Central to any discussion of crime and violence in El Salvador is the role of the maras or street gangs. They are a major contributor to the epidemic of murder, extortion and other crime afflicting the country. Researcher Sonja Wolf sets out the scale of the problem in a recent article titled The Maras: An Escalating Problem in El Salvador for the Latin America Bureau.
In the rest of the article, she details the involvement of the gangs in schools, in the drug trade, and in widespread instances of rape of girls in gang territory. For a fuller treatment of the gangs in El Salvador, consider getting a copy of Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America, where Sonja Wolf has a chapter devoted to El Salvador's gangs.Extortions constitute the gangs' chief source of income. Initially they approached community residents for comparatively small sums, but over the years the shakedowns have become more extensive and sophisticated. Mano Dura, which entailed the large-scale incarceration of gang youths and especially leaders, required street-based members to collect more funds to support their detained peers and hire defence lawyers. Extortions had been coordinated from within the prisons until stricter security measures made it more difficult to smuggle in mobile phones. The gangs have since changed their modus operandi, often dispatching children to deliver the extortion request to victims.Nowadays shopkeepers, market vendors, teachers, and sex workers operating in gang territories all need to make regular payments, but public transport companies are particularly affected. Each year dozens of bus drivers are murdered and buses burnt in order to enforce extortion demands. In June 2010, Dieciocho members killed the driver and fare collector of a microbus and subsequently set fire to the fully-loaded unit, burning 17 passengers alive and injuring 14 more. Route 47, servicing the Mejicanos municipality in Greater San Salvador, had been exclusively extorted by MS-13, but when the Dieciocho sought to gain a share of the business, hostilities between the local cliques ensued and culminated in the bus massacre. The maras make millions of dollars annually, profits that are laundered through loans to shopkeepers or investments in microbuses and night clubs. These entertainment venues in turn are sites of further criminal activities, notably the extortion of other establishments and drug sales.