April 10, 2013 -- 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.
According to the IASC report, MS-13 is closely working with Los Zetas on human trafficking across Central America. The gang has a complex coyote network that can reportedly move individuals from Mexico's Northern Triangle to the U.S. in less than 72 hours, and Los Zetas are using it to the mutual benefit of both groups.
At the same time, MS-13 is currently escalating its weapons and drug trafficking. The gang's arms caches now include high-powered weapons like RPGs and surface to air missiles, some of which are apparently being sold to terrorist organizations such as Colombia's FARC, according to the report. Meanwhile, the group appears to be expanding its role in the cocaine trade, as suggested by the dramatic increase in arrests of MS-13 drug lords in the past few years.
3. They are deepening ties with Los Zetas
Apart from the human-trafficking activities already noted above, MS-13 is also working with Los Zetas on enforcement and paramilitary operations.
"There have been important efforts, many of them successful, by Los Zetas to recruit the best and most skilled MS-13 killers and gunmen, both in El Salvador and Guatemala," the IASC report says. "Many of the recruits receive enhanced military training in the Petén region of Guatemala and then operate either in Guatemala or Mexico."
Gang members receive a monthly salary of $400, which is sometimes paid to the member's clica, according to the authors. El Salvador's president denies the existence of such a relationship between the gangs.
4. They are becoming politically savvy
Over the years, the language used in statements issued by the imprisoned heads of MS-13 has become more complex and politically sophisticated, according to the IASC study. Nowadays their declarations are peppered with claims that echo the main beliefs of liberation theology, the Latin American school of thought that puts a leftist bent on the Scriptures.
MS-13 and other Salvadoran gangs are now issuing demands similar to those made by groups like Colombia's FARC, and in doing so are assuming a role that didn't exist in El Salvador a few years ago – that of freedom fighters for the poor. "The gangs are increasingly becoming aware of their potential political power, based on territorial control and the ability to deliver large amounts of votes to a preferred candidate," the IASC report concludes.