The Economic Drive of Mara Gangs in Central America’s Northern Triangle

Mara gangs in Central America's Northern Triangle
There is an estimated US $390 million of extortion done annually by gangs in El Salvador. (La Prensa Honduras)

EspañolThe biggest illegal business of El Salvador’s maras gang is extortion. It’s their main source of income (not, surprisingly, the sale of drugs). One of the biggest challenges the maras are facing is the tendency for its members to leave upon finding economic support elsewhere.

According to official figures from the National Anti-Extortion Force, there is an estimated US $390 million of extortion done annually in El Salvador, $200 million in Honduras and $61 million in Guatemala.

Extortion results in massive displacement of people, who flee the maras when they don’t want to pay.

The maras use the money to support their families, bribe guards in prisons, pay lawyers and improve prison conditions — often setting up businesses laundering money in order to do so. Last July, Operation Jaque disarmed part of Mara Salvatrucha. Seventy people were arrested in connection with businesses that Mara Salvatrucha was using to launder funds.

Extortion is also a means of territorial control. People living in maras-controlled territories pay for “protection economy,” to ensure their safety. In Honduras, it’s estimated that 79 percent of small businesses and 80 percent of informal traders are extorted.

The transport sector is particularly vulnerable. In El Salvador, 692 drivers were killed between 2011 and 2016. In Guatemala, 498 drivers and 158 collectors were murdered between 2009 and 2011. In Honduras, 84 taxi drivers were killed in 2012 alone.

Extortion by the maras fuels a cycle of violence.

Breaking the Cycle

In order to reduce the impact of extortion, the income of gang members has to be supplemented with something else — usually legal, formal jobs. But getting a job is often difficult or sometimes impossible in some parts of El Salvador if you were born in areas controlled by maras or if you have a tattoo from gang initiation.

The League Collegiate Outfitters — a telemarketing service — has decided to break the cycle and offer jobs to former gang members. Twenty-five percent of its employees are former gang members, who also have the option of taking English classes through the company and to obtain financing for purchasing computers for their families.

“Our goal is for 25 percent of employees to move to a call center, which means that an operator goes from making $300 to $600 a month,” Rodrigo Bolaños, a company executive, explained to El Diario de Hoy in El Salvador.

He said the company has grown 20 percent.

League Central America is dedicated to making clothes for 3,000 universities in the United States and has approximately 400 employees. In November 2016, the company was recognized by the US Embassy for corporate excellence.

“League is dedicated to taking what the community offers and transforming that workforce into a better educated one,” Ambassador Jean Manes said. “This company knows that in any solution to El Salvador’s security problems, it must include dignified employment, continuing education and the social reintegration of at-risk populations.”


In 2010, League began offering classes for its employees who had not finished primary education and in February 2016 began an alliance with the Don Bosco University, offering university programs in its facilities. Ninety employees are reportedly enrolled in college classes.

“We see ourselves as a company in the human development business,” Bolaños said. “The employees are very enthusiastic because they’ll learn enough to make a living.”

Government approaches to gang culture 

Various governments have made plans to address the maras, such as the Strong Hand program in El Salvador, The Broom Plan in Guatemala, and Zero Tolerance in Honduras. These responses don’t always include real programs of reintegration into society, nor do they seek to strengthen the rule of law in their countries. Rather, they try to control the maras’ behavior.

An El Salvador program called Extraordinary Measures — begun in April 2016 and renewed through April 2018 — seeks to control the prisons so that gangs can’t control operations on the outside.

Among the policies included in the program are not transferring prisoners between penal centers, restrictions on visits and movement within the prison. The transfer of inmates for any kind of court hearing and other judicial acts is also suspended.

Prisons in El Salvador are experiencing 300-percent overpopulation, and several human rights groups are speaking out against the government with claims of prisoner abuse. The Attorney General of the Republic of El Salvador said prisoners are served food in their hands, not in plates, causing outbreaks of contagious diseases that doctors won’t come to the prisons to treat.

Inmates unable to receive visits from their relatives don’t have access to personal hygiene products, made worse by a lack of consistent running water. A reported 130 people pack into cells reportedly only equipped for 28 people.

The United States is also experiencing the consequences of the maras. Thousands of people seek to immigrate there illegally, which the United States has combatted through the 2015 Partnership for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

The Partnership for Prosperity does nothing to ensure that the principles that ensure a free and prosperous society are strengthened. A check will not stop immigration. Giving money to countries with high rates of corruption in their governments means there’s no way to ensure the money is actually reaching its destination. It also doesn’t provide a way to integrate gang members into society or to prevent extortion.

The evolution of the maras

The maras started as youth groups, but mutated into highly sophisticated organizations.

The effects of civil wars in Central America continue to shape these territories. Groups born in the United States have migrated to the Northern Triangle due to deportations of illegals. Currently, maras are responsible for murders, acts of violence, violence against women and forced displacement.

Some reports estimated that in El Salvador alone there are 70,000 that arrived by sea. Other reports estimated that there are 20,000 gang members in El Salvador and that their network extends to as many as 400,000 people. The same study estimated that there are 22,000 gang members in Guatemala and 12,000 in Honduras.

Children and adolescents who immigrated due to the civil wars of their countries and came to live in marginal areas of Los Angeles or New York were incorporated into existing structures. When they returned to their countries after being deported, they established structures similar to those they were raised in.

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