Who Are the Maras, the Gangs that El Salvador and Honduras Are Waging War Against?

The economic and social instability in the 1980s made many Central American families flee to the US, and many of their children joined gangs, and which now wreak terror across the region

El Salvador has been waging a war against violent gangs for more than eight months.
December 12, 2022 | 07:20 PM

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Bloomberg Línea — The 1980s were marked by civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, in addition to economic instability in Honduras, all of which prompted significant numbers of Central Americans to migrate to the United States. Many ended up in poor districts of Los Angeles, California.

Adolescents from migrant families suffered social exclusion and even ethnic violence. To cope with the hostile environment of the streets, many of the diaspora joined Chicano gangs and then formed their own groups, the best known being the Mara Salvatrucha (also referred to as MS-13), and the Mara Barrio-18 (18th Street Gang), in reference to the street where they were from.

In the mid-1990s, when the United States began to perceive this migrant group as potential threats to national security, it implemented the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded the categories under which they could be deported. That legislation led to an increase in deportations of ex-convicts and gang members to the Northern Triangle countries of Central America: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

An analysis by Spain’s Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE) reports that returnees in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras reproduced the behavior they had learned on the streets in Los Angeles and in detention centers, and were quickly joined by other young people who were already associated with street gangs, with the result being a hybridization of the gangs with the features of the Californian-style maras.

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Modus operandi

The maras have established themselves in northern Central America as an alternative power to the state that demands extortion known as a “war tax”. They also carry out drug trafficking activities and extortion of small businesses and residents of the areas where they have influence.

Extortion is also applied to the transportation sector, street vendors, those who receive remittances from family members abroad or income from a job. If the victim does not agree to the extortion or delays payment, then the kidnapping of a family member is used as a form of pressure, with threats to kill the kidnapped person.

Accidentally crossing into gang territory or refusing to cooperate can mean certain death. The ‘mareros’, as the gang members are known, impose their rules in neighborhoods, and which has led to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to other areas, or emigrating abroad, to neighboring countries or the US.


Meanwhile, over the years, the gang leaders who arrived in northern Central America at the beginning of the millennium have now accumulated capital.

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Actions to combat the gangs

In the 2000s, governments in northern Central America, in an attempt to confront gangs and gang-related crime, began to enact tough policies that have led to the mass incarceration of suspected gang members.

According to World Prison Brief (WPB) records, in Guatemala the prison population jumped from 6,974 inmates to 25,538 in 2020; in El Salvador, during the same period, the number of prisoners increased even more dramatically, from 7,754 to 37,190, and in Honduras, from 11,500 to 20,506 in 2018.

However, crime persists and has led to the three countries being among the most violent in the world for many years. In a regional effort, the Northern Triangle governments launched a Trinational Anti-Gang Force in 2016, tasked with combating those criminal groups and drug trafficking, but the plan has not been siccessful.


Since then, the criminal structure has expanded, with the gangs having established a presence in the United States, Mexico, Canada and even Spain. Meanwhile, Nicaragua has curbed their influence with the application of the ‘Containment Wall’ strategy, so that, although crime is still high in that country, it is lower than in neighboring countries.

During his presidential administration, former US president Donald Trump referred to the maras as “animals, and we have to be very, very tough.” He also called them “a ruthless gang that has violated our borders and transformed once peaceful neighborhoods into bloody killing fields. Horrible people, indeed”.

The White House also issued a report entitled ‘What You Need to Know About MS-13′s Violent Animals’, in which it described some of the crimes committed by the group in different cities.

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Bukele and Castro declare war

In El Salvador, in response to an escalation of 87 murders committed between March 25 and 27, Congress accepted a request by President Nayib Bukele to decree a state of emergency, which in mid-November was extended for the eighth time.

Since then, as part of its “war against gangs” the government has captured 59,307 people linked to the maras and seized 2,417 vehicles, 14,086 cell phones, 1,971 firearms, $1.4 million in cash and 6.2 tons of drugs.

And in Honduras, President Xiomara Castro declared in late November a national security emergency and war on extortion, through a plan to curb the extortion activity of the gangs, which includes a partial state of emergency in some neighborhoods of the Central District, which is formed by Tegucigalpa and Comayagüela, and San Pedro Sula and Choloma, where the presence of the criminals’ structures has been identified.

“The National Police has my full support to fight crime, extortion, drug trafficking and to dismantle criminal organizations, to identify and capture the white-collar leaders, and we will eradicate extortion from the last corner of our country,” said Castro at the launch of the so-called comprehensive plan for dealing with extortion and related crimes.

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