On Friday, leaders from El Salvador's notoriously violent Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang expanded the truce they brokered with the country's other major criminal groups back in March 2012. Now protected under the deal is the city of San Vicente, a small metropolis located in central El Salvador, making it the sixth city allegedly covered by the agreement. For many in the region, the expansion signals a welcome step toward ending the gruesome violence that has plagued Central America for nearly a decade.
The truce, however, could be an illusion, according to "Central American Gangs and Transnational Criminal Organizations: The Changing Relationships in a Time of Turmoil," a recent report from the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC), a Washington-based think-tank. The drop in violence heralded by the Salvadorian government -- murder rates have decreased nearly 50 percent since the truce went into effect -- may be nothing more than a smokescreen hiding MS-13's criminal expansion. And the truce could in fact be a pax mafiosa that is allowing them to regroup, branch out and form new alliances with criminal organizations like Mexico's Los Zetas.
"In the past few months, according to gang members and Salvadoran police officials, Los Zetas and the MS-13 have reached a more favorable and lucrative arrangement in human trafficking, whereby the Mexicans have greatly expanded their reach," said the report, co-authored by former Washington Post Central America correspondent Douglas Farah. "All the middlemen traffickers (polleros or coyotes) who use the routes controlled by Los Zetas are MS-13 members."
In other words, MS-13 may be getting stronger, not weaker. Here are four things you need to know about MS-13's current operations and how they're impacting the United States:
1. They have a wide -- and growing -- international network
The U.S. State Department dubbed MS-13 a transnational criminal organization (TNO) last October. In the U.S., it reportedly has a presence in more than 300 cities spanning upward of 40 states, and it is actively expanding to South America and Europe. The IASC report also noted that, as part of a new recruitment effort, the gang is accepting non-Salvadoran and non-Latino members for the first time in its history.
One way the gang spreads is by having members deliberately seek deportation to countries where MS-13 plans to start new operation centers.
"We have orders that some of us, if caught, declare our citizenship to be from other countries," an upper-level gang member told the authors. "I am ordered to ask to return to Chile. Why? Because that is an area where we want to expand. Others are to go to other countries."
Among the countries where MS-13 is reportedly seeking to establish new clicas, or small neighborhood-level gangs, are Argentina, Peru and Spain.
2. They are becoming more sophisticated criminals
For years, MS-13 has dealt in extortion, murder for hire, small-scale drug trade, weapons trafficking, money laundering and human smuggling. Until recently, however, it wasn't considered a big player in any of those activities, at least when compared with Mexican drug-trafficking organizations like the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas. But that may be changing.