Pedro Benjamin Rivas Zelaya, one of the top leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha, is presented to members of the media after his arrest in Guatemala in San Salvador, El Salvador, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

El Salvador: MS-13 Still a Threat

By Col. Fernando Menjivar Mora

Since 1992, El Salvador (see Figure 1) (1) has battled a growing threat from organized crime, especially from the gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). MS-13 is the biggest gang in the country yet also has a transnational nature. It is labeled by the U.S. government as a terrorist group and a Transnational Crime Organization (TCO) (2). Government adoption of various internal security policies and strategies has had little effect. Instead, MS-13 has been growing in power, threatening state legitimacy within and even its sovereignty without.

U.S. concern has grown considerably, as Washington has had to deal both with criminal activities of gang members already in the U.S. and the large numbers of refugees who flee across American borders in a desperate quest for security. (3)

Counter within El Salvador, thought, has suffered from a failure to understand the threat environment and MS-13 behavior, especially why youth become gang members. As a result, the state has not adequately responded to the threat’s volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

It is a situation that has reached crisis proportions. The reach of MS-13 has become such as to give it nearly unchecked freedom of action and movement for its illicit activities: narcotics, human, and arms trafficking, as well as widespread extortion. This is especially the case in those areas where the state is absent or weak, as in the belts of alternative settlement surrounding the main ...