Terrorizing Neighborhoods

Transnational Gangs

Part 1: Understanding the Threat

Transnational gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street are extremely violent and routinely make money by extorting citizens. The government of El Salvador has designated both gangs as terrorist organizations. 

January 7, 2016

The town of Sonsonate, not far from the Pacific Ocean in western El Salvador, is home to a prison housing more than 800 inmates. Like many of the prisons in this Central American country, Centro Penal De Sonsonate incarcerates only gang members—and, by definition, each one is a killer.

La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and the 18th Street gang require their mostly teenage recruits to undergo at least two years of initiation before becoming full-fledged gang members. One of the final tests for membership is to commit murder.

“That is certain, you have to kill,” said Special Agent Julian Igualada, who is part of an FBI team that works in El Salvador with local law enforcement and the government to fight the transnational gang threat, because what happens there—and elsewhere in Central America—has a significant impact on the safety of U.S. citizens at home and abroad. Gang leaders in El Salvador routinely order their subordinates to commit crimes, including murder, on U.S. soil—and many times these orders are issued from behind bars.

“El Salvador has become the epicenter of gang violence in Central America and represents the largest connection to gang crime in the U.S.,” said Special Agent Grant Mann, who works in the Safe Streets and Gang Unit at FBI Headquarters in Washington and helps U.S. and Central American law enforcement agencies forge partnerships in the battle against transnational gangs.

 “The gangs respect no borders, so law enforcement must respond in kind by working together,” Mann said. His unit recently sponsored a Central American Law Enforcement Exchange (CALEE) that brought Central American police officers and prosecutors together with local law enforcement personnel from American cities where MS-13 and 18th Street operate. It was the sixth such exchange the FBI has sponsored jointly with the U.S. Department of State since 2009. The goal of CALEE is to have participants share intelligence about the gangs as well as best practices.

The MS-13 and 18th Street gangs have become so bloodthirsty in El Salvador that the government has declared them terrorist organizations. The gangs are responsible for bringing the murder rate to a level last seen during the 1979-1992 civil war.

Last year during the month of August, there were 907 murders in El Salvador, a small country roughly the size of Massachusetts. By comparison, Chicago—known for its gang violence—recorded 411 murders during the entire year in 2014, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. In 2015 in El Salvador, 55 police officers were assassinated by the gangs, along with 18 military officers, six corrections officers, one prosecutor, and one judge.

“In El Salvador now, we have a murder rate of 25 per day, and 80 percent is gang related,” Igualada said. “Many of the gang members committing these homicides are 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds,” he explained, “and every day there are new members coming in.”

“We aren’t facing a group of youths who are rebelling, but a very structured organization conducting criminal activities,” said Luis Martinez, El Salvador’s attorney general and the country’s highest ranking law enforcement officer. “They are using military-grade weapons, and they are using them against the police, military, and prosecutors.”

MS-13 and 18th Street gang members have gained a foothold in numerous U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, Charlotte, Newark, and the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. They commit a variety of crimes—mainly trafficking drugs and extorting individuals and business owners—and they maintain strong ties to Central America.

Although gang members in both countries are tightly aligned, Igualada pointed out that they differ in subtle ways. “A big difference in El Salvador is that gang members don’t see the gang as a way to make money, to buy the fancy car or house,” he said. “They are in the gang to belong to a social group. They see the gang as a father figure, as a mother figure. They are in the gang because they want to be, and they do what the gang asks them to do.”

“For the gangs, loyalty is key,” Igualada added. “Once you come into the gang, you don’t have a family anymore. The gang is your family. And when you get in, with few exceptions, you get in for life. And it’s a life of crime and violence.” 

MS13 Graffiti on Wall in El Salvador

Transnational Gangs

Part 2: Countering the Threat with Strong Partnerships

Transnational gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street are extremely violent and routinely make money by extorting citizens. The government of El Salvador has designated both gangs as terrorist organizations.

January 11, 2016

At the start of the FBI’s recent Central American Law Enforcement Exchange (CALEE) program, participants from U.S. police departments and their counterparts from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Panama were strangers, but they shared one thing in common: a commitment to make their communities safe from violent gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street.

By the end of the three-week program, the men and women had overcome language barriers and become friends as well as partners—and they were armed with new resources to fight the transnational gang threat: a network of intelligence sharing, expanded contacts, and access to FBI-led task forces throughout Central America.

CALEE Training

FBI personnel provided tactical training in Houston during the second week of the three-week Central American Law Enforcement Exchange, or CALEE.

“There’s a synergy between the gangs that helps them grow and become stronger,” said Special Agent Jason Kaplan, the FBI’s legal attaché in El Salvador. “As law enforcement, we need to develop that same relationship with each other, because the gangs are doing it, and if we don’t we are going to fall behind.”

CALEE was developed in 2009 with that spirit of collaboration and partnership in mind. This year’s group of nearly 40 participants traveled to Los Angeles and Houston before spending a final week in El Salvador, where the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs have grown powerful and extremely violent. In each venue, participants received training and information about different jurisdictions’ approaches to managing their gang threat.

In El Salvador, besides getting a first-hand look at gang neighborhoods and a prison whose inmates are exclusively violent gang members, participants were briefed on the latest cases and trends within the gangs. Many MS-13 and 18th Street leaders—some of whom are incarcerated—are located in Central America and order crimes to be committed in the United States. 

CALEE participants also learned about the Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces (TAGs), in which FBI agents are embedded with vetted Central American police officers to work cases and gather intelligence. Currently there are TAGs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They have been in existence for more than five years, and they are highly successful.

“Before the Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces were set up,” Kaplan explained, “gang investigations in the United States that led to subjects in these countries often came to a dead end. There was no mechanism for us to really further those investigations.” Since the TAGs were established, he said, “we now have a liaison here, a resource for investigators in the United States. When they get to that point where they realize that one of their principal subjects is located in Central America, they now have resources where they can go to further that investigation. Similarly, the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can do the same.”

Kaplan added that intelligence gathered by the TAGs has stopped crimes—including murders—from taking place. “Dozens of lives, possibly hundreds, have been saved since the establishment of the anti-gang task forces.”

Taking Aim Against Transnational Gangs
New Agent Trainee Practices Arrest

“Certainly the value of the TAGs can’t be understated,” noted Special Agent Grant Mann, who works in the Safe Streets and Gang Unit at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and helped organize this year’s CALEE program. “One of our main goals for the group in El Salvador was to fully expose participants to what the FBI has here by way of resources.”

Mann’s unit also administers the FBI’s Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative. Established in 1992, the program is designed to bring local, state, and federal law enforcement together in their U.S. communities to fight gang-related crime. Today there are 164 Safe Streets Task Forces throughout the country, and U.S. CALEE participants are drawn from the ranks of Safe Streets Task Force officers.

“The Safe Streets model combines the strengths of all these different agencies and all of our FBI resources,” Mann said. “The goal is to make everyone’s community safer. Our efforts with the TAGs and our international partners are an extension of that goal, because there is no doubt that the gang problems in El Salvador have an impact on gang crime in the U.S.”

Speaking of the cooperative efforts between the U.S. and El Salvador to fight the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, El Salvador’s Attorney General Luis Martinez noted, “There is something very important that both countries are aware of: that we share the same serious problem and that we have to work jointly in order to find resolutions. That is why an event like CALEE 2015 is very important,” he said. “This training will be very valuable for every single participant here.”

Next: Adding prosecutors to the CALEE mix. 

Training in El Salvador

Transnational Gangs

Part 3: Investigators and Prosecutors Join Forces

CALEE participants attend a lecture in El Salvador.

January 14, 2016

The success of the Central American Law Enforcement Exchange (CALEE) program hinges on bringing together U.S. and Central American law enforcement officers who share a common cause in the fight against violent transnational gangs. During the most recent CALEE, an important new partner was added to the group—prosecutors.

“We have seen that when prosecutors and investigators work together from the outset, cases tend to have more successful outcomes,” said Special Agent Grant Mann, who helped plan and administer CALEE 2015, the sixth session since the program began in 2009.

In the U.S, it is typical for FBI agents and prosecutors to sit down at the beginning of an investigation to discuss possible charges and investigative strategies. Historically, that collaborative process is less common in Central America—but thanks to programs such as CALEE, it is gaining acceptance.

During the recent three-week training program focusing on transnational gangs MS-13 and 18th Street, a federal prosecutor from Los Angeles who specializes in gang cases briefed the approximately 40 CALEE participants about recent prosecutions and investigative techniques in his jurisdiction, and he traveled with the group from Los Angeles to Houston and then to El Salvador.

El Salvador Attorney General Luis Martinez assigned prosecutors to brief the group in San Salvador and embraced the concept of his office and the police working together from the beginning of an investigation. “Gang members are terrorists who have penetrated our institutions,” he said. “We have to fight this for a better future, for the well being of our families.”

El Salvador Attorney General Luis Martinez
El Salvador Attorney General Luis Martinez during the CALEE training last September.

Also in attendance during the El Salvador portion of CALEE was Sean Torriente, a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutor who is part of a special program in Central America. “I am in El Salvador working with the local police, prosecutors, and judges to help develop their judicial system,” he said. “The mission is to strengthen the rule of law within El Salvador and also to establish partnerships with local police, prosecutors, and judges that will be beneficial to U.S. cases.”

Torriente is part of DOJ’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development and Training (OPDAT). “We work with anti-gang prosecutors in El Salvador on their cases,” he said. “We mentor them on techniques that have worked on our cases, with the idea that the things that work for us in the U.S. may work for them. And they help us build our cases as well.”

There are currently three OPDAT prosecutors in Central America. “Most of the crimes here—whether drug trafficking, extortions, or murders—have some kind of gang involvement, Torriente said.” What the OPDAT program is doing, he added, “is setting a good example of how close relationships with police and prosecutors can help benefit cases. So far, it’s been a great success.”

Since the first CALEE six years ago, approximately 300 U.S. and Central American police officers have trained together and become part of a network that share information and help each other with transnational gang cases. Now, with the addition of prosecutors, that network is expanding.

Nearing the close of the most recent session, FBI Special Agent Julian Igualada, who works gang cases in El Salvador, noted that CALEE participants “will depart El Salvador in a few days with a better understanding of what it takes to investigate these international criminal matters committed by the gangs. They will also have the ability to reach out to officers who do the same thing in Panama, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Mexico, and the United States,” he said. “Being able to exchange information will help them disrupt and dismantle these criminal organizations.”

Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, right, director general of El Salvador’s National Civilian Police, has participated in every CALEE session and is a strong supporter of the international alliance to fight transnational gangs.

Because of the cooperation among governments and FBI assistance with training and the Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces, Landaverde explained, “there is an exchange of information going on constantly. Not only can we resolve our own cases, we can collaborate—for example, to search for fugitives and capture them—on whatever is important to each country.”

“We are very thankful for this cooperation,” he said, adding that in the fight against the gangs, “it is one of the most important tools that we have.”

Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, director general of El Salvador’s National Civilian Police, has participated in every Central American Law Enforcement Exchange (CALEE) session and is a strong supporter of the international alliance to fight transnational gangs. “Cooperation is one of the most important tools that we have,” he said.

About This Series 

Since 2009, the FBI and the U.S. Department of State have sponsored the Central American Law Enforcement Exchange (CALEE), which brings Central American police officers and prosecutors together with law enforcement personnel from U.S. cities where violent gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street operate. In this series, FBI.gov looks at how cooperative efforts are yielding mutual benefits in the fight against transnational gangs.