Small Wars Journal

Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 2: Tri-national Anti-gang Task Force Established to Combat Maras and Gangs in Central America’s Northern Triangle

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Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 2: Tri-national Anti-gang Task Force Established to Combat Maras and Gangs in Central America’s Northern Triangle

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker

Three nations in Central America’s Northern Triangle have implemented an integrated, multinational task force to combat the threat from gangs (maras and pandillas) in the region. The task force or la Fuerza Trinacional contra las Maras y Pandillas will focus its operations on the region’s 600 kilometer frontier zone.[1]

The task force, also known by its short name Fuerza de Tarea Trinacional, brings together police, military, intelligence, customs and immigration officials within a unified command structure to combat organized criminal and security threats posed by gangs. The gangs of primary concern are the transnational maras (Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 and Barrio 18 or Eighteenth Street).[2] Both gangs battle each other and confront the state in pursuit of their criminal goals. Approximately 70,000 pandilleros or gangsters) operate in the three nations of the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.[3] This new security structure is intended to stabilize the situation.

Photo: Fuerza Trinacional contra las Maras y Pandillas (Fuerza de Tarea Trinacional) by Fuerza Armada de El Salvador (FAES), November 2016.

Key Information: “El Triángulo Norte unirá investigaciones y sistema informático contra pandillas.” La Prensa Grafica. 11 August 2016,

Los fiscales de los tres países que conforman el Triángulo Norte de Centroamérica (Guatemala, Honduras y El Salvador) firmaron hoy un acuerdo en el que acordaron unificar las investigaciones y el sistema informático para luchar contra las pandillas, una de las lacras que azota a la region…  

Key Information: José Melédez, “Instalan en Centroamérica fuerza trinacional anticrimen.” El Universal. 16 November 2016,

Estamos enfrentando a un monstruo que puede tener un pie en México o en Estados Unidos y otro aquí, en Centroamérica y América del Sur, con varias caras: la del narcotráfico, de las maras, del tráfico de armas, del tráfico de dólares, del tráfico de personas y del contrabando…

Key Information: “Guatemala, El Salvador y Honduras crean una unidad antipandillas común.” El Heraldo (Honduras). 14 November 2016,

La unidad de los países que integran el Triángulo Norte de Centroamérica estará compuesta por miembros de la policía, fuerzas armadas, servicios de inteligencia, migración y adunas.

Key Information:  Nelson Renteria, “Central American plan launched to fight gangs, curb migration.” Reuters. 15 November 2016,

The Central American nations of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador on Tuesday launched a joint security system to combat gangs and drug smuggling, as well as curtail migration and lower murders in one of the world's most violent regions.

The initiative will allow police and soldiers from each country to undertake coordinated actions to attack gangs, drug trafficking and people smuggling, officials said…

"What we are installing is the perfecting of shields along our borders," Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said at an event in the western city of Nueva Ocotepeque, accompanied by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren.

Key Information: “Central America Tackles Gangs with Tri-National Militarized Border Security Force.” Telesur. 15 November 2016,

Leaders of Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle — Honduras’ Juan Orlando Hernandez, Guatemala’s Jimmy Morales and El Salvador’s Salvador Sanchez Ceren — officially launched the anti-gang force during an event Tuesday in the western Honduran city of Ocotepeque, near the three-way border between the countries, after signing the agreement in August.

“Today we’re going to have three countries in the same effort, tackling a highly damaging phenomenon to our peoples,” Hernandez said ahead of the inauguration.

The plan includes measures to tighten security on nearly 400 miles of shared borders to stem migration, particularly of gang members, and cut down on trafficking of illicit drugs and other contraband items. It also creates a centralized arrest warrant system to enable local security forces to capture suspects that skirt border patrols. According to its leader, the task force will involve the participation of police, military, prosecutors and intelligence systems in the three countries.

Third Generation Gang Analysis

The security situation in Central America’s Northern Triangle has been complicated due to high intensity gang activity including confrontations with the state. The situation originates in El Salvador where gang members from Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Eighteenth Street or Barrio 18  (also known as Calle 18, Mara-18 or Pandilla 18) have established a foothold in criminal enterprises including drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering, arms trafficking, and human trafficking. 

An estimated 12,000 MS-13 and 8,000 Mara-18 mareros (gangsters) operate in El Salvador, with 7,000 MS-13 and 5,000 in Honduras, and 5,000 MS-13 and 14,000 members in Guatemala, totaling circa 70,000 mareros or pandilleros in the three nations. The rate of mareros per 100,000 residents is 149 in Honduras, 153 in Guatemala, and 323 in El Salvador.[4]

Both gangs are known to directly challenge the state and state security organs.  Recent challenges include MS-13 developing its own commando force (the topic of SWJ-El Centro Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 1)[5], Barrio 18’s Revolucionarios faction seeking similar capabilities (including participating in paramilitary training)[6], and a surge in attacks on police in El Salvador.[7] In addition to high murder rates and massacres, the intense gang activity has also led to internally displaced persons (IDPs), with residents fleeing the gangs’ brutal territorial control.[8]

The development of new, multilateral security structures demonstrates a response to the complexity of addressing transnational and third generation gangs (3GENGangs). The increased sophistication, geographic reach, and political dimensions of these criminal warmaking entities challenges state solvency (legitimacy, capability, and capacity), requiring adaptive responses and novel force structures. The gaps between civil and military capabilities in addressing these hybrid threats is driving the development of new security structures—leveraging the participation of police, military, intelligence, and customs/immigration services—that address the transnational and multifaceted threats posed by transnational gangs and cartels.

While gangs in the United States still primarily represent a law enforcement issue, it must be remembered that in many other regions of the world with less state capacity—including parts of Mexico, urban regions in Brazil and Jamaica, and Central America’s Northern Triangle which is the focus of this note—such violent non-state actors have metastasized into national security threats that are directly challenging state authority and sovereignty, either independently or in coordination with more sophisticated cartel type entities. While such a reality is at odds with the traditional discipline of criminological derived gang studies, as exemplified by Malcolm Klein’s 1995 work The American Street Gang, it has become the new reality of early 21st century conflict that is witnessing the increasing blurring of crime and war throughout the international state system.[9]    

End Notes

[1] César Panting, “Fuerza Trinacional contra las Maras y Pandillas inicia operaciones.” La Prensa (Honduras). 15 November 2016,

[2] Barrio 18 or Mara-18 is split into two factions: the Revolucionarios and Sureños.  Together, they join MS-13 as criminal challengers to the state.  All three are networked organizations comprised as clicas or ‘cliques.’  For an overview of transnational gangs in Central America, see Sarah Kinosian, Angelika Albaladejo, and Lisa Haugaard, “El Salvador’s Gang Violence: Turf Wars, Internal Battles and Life Defined by Invisible Borders.” Latin America Working Group. 10 February 2016, and John P. Sullivan, “Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America,” Air & Space Power Journal—Español. Segundo Trimestre 2008,

[3] “Guatemala, El Salvador y Honduras crean una unidad antipandillas común,” El Heraldo (Honduras). 14 November 2016,

[4] See “Honduras: Triángulo Norte instala este martes Fuerza Trianacional, El Heraldo (Honduras). 14 November 2016,ángulo-norte-instala-este-martes-fuerza-trinacional.

[5] John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 1: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) 500 Man Commando Unit Planned For El Salvador.” Small Wars Journal. 10 September 2016,

[6] Luis Fernando Alonso, “El Salvador Gang Reportedly Got Military Training.” InSight Crime. 9 September 2016, and Juan Carlos Vásquez, “Exmilitares y exguerrilleros entrenaban a la pandilla 18.” El Mundo (El Salvador). 9 September 2016,

[7] David Gagne, “El Salvador Authorities Blame MS13 for Surge in Killings of Police.” InSight Crime. 17 November 2016,

[8] Anastasia Moloney, “The number of people fleeing violence inside Honduras has seen a constant rise since December.” Thomson Reuters Foundation. 3 June 2016,

[9] Malcolm W. Klein, The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.


 “Central America Tackles Gangs with Tri-National Militarized Border Security Force.” Telesur, 15 November 2016,

“Guatemala, El Salvador y Honduras crean una unidad antipandillas común.” El Heraldo (Honduras). 14 November 2016,

José Melédez, “Instalan en Centroamérica fuerza trinacional anticrimen.” El Universal. 16 November 2016,

Nelson Renteria, “Central American plan launched to fight gangs, curb migration.” Reuters. 15 November 2016,

Additional Readings

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Studies in Gangs and Cartels. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Eds., Narcoterrorism and Impunity in the Americas: A Small Wars Journal–El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: XLibris, 2016.

John P. Sullivan, “Pandillas Transnacionales: El impacto de las Pandillas de la Tercera Generación en América Central.” Air & Space Power Journal—Español. Segundo Trimestre 2008. 

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is an Adjunct Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Adjunct Faculty, Division of Politics and Economics, Claremont Graduate University. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Distinguished Visiting Professor and Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College; Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico, VA; Staff Member (Consultant), Counter-OPFOR Program, National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-West; and Adjunct Faculty, National Security Studies M.A. Program and Political Science Department, California State University, San Bernardino, CA. Dr. Bunker has hundreds of publications including Studies in Gangs and Cartels, with John Sullivan (Routledge, 2013),  Red Teams and Counterterrorism Training, with Stephen Sloan (University of Oklahoma, 2011), and edited works, including Global Criminal and Sovereign Free Economies and the Demise of the Western Democracies: Dark Renaissance (Routledge, 2014), co-edited with Pamela Ligouri Bunker; Criminal Insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas: The Gangs and Cartels Wage War (Routledge, 2012); Narcos Over the Border: Gangs, Cartels and Mercenaries (Routledge, 2011); Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers (Routledge, 2008); Networks, Terrorism and Global Insurgency (Routledge, 2005); and Non-State Threats and Future Wars (Routledge, 2002).

John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He is also an adjunct researcher at the Vortex Foundation in Bogotá, Colombia; a senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST); and a senior fellow at Small Wars Journal-El Centro. He is co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006) and Global Biosecurity: Threats and Responses (Routledge, 2010) and co-author of Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology (iUniverse, 2011) and Studies in Gangs and Cartels (Routledge, 2013). He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government form the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD, doctorate in Information and Knowledge Society, from the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) at the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) in Barcelona. His doctoral thesis was ‘Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” His current research focus is the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty in Mexico and other countries.