Information on youth/street gangs, including their names, origins and their areas of operation, and the actions taken by the authorities against them [SLV25224.E]

The following information was obtained in a 9 October 1996 telephone interview with a journalist for the New York Times-owned Video News International who has lived four years in El Salvador and specializes on Salvadorean street gangs. In 1993 the source received the Dorothy Lang award for her reports on these gangs.

The source estimated that in El Salvador there are currently around 450 street gangs in El Salvador involving 100,000 young people. The two main Salvadorean street gangs, 18th Street and Mara-Salvatrucha (MS), originated on the United States west coast. Their members used to live in the slums of Los Angeles and are the sons of poor Salvadorean immigrants who left the country during the civil war. The source mentioned that 25 per cent of the Salvadorean population fled the country to live mainly in California during the war. Most of these gang members, deported from the US following the 1992 peace accords, have restarted their gang chapters in El Salvador, thereby creating a major social problem.

The source mentioned that Salvadorean street gangs are not as highly organized or involved in violent criminal activities as is often reported in the media. She reported that although it is always possible to have hardened members involved in violent activities, most gang members are young teenagers from broken families who try to survive by practicing petty theft. The source mentioned that drug trafficking, car theft rings and serious criminal activities are not controlled by street gangs but by professional criminal rings made of former or current military personnel, large business people and foreign mobsters. The source added that gang members are often blamed for these activities but their real control of them is almost non-existent. However, the source mentioned that gang members can participate as underlings.

"Some of the gangs will ask for a share of cocaine sales in their neighborhood similar to a war tax, but the real drug traffickers are the Mexican drug lords who are using El Salvador as a passing point for drug shipments from Colombia," she stated.

The source added that the authorities have not produced any real statistical reports on the gang problem. The statistics on criminal activities do not produce a clear picture of who commits crimes in El Salvador, making difficult to associate street gangs with specific crimes. The source stated that "El Salvador has no parole, probation or social services system by which it is possible to monitor or follow-up on a gang member. This, combined with the very conservative social attitudes of the Salvadorean people and their mixed perceptions of the gang phenomenon, will often drive the teenager right back into the gang instead of driving him out once and for all."

The source added that "it is important to keep in mind that the atmosphere of fear in El Salvador makes people feel threatened, but that does not mean they are the targets of real threats. That goes for gang members too."

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the DIRB within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Journalist specializing in El Salvador street gangs, Video News International, New York City. 9 October 1996. Telephone interview.

Additional Sources Consulted

Central America NewsPak [Austin, Tex.]. 1995-1996.

Central America Report [Guatemala City]. 1995-1996.

The Christian Science Monitor [Boston]. 1995-1996.

Le Courrier international [Paris]. 1995-1996.

Crime and Justice [Chicago]. 1995-1996.

DIRB Country Files. El Salvador.

The Economist [London]. 1994-1996.

Latinamerica Press [Lima]. 1990-1996.

Latin American Weekly Report [London]. 1995-1996.

Latin American Regional Reports: Central America and Caribbean Report [London]. 1995-1996.

Oral sources.