In the early 1980s a civil war erupted in El Salvador killing as estimated 100,000 people. In addition, it is estimated between one and two million people have immigrated to the United States as a result of the unstable environment in El Salvador.
The first large population of El Salvadorian refuges settled in the Rampart area of Los Angeles. This influx of immigrants looking for low cost housing and employment was not readily welcomed by the Mexican-American population who were already residing in that area. The area was already plagued with gangs and crime.
These immigrant Salvadorian youth and young adults were soon were victimized by local gangs. A group of Salvadorian immigrants created a new gang calling themselves Mara Salvatrucha also known as MS-13. It is believed they got their name from combining the name of “La Mara”, a violent street gang in El Salvador with Salvatruchas, a term used to denote members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. This was a group of Salvadorian peasants trained as guerilla fighters. The “13” was added to pay homage to the California prison gang, the Mexican Mafia.
Members of this newly formed gang soon engaged in violent criminal acts. They quickly became known as one of the most violent gangs in the area because many of their founding members had experience or training in guerilla warfare, thus gaining a level of sophistication that superseded their rivals.
Various members of the newly formed MS-13 were soon arrested and deported back to El Salvador. All deportees were first housed in the Guezaltepeque Prison, in Northern El Salvador. Quickly and unexpectedly, Mara Salvatrucha flourished in the prison system and recruitment began on the streets in El Salvador, while the gang continued to grow in the United States as well.
With little direction and opportunities, many Central American youth admired the Mara Salvatrucha deportees and wanted to learn more about their gang. One deportee reported that upon returning to his hometown, there were only he and two other MS-13 gang members. His said that the interest in MS-13 was so big, that over 40 kids asked to be initiated (which consists of a beating for 13 seconds) into the gang on one day alone.
The gang soon became the largest gang in El Salvador and soon spread to the Honduras and Guatemala. Their rivals, although much smaller in number, are known as 18th Street or MS-18, another American born gang.
Mara Salvatrucha has become Central America’s greatest problem. In addition to violent acts committed by the gang against citizens and gang rivalries, the gang has even engaged in organized violent acts against the government. In 1997 the son of Honduras President Ricardo Maduro was kidnapped and murdered by MS-13 members. MS-13 members have continued to taunt Central American government officials. Members also left a dismembered corpse with a note for the Honduras president that “more people will die… the next victims will be police and journalists.” In 2004, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger received a similar messages attached to the body of a dismembered man from MS-13 members.
In 2002 in the city of Tegucigalpa in the Honduras, MS-13 members boarded a public bus and immediately executed 28 people including 7 small children. Again, they left a message written on the front of the bus taunting government officials.
Honduras was the first Central American country to adopt strict anti-gang laws. As a result of MS-13, government officials enacted a law that makes it illegal to be an associate of a crime, in other words, if someone looked like a gang member, they were subject to arrest. El Salvador adopted a similar law calling it Mano Dura or Firm Hand. In 2004, El Salvador implemented Super Mano Dura, to strengthen elements of their existing laws. A suspect in violation of these laws could find themselves facing a 12-year prison sentence even if no crime had been committed. Having a gang tattoo was evidence enough.
Of the new laws, former Honduran police commissioner, Maria Luisa Borjas, said, “They grab three or four young people wandering around and present them as suspects… blaming them for every single crime without justification.”
After an increase in crime, Mexico began a campaign in 2004 to eradicate MS-13 when they arrested 300 members calling them a “threat to National security.”
Over the past few years there has been numerous speculation and discussion regarding Central America’s death squads. The existence of death squads for political purposes has been a frequent occurrence in history. In El Salvador in the 1980s a vigilante group was identified known as Sombra Negra, or Black Shadow. They were extremely active in attempting to remove criminal elements from their society. It is believed that this group felt their judicial system was not apt at dealing with the nation’s problems, so they became what some would call “Self-appointed executioners of justice.” Compared to similar groups of years past, Sombra Negra receives little attention or mention from the media. This may be in part because they do not engage in massive executions, but instead kill their victims individually or in small groups. In addition their victims are almost exclusively gang members and other criminals and many Salvadorians support the idea of removing this undesirable element from their country.
Although the El Salvadorian government officially denies all sponsorship and involvement in the activities of Sombra Negra, many civic rights groups have reported that the group is mostly comprised of off-duty police and military personnel who are attempting to cleanse their society of criminals and gang members.
Although death squads have been active in other Central American countries, they appear to be most prevalent in El Salvador.
However, in Honduras there have been incidents causing some to speculate that the government condones the random execution of gang members. Specifically, there have been two prisons which have caught fire which housed MS-13 gang members. The first killed over 61 inmates. In the last incident 103 MS-13 members were burned or died of smoke inhalation. Some survivors and human rights activist have blamed prison guards for the deaths stating most of the deaths could have been prevented. Many civic rights groups who monitor human rights in Central America have speculated possible government involvement in these incidents.
Currently El Salvador has a murder rate of approximately 54 per every 100,000 people, while the United States murder rate is approximately 6 per every 100,000.
With El Salvador’s high murder rate brings the speculation that most of their murders currently go unsolved and with little investigation. Coupled with the idea of death squads killing gang members would leave the assumption that El Salvadorian law enforcement officers would focus their resources towards the most serious of crimes—the killing of innocent persons, rather than the murders of hardened or speculated gang members. With this in mind, it would be common knowledge that individuals or groups could murder gang members or criminals with little chance of being identified by law enforcement.
One news media reporter stated that they know of an MS-13 gang member who was deported. The MS-13 member used a cheese grater to scrape off the tattoos from his skin so he would not be discovered should he be stopped by Sombra Negra.
In March of 2006 the United States Department of State found the El Salvadorian government generally respected the rights of its citizens, but human rights were undermined by widespread impunity, corruption among security forces and government authorities and a tremendous problem with gang violence. Some of the items mentioned include; excessive use of force and mistreatment of detainees, arbitrary arrest and detention, harsh prison conditions, inefficiency and corruption in the judicial system.
Although all recent information indicates Sombra Negra is still active in El Salvador, the government has begun taking a proactive approach at alternative programs, such as implementing Mano Amiga or Plan Friendly Hand. This is a program for young people giving them treatment for substance abuse and social reinsertion.
Many media groups have reported the case of Edward Guzman, an MS-13 member who left Guatemala to escape the gang lifestyle. Though only 14-years-old at the time, he was threatened with death by his fellow gang members if he attempted to quit the gang. He fled to the United States to escape the gang lifestyle. At the age of 16, on March 10, 2004, he was deported back to his home. He hid in his home for several days. His first day to venture out was March 20, 2004. He made it only 5 blocks where he was shot multiple times. It was believed he was killed as punishment for deserting the gang.
Deported MS-13 members have difficulty leaving the gang. When they do return to their country they are held in a prison exclusively for MS-13 gang members until their cases are reviewed. Upon release even if they have a family support system, MS-13 members are expected to continue their membership in the gang. Failure to do so could result in punishment from the gang ranging from being physically assaulted by other members of the gang or by death.
Despite death squads and increased laws pertaining to gang membership and activity, Central America is still seeing an increase in their gang population and problems.
Although Sombra Negra activities have seemed to diminish since the 1980s, all information indicates that members and sympathizers still actively murder criminals and gang members. It has been reported of widespread corruption in El Salvador which only increases the possibility of this group existing and operating with little fear of reprisal from the government.
As a result of the poor conditions in El Salvador, many MS-13 members have illegally immigrated to our nation where our law enforcement efforts and prisons seem tame when compared to their homeland.
MS-13 members in our country are known to be involved in all aspects of criminal activity. Some law enforcement sources have reported that because of their ties to their former homeland, MS-13 members have access to sophisticated weapons thus making firearms trafficking one of their many criminal enterprises.
Despite their access to weaponry, there have been many high-profile murders and assaults in which MS-13 have used machetes to attack their victims.
The federal government has increased efforts to locate and deport illegal MS-13 members living in our nation but with the lack of cooperation from many cities whom support sanctuaries policies, has made the government’s job an uphill battle.