Update to SLV28680.E of 3 February 1998 on the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang, including its criminal activities and whether age affects the kinds of activities carried out by members; the treatment of individuals who have left the gang and whether the presence of tattoos affect this treatment; whether "death squads" or paramilitary groups have targetted individuals who have left the group; the clique struture of the gang and the communication between them; and whether leaving the gang is possible, and if so, what are the conditions to do so, and if not, the penalties imposed [SLV33463.E]

According to a November 1998 Radio Netherlands report, about 70 per cent of Salvadorean youth who joined gangs, joined one of the country's two main gangs: Mara Salvatrucha (MS) or the 18th Street Gang. Drug use among gang members has exacerbated gang violence in the country (ibid.). Other criminal activities include controlling territory, as was the case in the city of Quezaltepeque where the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gangs vied to control entire sections of the city (La Prensa Gráfica 15 Jan. 1999). In Usulután, five members of MS were arrested and detained for allegedly assaulting and raping several people (El Diario de Hoy 20 Oct. 1999).

Radio Netherlands reported that the average age of gang members is 18, although some are as young as 11 and some as old as 26 (Nov. 1998). The report does not indicate whether the types of activities differ for members of age groups.

In terms of gang structure, Edgar Bolaños, a gang member of a MS clique called the Big Gangsta Locos, was quoted as saying that the gang did not have any leaders although he was perceived as one because he used to reside in Los Angeles (NACLA Report on the Americas July-Aug. 1998, 22).

While no reports indicate that death squads, paramilitary groups or vigilante groups have targeted individuals who have left MS, several of them indicate that they have indeed targeted street gang members (The Houston Chronicle 9 Mar. 1999; NACLA July-Aug. 1998, 23; UPI 16 Feb. 1999). Donna DeCesare, the author of the NACLA Report on the Americas article on streets gangs in El Salvador, stated the following on death squad activity:

By 1995 several Black Shadow [a paramilitary-style death squad group] vigilantes 3/4police agents with ties to the old terror networks of the 1970s and 1980s3/4had been arrested for the 1994 extrajudicial killings of three Mara Salvatrucha members in the eastern city of San Miguel. Since then, the numbers of murders by death squads has been less dramatic. But they continue3/4sometimes unnoticed except by greiving family members, sometimes acknowledged in the Salvadoran press or in human rights statistics. The criminal violence of vigilantes acting against youth members is seldom vigorously investigated in El Salvador (July-Aug. 1998 23).

The lack of investigation of vigilante violence is not surprising given that police officiers believe that the killings of street gangs members are the result of feuds between rival gangs, not the result of an emergence of so-called death squads (The Houston Chronicle 9 Mar. 1999; Proceso10 Feb. 1999) However, Police Chief Rodrigo Avila stated in the a 16 February 1999 report that the killings of two alleged MS members, a 7 and a 15 year old boy, on the outskirts of San Salvador, were possibly carried out by "self-style 'extermination groups. Furthermore, Avila admitted that the reemergence of vigilante groups was the result of the population's "lack of credibility in the application of justice" (ibid.).

The Los Angeles Times related in an August 1999 report how a youth gang leader of a MS unit called Crazy Southerners in San Miguel, Gustavo Adolfo Morales, now serving a 7-year sentence for multiple murders, killed Enrique Sanchez because he wanted to leave the gang (9 Aug. 1999). Morales subsequently killed another gang member, who had objected to the killing, and Sanchez' girlfriend (ibid.).

In terms of police attitude towards gang members killing each other, Juan José Villacorta, an advocate for young offenders, is quoted in the report as saying that police ignore these incidents unless they affect a prominent member of society (ibid.).

The Houston Chronicle report stated that most death squad killings take place in or around San Salvador (9 Mar. 1999).

The following information was provided by Donna DeCesare, a freelance photojournalist based in New York City who has written extensively on the issue of street gangs in El Salvador since 1993, including the above-mentioned NACLA Report on the Americas article, which is attached for additional information. She also monitors the situation of street gangs in Guatemala, Belize and Haiti (6 Jan. 2000).

Gangs are very commonplace in El Salvador with more than 30,000 gang members. Older and more experienced gang members, primarily those who have been deported from Los Angeles and have started the gangs in El Salvador, tend to carry out the more dangerous gang activities. These older gang members, referred to as veteranos (veterans), tend to be in their early to mid-20s, while the average age of MS members is 18 years. Veteranos have more influence within the MS gang and are admired by the younger gang members. Younger MS members' activities consist mostly of "just hanging out" and resorting to begging or petty theft in neighbourhoods that are not their own in order to feed themselves and to support their drug addiction. It is the older members who will resort to violence, usually to settle vendettas. In most cases, violence is directed against members of MS' rival gang, the 18th Street, or against its own members in MS. Seldom will MS members kill people outside gang circles.

The structure of the MS gang is a very fluid one where age and experience determine one's place in the gang hierarchy. MS is not based on an organized crime model, but rather members vie for power as leadership possibilities become available when so-called leaders are killed or incarcerated.

It is impossible to know how many cliques there are in El Salvador because there are hundreds with anywhere from 20 to 60 members. The various MS cliques operate separately from each other. Perhaps older gang members in El Salvador, who have been deported from the United States, might meet to socialize, or members might share their weapons, but that would be the extent of communication between cliques. There is often suspicion between the different cliques of MS, which hinders communication among them.

The police and paramilitary or vigilante groups, which include many off-duty police officers, mistreat MS members. Business people will pay vigilante groups to kill members of street gangs in El Salvador. Between 10 December 1998 and 31 January 1999, a sudden surge in extrajudicial executions of gang members by vigilante groups occurred. Salvadorans, for the most part, support vigilantism because they see the judicial system as highly ineffective.

It is commonplace for the police to carry out sweeps in communities "to frisk, harass and arrest youth gang members." Police will often lift shirts to see whether youths have gang tattoos. Police officers are very "prejudiced" against gang members and will judge how to treat them based on tattoos and dress. At times, the police will detain these youths for three days and then let them go.

Although the peak of the Black Shadow death squad was in 1995-1996, they still threaten to "eliminate" gang members under the guise of social cleansing today. Other vigilante-type groups have surfaced since then, however, and continue to kill gang members. Even members of a group attempting to provide a non-violent space for youth, called Homies Unidos, have been killed. The photojournalist stated, however, that she was certain whether these members were killed because of gang membership.

The presence of tattoos definitely increased one's chances of being targeted by the police, enemy gangs or vigilante groups. It also hinders a gang member, past or present, from getting a job.

It is difficult to generalize about the outcome for an individual attempting to leave MS. The photojournalist is aware of members who have left the gang successfully and became teachers and professionals. Given the fluid structure of the gang, leaving the gang is possible. Most members usually find it is easier to leave MS if they are moving to another part of the country or are starting a family, and are motivated to change. The other gang members generally accept this as a legitimate reason to leave. For individuals only marginally involved in the gang, it is easier to leave as opposed to those in leadership roles or more involved. The concern among some gang members regarding members wanting to leave is always whether those wanting to leave will "snitch" to the authorities about gang-related activities. If this perception is the case for a specific individual, he/she could be in serious danger. It is also easier to leave the gang if one is in a larger urban centre as opposed to a small town where one might be more easily identified and where it is harder to avoid former associates. Seldom will someone be attacked by other MS members for the simple fact of leaving. Members attempting to leave who are attacked have, in some cases, "stolen" the girlfriend of another MS member or a member has an outstanding vendetta against that person. In other words, retaliation against persons who have left the gang is usually based on multiple reasons, including suspicion of "snitching."

Given the sheer number of gang members and the fact that they are so dispersed throughout the country, it is unlikely that a former MS member will be recognized in another town; however, the tattoos do reveal gang membership. There are very few MS members who have national name recognition.

José Miguel Cruz Alas, Director of the University Institute of Public Opinion (Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública), at the Central American University in San Salvador provided the following information in a 10 January 2000 telephone interview. The Director has published several studies on gang members in El Salvador.

There are no fixed rules as to what activities younger MS members do within the gang. The types of activities undertaken by members mostly depends on their maturity and involve a process over time. The longer members are involved in the gang, the more likely they will become important in the gang and carry out riskier activities. Younger members tend to be more influenced by older gang members, but also tend to reflect and plan out their activities.

The structure of MS is very informal and has no official process in place for selecting its leaders. Generally, MS leaders will be the most charismatic members. Informality also describes the relationship between the various MS cliques. There are no formal links binding these cliques together.

In terms of leaving MS, it is possible for a person, in practice, to not be active in gang activities, while still being, in theory, a member. This rule is usually understood for older members who have married or started family. If one publicly announces they are leaving the gang, then he/she will be considered a traitor and subsequently become a death target by other gang members. The Director is aware of cases, however, of young members who left the gang and were subsequently detained or harassed by rival gangs. In two cases, former gang members were killed by enemy gang members for revenge.

The presence of tattoos will contribute to the likelihood of former gang members being targeted by police officers. Given that the tattoos are incredibly visible, they assist police officers in identifying gang members, past and present. Without tattoos, a former gang member is less likely to be recognized and will not be harassed by the police.

In the opinion of the Director, there are no paramilitary groups attacking gang members at the present time. While there may still be sporadic cases of paramilitary groups targeting gang members, the trend is not constant. Paramilitary groups or death squads, such as the Black Shadow, used to target gang members three years ago in the eastern part of El Salvador. However, the Director stated that he could not predict whether or not paramilitary groups would target gang members again in the future.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate 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.


Cruz Alas, José Miguel, San Salvador. 10 January 2000. Telephone interview.

DeCesare, Donna, New York. 6 January 2000. Telephone interview.

El Diario de Hoy [San Salvador]. 20 October 1999. "Capturan banda de violadores." http://www.elsalvador.com/EDICIONESANTERIORES/octubre20/ELPAIS/ elpais7.html [Accessed on 31 Dec. 1999]

The Houston Chronicle. 9 March 1999. Edward Hegstrom. "Death Squads Return to Make War on Gangs." (Central America NewsPak [Austin], Vol. 14, No. 2, 1-14 Mar. 1999)

La Prensa Gráfica [Spanish, San Salvador]. 15 January 1999. "Quetzaltepeque Held Hostage by Gangs." (Central America NewsPak [Austin], Vol. 13, No. 24, 4-17 Jan. 1999)

Los Angeles Times. 9 August 1999. Juanita Darling. "El Salvador's War Legacy: Teen Violence." (NEXIS)

NACLA Report on the Americas. July-August 1998. Donna DeCesare. "The Children of War: Street Gangs in El Salvador."

Proceso [San Salvador]. 10 February 1999. "¿Resurgieron o nunca desaparecieron?" http://www.uca.edu.sv/publica/proceso/proc842.html [Accessed on 5 Jan. 2000]

Radio Netherlands. November 1998. "Youth Gangs." http://www.rnw.nl/racism/ elsalvador/html/gangs.html [Accessed on 31 Dec. 1999]

United Press International (UPI). 16 February 1999. "Salvadoran Children Found Dead." (NEXIS)


NACLA Report on the Americas. July-August 1998. Donna DeCesare. "The Children of War: Street Gangs in El Salvador," pp. 21-29.

Additional Sources Consulted

Central America Report [Guatemala City]. 1998-1999.

IRB Databases

Latinamerica Press [Lima]. 1998-1999.

Latin American Regional Reports: Caribbean and Central America Report [London]. 1998-1999.

World News Connection (WNC)

Internet sites including:

Amnesty International

La Nación [San José]. 1998-1999.

La Prensa [San Pedro Sula]. Search Engine. 1998-1999.

Human Rights Watch