Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18: Gangs, Terrorists, or Political Manipulation?
In January 2020, Guatemalan President Dr. Alejandro Giammattei proposed initiative 5692, via Decree number 17-73 to reform Article 391 of the penal code, which would categorize the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs as terrorist organizations. The initiative was sent to the commissions of National Defense, National Security Affairs, and Interior (Defensa Nacional, Asuntos de Seguridad Nacional y Gobernación) to review and issue opinions; all responded favorably but with modifications.
In the United States, the Department of Treasury categorized MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization in October 2012 and in July 2020, for the first time, an MS-13 member was charged with terrorism-related offenses. The Constitutional Chambers of the Supreme Court of Justice in El Salvador ruled to reclassify these gangs as terrorist organizations in August of 2015 and in February 2017 Honduras sanctioned terrorist activities by these gangs. As the Guatemalan Congress debates for a second time (discussed and dismissed in 2017) whether to classify MS-13 and Barrio 18 as terrorist organizations, the question is again raised as to whether MS-13 and Barrio 18 in the northern countries of Central America meet the criteria to be categorized as such?
This article argues MS-13 and Barrio 18 lack the core component to be classified as terrorist organizations: a political or religious ideology guiding their violence. The implementation of such a policy may impact citizen’s rights, allow the military to participate in responsibilities assigned to the National Civilian Police—a violation of peace agreements signed after the civil wars, and could further corrupt politicians rather than provide solutions. Furthermore, categorizing these gangs as terrorist organizations would categorically elevate them to the status once held by leftist guerrilla groups during the civil wars, even when gangs are not guided by political ideology.
Defining gangs and terrorist organizations
There are no universal definitions for gangs or terrorist organizations. The United Nations cautions the lack of a universal definition of terrorism can result with violations to international human rights, a facilitation of politicizing the term, and states violating rights of citizens. Accurately defining a criminal group, its illicit activities, and its motives is fundamental for developing and implementing successful security policies and justifying security investment.
Although there is no universal definition for gangs there is some consensus on certain characteristics. Experts agree a gang is composed of three or more individuals within the age range of 12-24, members are recognized and identify as gang members, the group has a certain level of organization, are involved in illegal activities, and share an identity that is often linked with symbols. Terrorism, on the other hand, requires non-state actors be ideologically motivated to commit an act of violence. Debates revolve around whether these acts of violence must be intended to cause fear within the population, target civilians, and be random.
While gangs and terrorist groups have similarities there are also key distinctions. Terrorist groups and gangs are primarily composed of males, with characteristics of collective behavior and solidarity, who use violence to rectify wrongs. The main differences between gangs and terrorist organization is that terrorist groups maintain international connections and have an ideological belief while gangs are profit motivated organizations and commit various crimes rather than specializing in a crime.
If applied to MS-13 and Barrio 18 in the northern countries of Central America, members of these gangs identify and recognize their membership, these groups have evolved into semi-structured organizations, involved in multiple crimes, and identify with their gang’s moniker. Although MS-13 and Barrio 18 cliques are located throughout the US, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras this transnational feature is symbolic—different cliques identify under each gangs’ moniker—with sporadic rather than consistent coordination throughout the cliques and national or international territories. While often identified for extortion rackets in Central America, data from Guatemala’s DIPANDA (División Nacional Contra el Desarrollo de Pandillas, National Division against the Development of Gangs) suggests gangs only contribute 10% of extortions and imitators or opportunist groups are responsible for 90% of extortions. Current and former gang members surveyed in El Salvador revealed members ranged from 13 to 56 years old, where 75% of those surveyed were 30 years of age or younger, and 43.8% of those surveyed falling between the ages of 18-25. Although violence is used to enforce extortion payment, profit (and fear of punishment by their own gangs) is the leading factor. Identifying as a marero or pandillero is at the core of gang membership as opposed to a political or religious ideology guiding their violence or operations.
Violence, terror, and lessons from neighboring countries
There is no denying that MS-13 and Barrio 18 contribute to violence, fear and terror in the northern countries of Central America. These countries have repeatedly responded with Mano Dura “policies” serving as catalyst for gang evolution and little results in the reduction of violence. Government administrations in El Salvador and Honduras have responded by declaring these gangs’ terrorist or penalizing their crimes as terrorist acts.
In August 2015, the Constitutional Court of the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador declared MS-13 and Barrio 18 as terrorists with the Ley Especial Contra Actos de Terrorismo (LECAT). Three elements were described for terrorism: the use of “means and methods with broad suitability to generate collective terror;” affects to “personal or material legal assets- the latter of significant consideration;” and potential damage to the “democratic system, state security, or international peace.” The Court did distinguish between acts of terror and acts of legitimate protest, thereby, not criminalizing any group (compared to more recent penal code reforms proposed in Honduras). In February 2017, Article 335 of the Honduran penal code included crimes of terrorism punishable between 30-50 years. Such crimes include those that are designed to generate fear in the population, such as burning a bus with passengers or a produce vehicle. Contrary to El Salvador, Honduran Article 335 punishes crimes of terrorism not membership of these groups. Guatemala is now considering leveraging sanctions against gangs with terrorism clauses.
In January 2020, Guatemalan President Giammattei proposed to reduce violence by penalizing gangs with punitive sanctions, including terrorism. Article 391 Terrorismo con fines de desorden público social(terrorism with social public disorder) has been introduced to Congress. The Article proposes sanctions of 6-12 years for those who cause social public disorder, among other crimes, “territorial groups, high criminality, and symbology,” as well as those who “promote, finance or benefit directly from these activities,” and no reduction in prison sentences. Article 391 specifically identifies pandillas y maras for their high criminality, territorial control, for inflicting fear and terror due to extortions and threats. The proposition justifies individuals should be incarcerated for longer periods of time by quoting Beccaria: “it is better to prevent crimes than to punish them.” Although the Giammattei administration discusses violence synonymously with gangs, data suggests otherwise.
The Guatemalan Violence Observatory Diálogos monitors violence trends in the northern countries of Central America. From June 2019 to June 2020, Diálogos found the inter-annual homicide rate in Guatemala to change -25%, suggesting a reduction in homicides within the last year. Official PNC (Policía Nacional Civil, National Civilian Police) data shows a continual decrease in homicides since 2010. Moreover, there is a lack of evidence in official data to affirm gangs are the principle actors of violence in the country. Official PNC data identified 9 percent of homicide victims as gang members and 91 percent of the criminal profile was unknown. Of this 9 percent (235) only 45 were identified as Barrio 18 and 17 as MS-13 victims. The gaps in official data raise concerns about what other groups are contributing to violence in Guatemala.
Interviews with Guatemalan security experts (law enforcement, academics, and NGO personnel) concluded gangs should not be classified as terrorist organizations. Experts acknowledged gang violence inflicts terror on the Guatemalan population, identifying this violence was not motivated by ideologies but rather for monetary reasons. Interviewees cautioned categorizing gangs as terrorist groups could persuade gangs to increase their weapon capacity (drawing parallels to El Salvador) and may influence gangs to establish stronger relationships with narcotrafficking groups (providing examples of Honduras). Therefore, categorizing gangs as terrorist groups, another repressive policy, has the potential of acting as a catalyst for gangs to increase their capacities rather than decrease their operations.
Categorizing gangs as terrorist organizations also raises sentence proportionality concerns. The proposition incorporates Beccaria to justify longer sentences, but what the proposition failed to incorporate about Beccaria is the importance of punishing an offense and not the offender. Therefore, the law should focus on the offense that these groups commit, not on their exclusive membership which the proposed initiative seeks to sentence; especially when taking Guatemala’s context into consideration.
Guatemala has a prior history of how categorizing individuals as enemies of the state (“communists” during the civil war) escalated to human rights violations and genocide against Mayan communities. During the civil war, guerrilla groups were often publicized as responsible for the majority of crimes, however, Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification found “state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% violations documented” and the Truth Commission in El Salvador found the Salvadoran government responsible for 85 percent of atrocities during the war. It is time to question whether historical trends are being repeated: if there is not enough reliable data to suggest gangs are the sole or main contributors to violence (as is publicly claimed), if the homicide rates in Guatemala are decreasing, and declaring gangs terrorist has not shown positive results in neighboring countries—what interest are behind declaring gangs terrorist organizations?
Historical relevance and political motives
During their respective civil wars, Guatemala and El Salvador have previously classified leftist guerrilla groups as terrorist organizations. This classification allowed the countries to use their armed forces, while also receiving support from the United States to combat communist ideology. Upon Peace Agreements signed by governments and guerrilla forces, the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) in El Salvador and the URNG (Unión Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) in Guatemala became official political parties in their respective countries. In El Salvador, there is increasing concern regarding gangs’ political influence in electoral processes, threatening candidates, and territorial control.
The case of El Salvador exemplifies government officials bribe gangs for political gains rather than gangs having political interests or ideologies. From March 2012 to April 2013, MS-13, Barrio 18 Sur, and Barrio 18 Revolucionarios agreed to a ceasefire, often referred to as the Truce. In exchange, the Funes administration moved leaders from maximum security prisons to lower security prisons to communicate throughout the ranks to stop murders until further notice. Prior to the Truce there was an average of 14 deaths per day that dropped to 6 per day; the homicide rate of 61.7 per 100,000 dropped to a homicide rate of 41.8 per 100,000. It should be noted that homicides did not drop to zero, highlighting that gangs are not sole player responsible for El Salvador’s homicide rate. Some suggest the Truce further solidified leadership positions, making MS-13 more vertically structured, and teaching gangs they could influence politics.
The 2012 Truce is not the only occasion government officials have been caught negotiating with gangs. The FMLN and ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, Nationalist Republican Alliance), El Salvador’s two historical parties, have been accused of paying the gangs $350,000 for their votes and to intimidate opposing voters for the 2014 presidential elections. The 2014 presidential candidate Norman Quijanos allegedly promised gangs to eliminate the Ley de Proscipción de Maras y Pandillas which criminalizes membership of these groups with penal sanctions between 4-10 years without having committed any additional crime—what may be described as a slippery slope into repressive tendencies. Quijanos allegedly agreed to reduce the intensity of confrontations between law enforcement and gangs, and decrease PNC (Policía Nacional Civil, National Civilian Police) and FAES (Fuerzas Armadas de El Salvador, Armed Forces of El Salvador) operations in municipalities controlled by gangs. In 2016, a video recorded by gang members during negotiations showed the former Minister of Governance, Aristides Valencia, and former diputado (deputy) and Minister of Public Security, Benito Lara, offering gangs $10 million in micro-credit that would be used to fund legitimate businesses. The latest alleged negotiation between President Bukele and MS-13 showcases another administration leveraging favors for gang leadership in exchange for midterm election votes. These alleged negotiations between government officials and gangs require critical questioning of who is bribing whom for political interests? As well as further investigations into politicians negotiating with terrorist organization in El Salvador.
The current Ley Especial Contra Actos de Terrorismo in El Salvador prohibits government officials from negotiating with MS-13 and Barrio 18. Those who negotiate with gangs are subject to legal prosecution for facilitating terrorist activities; as has been the case for Mijango, who served as the main negotiator during the 2012 Truce and more recently General Payes who was the mastermind behind the Truce. This law is also applicable to those assisting gang members for desisting from gangs. Thereby, also criminalizing those who provide rehabilitation services for individuals seeking to leave the gang. Defining gangs as terrorist opens the possibility of using the military as a security force in what should be a law enforcement role.
The increasing use of the military forces for domestic security issues, legally the responsibility of the National Police has become concerning in the northern countries of Central America. In the case of El Salvador and Guatemala, the use of the military forces is a violation of the peace agreements signed to end the civil wars. Furthermore, the case of Mexico exemplifies how the use of the armed forces does not decrease violence and how the armed forces are not trained for civilian duties; but rather exacerbate security issues. In the case of Guatemala categorizing gangs as terrorist organizations may create a pathway to increased militarization, as well as increased concerns regarding international human rights of all citizens, not exclusively “gang members.” Categorizing gangs as terrorist organization has the potential to exacerbate security issues rather than provide solutions.
The fear and terror of MS-13 and Barrio 18 is felt throughout communities in the northern countries of Central America, however, categorizing gangs as terrorist organizations would be misdiagnosing the problem. Such a classification has the potential to serve as a catalyst for gangs to evolve, implement public policies that are destined to fail, and repeat history. Although the three Guatemalan commissions responsible for reviewing initiative 5692 responded favorably, the modification to reform the Ley Contra la Delincuencia Organizada passed in 2006 is unanimous. As gangs have adapted to repressive policies, it is time policies adapt to Central American reality.
The dire conditions in Central America, require candid discussions regarding multiple contributing factors and the exploration of historical lessons. While today’s criminal armed groups do not fall neatly into conventional definitions, a further discussion considering domestic and international humanitarian laws is necessary. Moreover, examining the state’s involvement in violence would bring true discourse and accountability to the multiple players contributing to Central American havoc. Historical lessons may also provide insight to solutions.
If open to exploring historical lessons, El Salvador is a prime candidate to replicate peace dialogues (not negotiations) with gangs, as it once did with then terrorist FMLN groups. An examination of statistical data suggests negotiations with gangs decrease homicides for as long as truces are in place. The problem with prior secret negotiations is they often hold an element of electoral favors; some point out Bukele is the most popular president in the continent and has the opportunity to dialogue publicly with the gangs for no electoral favors, and invite international organizations for the disarticulation of MS-13. Conversations with Salvadorans reveal a resentment towards a lack of government transparency regarding prior negotiations rather than dialogue with illicit actors. The question remains whether Central American politicians have the political will to explore strategic solutions or whether they will continue politicking gangs for their own interests.
 Enrique García, “Congreso Lleva al Pleno La Discusión de Declarar a Las Pandillas y Maras Como Terroristas.” El Periodico. September 5, 2020, https://elperiodico.com.gt/nacion/2020/09/05/congreso-lleva-al-pleno-la-discusion-de-declarar-a-las-pandillas-y-maras-como-terroristas/ and Douglas Cuevas, “Ley antimaras entra a escena luego de incidentes en El Infiernito y traslado de pandilleros.” Prensa Libre. September 2, 2020, https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/politica/ley-antimaras-promesa-de-campana-sera-discutida-por-el-congreso-tras-altercado-de-m18/.
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 Nelson Rauda Zablah, “Sala de Lo Constitucional Declara Ilegal Negociación Con Pandillas y Las Nombra Grupos Terroristas.” El Faro. 25 August 2015, https://elfaro.net/es/201508/noticias/17307/Sala-de-lo-Constitucional-declara-ilegal-negociación-con-pandillas-y-las-nombra-grupos-terroristas.htm; La Gaceta Diario Oficial de la Republica de Honduras. Reformar y Adicionar Artículos al Código Penal, Decreto No. 6-2017. Artículo 335. Delito de Terrorismo (27 February 2017), https://www.tsc.gob.hn/web/leyes/Ref_codigo_penal_2017.pdf. See also “Honduras: Congreso Nacional aprobo los dos articulos mas polemicos de las reformas penales.” El Heraldo. 21 February 2017, https://www.elheraldo.hn/pais/1046584-466/honduras-congreso-nacional-aprobó-los-dos-art%C3%ADculos-más-polémicos-de-las-reformas.
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 Joshua D. Freilich, and Gary LaFree, “Measurement Issues in the Study of Terrorism: Introducing the Special Issue.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Vol. 39, No. 7–8. 6 April 2016: pp. 569–79, https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2016.1140998.
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 Herlyss Edelman Hernández, “División Nacional Contra El Desarrollo de Pandillas.” Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/20200825_DIPANDA-A4-1.pdf.
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 Nelson Rauda Zablah, “Sala de Lo Constitucional Declara Ilegal Negociación Con Pandillas y Las Nombra Grupos Terroristas.” El Faro. 25 August 2015, https://elfaro.net/es/201508/noticias/17307/Sala-de-lo-Constitucional-declara-ilegal-negociación-con-pandillas-y-las-nombra-grupos-terroristas.htm.
 La Gaceta Diario Oficial de la Republica de Honduras. Reformar y Adicionar Artículos al Código Penal, Decreto No. 6-2017. Artículo 335. Delito de Terrorismo (27 February 2017), https://www.tsc.gob.hn/web/leyes/Ref_codigo_penal_2017.pdf.
 “Iniciativa de ley presentada por el Organismo Ejecutivo. Iniciativa 5692 que dispone aprobar reforma al decreto numero 17-73 del Congreso de la Republica,” Código Penal, Pub. L. No. 5692, 391 (2020), https://www.congreso.gob.gt/detalle_pdf/iniciativas/5644.
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 Pamela Ruiz, “The Evolution of Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18: Violence, Extortion, and Drug Trafficking in the Northern Triangle of Central America.” CUNY Academic Works (Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects). 1 September 2019, https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_etds/3458.
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 Interview in San Salvador, July 2017.
 Gabriela Cáceres, “Norman Quijano Prometió a Pandilleros Eliminar La Ley Antipandillas, Según La Fiscalía.” El Faro. 30 January 2020, https://elfaro.net/es/202001/el_salvador/23975/Norman-Quijano-prometió-a-pandilleros-eliminar-la-ley-antipandillas-según-la-Fiscalía.htm and Òscar Martínez, Carlos Martínez, and Efren Lemus, “Relato de un fraude electoral, narrado por un pandillero.” El Faro. 11 August 2017, https://elfaro.net/es/201708/salanegra/20737/Relato-de-un-fraude-electoral-narrado-por-un-pandillero.htm.
 Gabriela Cáceres, “Norman Quijano prometió a pandilleros eliminar la ley antipandillas, según la Fiscalía.” El Faro. 30 January 2020, https://elfaro.net/es/202001/el_salvador/23975/Norman-Quijano-prometió-a-pandilleros-eliminar-la-ley-antipandillas-según-la-Fiscalía.htm.
 Juan Jose D’Aubuisson Martínez and Carlos Martínez, “Videos muestran a líderes del FMNL ofreciendo a las pandillas un programa de créditos de US$10 millones.” InSight Crime. 31 October 2016, https://es.insightcrime.org/noticias/analisis/video-muestra-lideres-fmnl-ofreciendo-pandillas-programa-creditos-10-millones/.
 Carlos Martínez, Óscar Martínez, Sergio Arauz, and Efren Lemus, “Gobierno de Bukele lleva un año negociando con la MS-13 reducción de homicidios y apoyo electoral.” El Faro. 3 September 2020, https://elfaro.net/es/202009/el_salvador/24781/Gobierno-de-Bukele-lleva-un-año-negociando-con-la-MS-13-reducción-de-homicidios-y-apoyo-electoral.htm.
 Carlos Martinez, “Mijango viste de blanco,” El Faro. 13 May 2018, https://elfaro.net/es/201805/salanegra/21859/Mijango-viste-de-blanco.htm and Oscar Iraheta, “Exministro David Munguia Payes acusado formalmente ante un juez por delitos ligados a la tregua.” elsalvador.com (El Diario de Hoy). 26 July 2020, https://www.elsalvador.com/noticias/nacional/david-munguia-payes-acusado-juzgados-delitos-tregua-pandillas/736531/2020/.
 Verónica Reyn, “Estudio Sobre Las Políticas de Abordaje al Fenómeno de Las Pandillas En El Salvador (1994-2016).” Análisis No 7/2017. Frederich Ebert Stifung (fesamericacentral.org). October 2017, http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/fesamcentral/13897.pdf.
 Anaís M. Passos, “Breaking the law to ensure order: The Case of Tijuana (2007-2012).” Bulletin of Latin American Research. 2020, https://doi.org/10.1111/blar.13135 and Anaís M. Passos. “Fighting crime and maintaining order: shared worldviews of civilian and military elites in Brazil and Mexico.” Third World Quarterly. Vol. 39, No. 2 (2018): pp. 314-330.
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 Robert Muggah and John P. Sullivan, “The Coming Crime Wars.” Foreign Policy. 21 September 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/21/the-coming-crime-wars/ and Dennis Rodgers and Robert Muggah, “Gangs as non-state armed groups: The Central American Case.” Contemporary Security Policy. Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009): pp. 301-317, https://doi.org/10.1080/13523260903059948.
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 Óscar Martinez, “Presidente Bukele, negocio con las pandillas de El Salvador (pero de otro modo).” New York Times. 16 September 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/es/2020/09/16/espanol/opinion/bukele-pandillas-el-salvador.html.
 Fieldwork in El Salvador, September 2016-July 2017.