercial economies. Although official statistics show that this illicit is diminishing (see Graph No. 6 Evolution of extortions complaints 2011-2015), the reality is another, given the high index of the “hidden figure” (85%) of this type of crime that are not reported by the victims (FUSADES, 2016a).

In the future, gangs will represent a greater affront to national legitimacy and sovereignty since “... they are at (a) key point for their transformation into a kind of more complex criminal organization”(Luna, 2015, p.439).  It has been publicly announced the creation through gang unification, of a criminal superstructure that would be called the Mara 503[xxviii] to face the state repression (Redacción la Página, 2015; Luna, 2015).  It has also been known that gangs have lately concentrated efforts to buy illegal war weapons from Mexican drug cartels, as well as forming trained combat groups, properly armed and with sufficient ammunition (Von Santos, 2014; Luna, 2015).

Application of the Systemic Model to Salvadorian Reality

The application of the Systemic Model of the Interrelation of the Criminal Insurgency with National Security (See Figure 5) to the Salvadoran reality we obtain the following results.  El Salvador, as a sovereign and independent country, seeks to maintain its national security, by achieving its national objectives both in the area of ​​National Defense, guaranteeing the sovereignty and integrity of the national territory and in the area of ​​Public Security in seeking to guarantee not only the order and tranquility of its population, but also the full exercise and enjoyment of their individual and collective rights.

The achievement of national objectives has been seriously hindered since the beginning of the XXI Century by the actions of the main gangs (MS-13 and 18th St.).  These terrorist organizations have evolved to present all the characteristics of what is defined, in the specialized academic world, as a criminal insurgency.  These gangs generate a cycle of negative feedback in the model through generating violence and instability in the country.  They have also succeeded in gaining territorial control over some communities, allowing them to operate with great autonomy and impunity, all with the further objective of obtaining greater economic benefits from their illicit activities.

Throughout the years, the Salvadoran State has sought to alter the dynamics of gangs through various confrontational strategies.  All these strategies have had at their beginning, relative effectiveness but later the gangs have managed to adapt to them and recover the initiative again.  The execution of the “Mano Dura” and “Super Dura” Plans implemented during the period between July 2003 and 2006 allowed the majority of the gang leaders and a large percentage of their members to be imprisoned and to be identified.  During the implementation of both plans, about 40,000 gang members were arrested (Aguilar Villamariona, 2006).  Initially, these plans (as indicated by the model) were able to introduce a negative feedback in the gang dynamics, affecting their organizational and operational coordination.  The measures implemented, given their initial effect and as the model predicts, enjoyed broad support from the majority of the population, of which more than 70% supported them (Hernández Anzora, 2015). However, after some time the gangs adapted and modified their actions and ways of operating.  In addition, these plans generated a number of other counterproductive effects as it was that: courts of justice were saturated; in front of massive arrests the gangs modified their image and stereotypes to make it difficult to identify them, in addition, many gang members moved to new areas seeking refuge, specially rural areas, expanding their areas of influence.  The gangs also strengthened their internal cohesion, solidarity and group cohesion, especially when they were held isolated by gangs in different penal centers (Aguilar Villamariona, 2006; Gómez Hecht, 2013).

The next strategy implemented by the State to introduce a negative feedback in the dynamics of the gang was known as a “truce between gangs” between the years 2012 to 2013 which effectively achieved a substantial reduction in homicides in the country.  Like the previous strategies, after a time it was possible to appreciate that this “truce” was proving counterproductive, benefiting to the gangs.  In this context, it not only allowed them to consolidate their leadership and acquire greater political leadership, but also gave them greater freedom of movement and consolidation of control over their “territories.”  The gangs also managed to acquire more sophisticated weaponry and high firepower.

When applying the model to the situation of the first half of 2016, the results can be seen that the gangs came in a frank ascent of positive feedback, generating high levels of violence and instability and in this way hindering the achievement of the national security objectives.  The numbers of homicides committed during the months of January to March were substantially higher than in previous years (see Graphic No. 7).

The increase in violence led to the implementation of a series of transitional and exceptional measures by the government and under the respective legislative decree in order to regain control of the penal centers in April 2016.  These measures include the transfer of detainees between different penitentiary centers, the cutting off of telecommunications to and from these centers, raids on dwellings around them, restrictions or suspension of family visits and the provision of temporary custody centers (FUSADES, 2016b).

In addition, the Executive launched a serious state repression against the gangs by deploying two new inter-institutional units of police and armed forces in those municipalities with greater gang presence and incidence of homicides. These shock units: the Territory Recovery Intervention Force (Fuerza de Intervención de Recuperación de TerritorioFIRT) and the El Salvador Specialized Reaction Forces have strongly impacted gang operability.  In four months of being in operation, 650 gang members had been captured in connection with various crimes (García, 2016).

Police investigation units in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office also initiated an operation aimed at dismantling gang finances.  The effort has become transnational with the agreement signed in August 2016 aimed at an agreement signed by the three presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for the creation of a transnational security force, to carry out coordinated operations, to share information of intelligence and to speed up the delivery of detained persons, all in an effort to effectively combat transnational organized crime (Presidency of the Republic of El Salvador, 2016).

As the model envisions, the implementation of all these measures inserted a negative feedback to the dynamics of the gangs and considerably reduced the violence (see Graphic No.  7 above).  The effectiveness of this effort has given the government a small recovery in its legitimacy, credibility and governability.  In a survey carried out by a national newspaper, the percentage of respondents who considered that the situation of the country was poor or very bad decreased from 82.9% to 76.8% between February and May 2016 and also there was a reduction in the percentage of respondents who considered that the Country by an incorrect course from 78.7% to 68.3% in the same time period (Segura, 2016).


This research and analysis of the “Criminal Insurgency” thesis has verified the thesis.  In this context, it has been established that gangs in El Salvador (MS-13 and 18th St.) have all the characteristics of what is theoretically known as a criminal insurgency (CI).  In this sense, its only motivation for generating violence and insecurity is to obtain autonomy and economic control of parts of the territory of the country in order carry out its criminal activities in total impunity and to benefit financially from its illicit activities.  Consequently they challenge and confront state power to free themselves from their control.

Likewise, it has been verified that gangs threaten the viability of the Salvadoran State by generating instability in the country, reducing the state’s capacity to control parts of the national territory and erode legitimacy and national sovereignty.

Gangs have evolved to become highly complex organizations with a flexible network structure with a transnational focus. These VNSAs are a threat to national security by impeding the attainment of the national objectives of maintaining the order and tranquility of the population, as well as preventing it from enjoying the full exercise of its individual and collective rights. They also represent an impediment to the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

At the various levels in which the CI is developed, El Salvador is at the third level of confrontation with the State (see Figure 3).  The gangs have decided to confront the state to maintain or sustain its range of action and the Salvadoran State has opted to repress and take drastic action to disrupt the gangs.  It’s to be expected that the latter will resist the state clash and in due time counteract.

Gangs are at the intersection between crime and war and have evolved into extremely sophisticated and dangerous actors. The worst possible scenario is for gangs to enter the drug trafficking market with its enormous economic benefits and that they join forces under a shared aegis to deal with state repression.

Taking into account that gangs are prison organizations, which strengthen and reproduce their subculture within them, the application of justice and the consequent internment of gang members in the various penal centers is unsuccessful in containing the threat.  The Salvadoran State that has already declared gangs as “terrorist organizations” must act accordingly with the implementation of its own strategies, plans and measures to counter terrorism.  In addition, the state must overcome the notion of treating gangs as purely criminal organizations.

Gangs are the greatest generators of violence and instability in the country, so the State must prioritize its combat in order to achieve national security objectives.  Likewise, it must counteract the territorial control that gangs exert over portions of the national territory, breaking the reticular structure that allows them to exercise that control.  n this sense, you must take into account that it is necessary to configure a network in order to effectively confront another network.  The institutions involved in security and defense must establish their network relationships that allow them to respond quickly, effectively and efficiently the phenomenon of gangs.

Gangs directly attack national sovereignty by undermining the monopoly of the use of force and undermining with their activities the legitimacy of government.  The latter and state institutions must restore the confidence and credibility of the population through the implementation of effective public policies that are not only aimed at countering gangs but at responding to the majority of political, social, economic social demands and security of its citizens.

The systemic model of the interrelationship between the criminal insurgency and national security, when applied to the Salvadoran reality, is useful to clarify the situation and to glimpse possible solutions to the problem of gangs.  As has been explained, the Salvadoran State has now taken the initiative from April 2016, with the application of transitional and exceptional measures as well as the deployment of inter-agency forces of police and armed forces.  Initially these measures, such as those previously applied, apparently had the desired effect initially.  However, with the passage of time and the proven ability of gangs to adapt, the effectiveness of these measures will tend to decline. Faced with this situation, the various institutions of the State must plan strategically and prospectively based on scenarios to determine from now on what strategies will be implemented in the future to recover the initiative.

Having established the criminal insurgency of gangs, the Salvadoran State must take into account the three major and interrelated competitions inherent in an insurgency: (1) Competition for political legitimacy; 2) The competition for perceptions and; 3) Safety competition versus system disruption (Hoffman, 2007).

In addition, it is a proven fact that until security can be unequivocally provided all other initiatives will tend to stagnate.  Consequently, unity of effort and strategic clarity should prevail among the inter-institutional coordination of all institutions involved in the field of security.  The achievement of the above asserted implies the development not only of strategic leadership, but also the organizational structure and appropriate coordination in and between the referred institutions.

In this vein, the state must apply the eight principles of a successful counterinsurgency (COIN): 1) Legitimacy is the main objective; 2) The unity of effort is essential: achieving synergy is a key element of COIN; 3) Political factors are primary; 4) Understanding the strategic environment in which the phenomenon unfolds is vital; 5) Intelligence directs operations; 6) Priority in isolating the insurgents from their cause and support; 7) Establish and ensure security under the rule of law; and 8) Be prepared for long-term commitment (Sepp, 2005).

Finally, understanding the nature of the enemy and a conscious and comprehensive strategic planning that directs the application of all national power to well-defined objectives is the basis for El Salvador to successfully overcome the dilemma it is currently facing.

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End Notes

[i] Metz, New Challenges and Old Concepts: Understanding 21st Century Insurgency, 2012

[ii] According to the theory developed by Sullivan (1997), gangs have traveled through three generational changes: the 1st Generation oriented to the territorial control of the “neighborhood”; The 2nd Generation focused on the control and protection of drug-retailing or retail market and; The 3rd Generation that results in a transnational gang with ambitious political and economic agendas. The Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and 18th Street (Barrio 18) have been considered the models of the third generation gangs.

[iii] As can be seen from its definition National Security is also responsible for Civil Protection when referring to national catastrophes and National Development by referring to the vulnerabilities that affect it, issues that are not included in this analysis because they are not related to the phenomenon under study.

[iv] Feedback is the process by which the different nodes of a system re-affect each other through a chain of causal relationships between them. There are two types of feedback: positive and negative. The first reference indicates that changes in the feedback system move in the same direction (if one lowers, the other lowers, if one goes up, the other goes up). This type of feedback is called reinforcement and not limited generates exponential growth. The second refers to the feedback moving in opposite directions (if one lowers the other rises and vice versa). This type of feedback is called balance feedback or stabilization (Martin, 1997).

[v] The threat is defined by Salvadoran military doctrine as the possibility of causing damage with a deliberate intention and that, if materialized, would impede or delay the achievement of the National Objectives (CODEM, 2003).

[vi] The concept of governability is understood as a quality of social systems in which the “quality” of government is concerned, therefore, it is intimately related to the aspects of legitimacy and effectiveness (Prats and Català in Gómez Hecht, 2012).

[vii] The term VUCA (VICA in Spanish) was coined for the first time in the US Army War College (Euchner, 2013).

[viii] Translation by the author.  In English the exact phrase is “the armed expression of organic, internal political disaffiliation”.

[ix] “Third World” is a term coined by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952 and referred those states that were not aligned to the First Western World or to the Pro-Soviet socialist Second World.

[x] The term “Criminal” insurgency dates back to 1995 and was used by Ralph Peters in an article for the magazine Parameters, however Sullivan was the first academic researcher to structure the concept and promote its use (Sullivan & Bunker, 2011).

[xi] The above-mentioned analysts identify Gangs and Drug Cartels as the main actors in “Criminal” insurgencies.

[xii] To be considered transnational, a gang must have the following characteristics: be operative and criminally active in more than one country; that some of its illicit activities are coordinated planned and ordered from another country; They have a high mobility and ease to adapt and; Its activities are sophisticated and transcend the borders of several countries (Sullivan, 2009).

[xiii] The Central American Northern Triangle that is characterized by its high levels of violence comprises Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

[xiv] The article was originally written in Spanish.

[xv] The so-called “Truce between the Gangs” began with the transfer in March 2012 of gang leaders from the maximum security penal center of Zacatecoluca to common penal centers of less security and can be considered to have been completed in May 2013 with the appointment of a new Minister of Justice and Security.

[xvi] El Salvador is ranked 140th out of 140 countries.

[xvii] During the four days that the transportation strike lasted nine motorists were killed (Calderón, Lazo, & Alvarado, 2015).

[xviii] The word “stoppage” is used because technically, although it was the owners who decided to suspend the service, they were forced to do so because of the threats of the gangs.

[xix] El Salvador is territorially divided into 262 municipalities, which means that gangs have a presence in 81% of the national territory.

[xx] Corredor in Spanish.

[xxi] Palabrero means the “transmitter of the word”.

[xxii]  MS-13: 20,148 members, 18St: 10,648 members and other gangs 1,478. (Source: National Civil Police).

[xxiii] Tribes or Programs are organizational units conformed by several cliques that have hierarchical control of a certain portion of territory.

[xxiv]Narcomenudeo” is street drugs peddling.

[xxv] Pressure groups, unlike political parties, seek to influence the decision-making process, especially in those that affect them or are at their convenience, without pretending to become vehicles for public office (Hernández Anzora, 2015).

[xxvi] Data provided by Mr. Ricardo Sosa, President of the National Council for Private Security Services (CONASEPRIS), July 28, 2016.

[xxvii] With the exception of the Political Parties which from 2001 suffered from a high distrust on the part of the citizenship.

[xxviii] 503 makes reference to the international telephone code of El Salvador.


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