Iran in Latin America: Threat or Axis of Annoyance?

Senior Fellow Douglas Farah's analysis of the debate over the level of threat posed by Iran's expanding diplomatic, trade and military presence in Latin America, and its stated ambition to continue to broaden these more

Chinese Naval Modernization: Altering the Balance of Power

Richard Fisher details China's naval modernization program and the potential impacts on U.S. interests in the Western more

Transnational Criminal Threats in El Salvador: New Trends and Lessons From Colombia
Published by the Western Hemisphere Security Analysis Center of Florida International University, Miami, Florida

emailEmail this article
printPrint this article

by Douglas Farah
Published on September 7th, 2011


Since El Salvador’s civil war formally ended in 1992 the small Central American nation has undergone profound social changes and significant reforms. However, few changes have been as important or as devastating as the nation’s emergence as a central hub in the transnational criminal “pipeline” or series of recombinant, overlapping chains of routes and actors that illicit organizations use to traffic in drugs, money, weapons, human being, endangered animals and other products.

El Salvador, aside from the human trafficking element, has little to contribute in terms of product, to the lucrative illicit pipelines. What it offers is a prime geographic location with sophisticated transportation networks that are have extensive reach southward to the production areas of cocaine and northward to the Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) that now control the bulk of the cocaine trade into the world’s most lucrative market, the United States. Because of its geographic location, El Salvador is sometimes referred to in drug trafficking circles as “El Caminito” or Pathway for drugs heading from Colombia to Mexico and the United States.

The transportista networks, protected by corrupt officials in the police, military, judiciary, customs, immigration and National Assembly, are the value added that Salvadoran organized criminal structures bring the current drug trafficking structures. As will be examined below, two particular local networks, the Cartel de Texis and Los Perrones Orientales, clearly demonstrate this capture of specific parts of the state while strengthening their ties to Mexican organizations.

As one observer recently noted:

The role the region plays is simple, but the consequences are devastating. Smugglers in Central America serve one vital purpose: to transport drugs between South America and Mexico. For that reason, they are known in the region as 'transportistas.' Increasingly, however, these organizations have also taken on the role of local distributors and, in some cases, the suppliers of marijuana and poppy, for the production of heroin, as well as importers and suppliers for the raw ingredients of synthetic drugs that are manufactured in Mexico, Nicaragua and possibly Honduras.2

The growth of these transportista networks and other developments discussed below are part of what the recent Obama administration’s National Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime aptly noted is a trend where “TOC networks are proliferating, striking new and powerful alliances, and engaging in a range of illicit activities as never before.  The result is a convergence of threats that have evolved to become more complex, volatile, and destabilizing.”3

These pipelines’ pathways through El Salvador are not new and have always been linked to illicit networks in neighboring countries, particularly in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. These linkages remain important today. While not the topic of this paper, these linkages cannot be ignored in understanding the emerging criminal structures in El Salvador and the region.

During the nation’s civil war in the 1980s the Marxist-led Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional-FMLN) developed extensive smuggling networks through Nicaragua and Honduras for its weapons supplies and logistical support. The far right maintained significant clandestine networks through Guatemala, particularly for back channel intelligence sharing and the movement of arms.4

As far back as early 1990, almost immediately after the war in El Salvador ended, there were media reports on the growing role of Central America as a transshipment point for drugs, primarily cocaine, to the United States.5 There were even published reports by a former agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) saying Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar had met with then-president Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala to arrange for the transshipment of large amounts of cocaine through Central America.6

A major investigation of post‐conflict armed groups in 1994 found that the “illegal armed groups” operating after the war had “morphed” into more sophisticated, complex organizations than had existed during the war, and that, as self‐financing entities they had a strong criminal economic component, as well as political aspect, to their operations. This was among the first serious efforts to identify the enduring clandestine structures of the civil war as new elements in the country’s nascent transitional organized crime structure.7

The early illicit groups that grew out of the war were initially engaged in kidnappings, both in El Salvador and abroad. The early abductions were carried out primarily by members of the Communist Party who never demobilized after the war, but often acting at the behest of extreme right and financed by their one-time ideological enemies.

The New and the Dangerous

This erasing of the once-clear ideological lines, and the ability of erstwhile enemies to join forces in an enduring and dangerous characteristic of El Salvador’s transnational criminal evolution. When the conflict ended, thousands of combatants on both sides were demobilized into a society that offered few jobs or prospects for gainful employment. These trained, elite cadres of urban commandos, intelligence officers and clandestine operatives found their skills were marketable in the growing criminal structures. Soon the groups moved from kidnapping and extortion to providing protection services to transnational DTOs and human smuggling gangs, car theft rings and other illicit activities.8

The demand for these services has exploded as the Mexican DTOs consolidate their hold on the cocaine market and their relationships with the transportista networks. The value of their services has risen dramatically also because of the fact that multiple Mexican DTOs, at war with each other in Mexico and seeking to physically control the geographic space of the lucrative pipeline routes in from Guatemala to Panama, are eager to increase their military capabilities and intelligence gathering capabilities.

As Carlos Dada, a noted investigative journalist in El Salvador who has monitored the drug trafficking situation for years noted, the power of the transportistas has increased “because they own policemen, judges, congressmen, local mayors, etc. So they charge drug cartels for crossing that territory free of threats from security forces - because they manage everything. So you pay them - if you are a drug cartel, you pay them. And you have a free pass from Honduras to Guatemala.”9

The Salvador recruits for the Mexican DTOs, often identified by cartel recruiters using lists of potential candidates purchased from those special forces troops they already employ, are offered about $4,000 a month as a starting salary to work either in the military structures of the cartels or as trainers. The advantage the Salvadoran special forces recruits offer, according to one source who has been approached by the cartels, is that they are immediately deployable. Many have also maintained personal contacts with networks of intelligence and former comrades across the region, bringing immediate entrée into new networks and intelligence capabilities.10

Against this backdrop, what is new in the current context are:

The growing financial and political strength of the multiple groups vying for control of the transnational pipelines, and the growing recruitment of retired special forces members on behalf of Mexican DTOs, particularly the Zetas;

The physical presence of Mexican DTOs in El Salvador and their direct contact with the street gangs, particularly the MS-13;

The dramatically increased access to intelligence the Mexican DTOs and their local allies have achieved;

The expanding use of El Salvador, with a dollarized economy, as a hub for money laundering, particularly since Mexico enacted significant new restrictions on dollar transactions;

Increased evidence of the sale of sophisticated weaponry from the Salvadoran military (and other militaries in the region) to Mexican DTOs;

The growth of small, armed quasi-ideological groups of students being recruited by the Venezuelan-financed Bolivarian axis for training, including training of elite cadres in Iran;

The growing sophistication and reorganization of parts of one of the main gangs (Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13) into a more structured transnational criminal enterprise that can cooperate and compete with Mexican DTOs in-country, and is providing increasingly levels of gunmen to the Zetas operating in Guatemala and Mexico.

These developments pose a significant new security challenge, unprecedented in scale and threat potential, to El Salvador, the Central American region and ultimately the United States. As the political and economic power of these local groups providing services to transnational criminal organizations grows, new group are forming and more sectors of the Salvadoran state are being captured by the illicit network structure.

The Current Structure

The relationships of Salvadoran transportista organizations with Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), particularly the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas are still in flux and shift rapidly. However, what is clear is that the emergence of the Mexican DTO structures in El Salvador is giving both the Mexican organizations and their local partners increased resources to hollow out the nation state structure by crippling the judicial, law enforcement, legislative and regulatory structures.

As the state capture advances, the Mexican DTOs and armed groups are more easily able to open the country and the region to a growing array of other criminal groups, including some such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-FARC) from Colombia and Hezbollah from Lebanon, that are designated terrorist entities by the United States.

At the same time, as noted above, remnants of the old ideological armed structures on both the right and the left continue to operate. Of particular concern are groups of university students being recruited in small groups and sent for ideological training in Venezuela, and then, for the best cadres, training in Iran. The training, according to three people who have been through the training, is both ideological and embracing of armed struggle.

Those who are trained, in turn, have formed small groups that have trained militarily on the outskirts of San Salvador, in areas where the FMLN was traditionally active. According to two sources with direct knowledge of events, the Bloque Popular Juvenil, a self-defined Marxist-Leninist organization of the Communist Party, is the primary link among these armed groups.11

The Zetas, in particular, are also targeting the Salvadoran military, and other military and police forces in the region, for the purchase of sophisticated weapons. Numerous cases made public in the past year indicate that the militaries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala all have had seen military officials sell or attempt to sell significant amounts of sophisticated weaponry to Mexican DTOs.12

Earlier this year Gen. David Munguía, the Salvadoran defense minister, called for a regional effort to halt the flow of weapons from the south toward Mexico.

“All the militaries of Central America, the police, the municipal police, all those with weapons, should take measures to insure they are not stolen,” Munguía said. “The Mexican cartels have established a rearguard area for themselves in Central America, a logistics base. The cartels that operate in southern Mexico and those that operate in Guatemala are trying to supply themselves with weapons from Central America.”13

Two cases stand out in El Salvador for their audacity. The first was an attempt by six army officials to steal 1,812 fragmentation grenades that were supposed to be destroyed. Rather than blow up the munitions as required, the group buried them, staged a fake explosion to demonstrate the weapons had been destroyed, and planned to dig them up and sell them to the Zetas. While the group was eventually busted, Munguía and other military officials said it had been operational for a significant period of time before being dismantled.14

The second case is more complex with broader international implications.  Hector Antonio Martinez Guillen, a recently retired army officer known as “el Capitán,” was arrested in May 2011 following a sting operation in which he sought to provide the FARC in Colombia with plastic explosives, automatic rifles and ammunition in exchange for $1 million in cocaine. At one point he provided 20 pounds of C-4 explosives to undercover Drug Enforcement Administration officials posing as FARC representatives.15 Given the FARC’s support by members of El Salvador’s Communist Party and the former officer’s enlistment in a pro-U.S. military, the case shows just how irrelevant for ideologies have become.

In addition to the new types of recruitment being carried out among former combatants, the traditional gang structure, particularly the MS-13, is restructuring many of its “cliques” or sub-units, into more disciplined operators who are acquiring significantly enhanced military training and forging new relationships with the Mexican DTOs, particularly the Zetas. As part of this restructuring, consumption of drugs is prohibited among gang members, the traditional gang tattoos are removed or covered up and there is more formal coordination among the leaders on the ground in El Salvador and their U.S.-based leaders or leaders who are imprisoned in El Salvador.

According to two sources who work extensively with the gangs, the senior leadership, directed by U.S.-based leaders, has developed a working relationship with the Zetas to provide militarily trained cadres to work for the organization in Guatemala, primarily as security. They are valued, the sources said, because they do not have family in the areas and have no loyalties or attachments, allowing them to act in a more cold-blooded way then local recruits would be willing to.

In addition, the sources said, those working with the Zetas view themselves as partners in the operation, not as subservient to the Mexicans, and some of the money paid the gang members by the DTOs goes to support the MS-13, rather than to the individual. This is due in part to the fact that the Zetas, while maintaining a presence on the ground in El Salvador, do not have a way to project significant military force there yet, and therefore do not want to take on the gangs and try to force them into submission.

Partly as a result of this and the gang’s own growing strength in terms of firepower and control of territory, the MS-13 also provides its services to other DTOs that are often in conflict with the Zetas. This ability of Salvadoran groups to work across the warring factions of Mexican DTOs, at least at this time, is an interesting characteristic of the drug trade.16

Parallels to the Colombia Case

The emergence of multiple non-state armed groups, often with significant ties to the formal political structure (state) through webs of judicial, legislative and administrative corruption, has some striking parallels to Colombia in the 1980s, where multiple types of violence ultimately challenged the sovereignty of state and left a lasting legacy of embedded corruption within the nation’s political structure. In both cases, multiple porous borders and historic smuggling routes, the accompanying “cultures of contraband”17 and the historic abandonment of the state of significant geographic zones – particularly border regions – have led to violence and illicit smuggling activities.

 In both cases the illicit activities have bred pockets of violence with homicide rates many times higher than regional average or historic norm. While El Salvador’s armed conflict formally ended in 1992 and Colombia has not reached a negotiated end of the conflict with its two largest insurgent groups, in both cases many of the smuggling routes and ensuing alliances among regional actors have been forged in those conflicts.18

Historically, while Colombian organizations focused on cocaine smuggling, Salvadoran organizations focused on the movement of migrants seeking to illegally enter the United States. These illicit pipelines are increasingly becoming merged and indistinguishable.

There are also significant differences between the situations of violence and illicit activities between El Salvador now Colombia in the late1980s and early 1990s. El Salvador now does not have an organized, armed insurgency fighting to overthrow the government, in contrast to the FARC and ELN insurgencies in Colombia. No centralized group with an identifiable leader has emerged such as Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel in the Colombian context, followed by the Cali cartel, the Northern Valley organizations and others. While El Salvador has identifiable transportista structures such as Los Perrones and the Cartel de Texis, which will be discussed n more detail below, these groups tend to work for a variety of DTOs, and are themselves without a coherent, integrated, overarching structure.

Among the most intriguing elements shared by El Salvador now and the former situation in Colombia is the emergence of young gangs as important foot soldiers in the drug trade. There are many differences in the social origins and operations among the different types of structures that exist now and that existed in Colombia, particularly in the comunas or hillside slums of Medellín. However, there are also some similarities that are little explored in the current literature.

In both cases disaffected young men found a type of home or social family outside the mainstream society, in groups that relied heavily on a culture of violence to engender that feeling of community.

The sicarios or young hit men of the Medellín cartel, recruited in the comunas, were the cannon fodder of the war that raged between the Colombian state and Escobar’s empire but did not have a transnational structure that reached into major cities in the United States and neighboring countries, and the Salvadoran structures do. The sicarios were more directly employed in the cartel structure than most of the gang operations in El Salvador, but were driven a similar sense of life being short and the inevitability of violent death that pervades the Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 gangs in El Salvador. In El Salvador the gangs are undergoing a profound transformation but have traditionally been made up of alienated young men who expect to die young or spend most of their lives in prison.19

Another disturbing parallel between Colombia in more recent years and the situation of violence in El Salvador is the demonstrated ability of different groups, once separated by ideology, to work together. While already described above in the Salvadoran context, the presence of “bandas criminales (BACRIM)" in Colombia, a catch-all description for emerging criminal gangs, is a similar phenomenon. Where once paramilitary groups allied with the military fought the Marxist-led FARC, in recent years these battle lines have become blurred and merged with drug trafficking organizations.

Gen. Oscar Naranjo, director of the Colombian National Police, now considers the BACRIM to be a greater national security threat than the FARC and responsible for more violence.20 What is most alarming about the BACRIM is that they are often made up of former paramilitary members who did not demobilize under the controversial amnesty program for their groups, and deserters from the FARC who have lost any semblance of ideological justification for their activities. These mixed groups are particularly active on the northwestern border with Ecuador, where they are sometimes at war and sometimes work together with the FARC’s 48th Front.21

The loss of ideological cohesion and the ability of trained units, at one time on different sides of a major conflict, to work together usually mark a significant advance in creation of sophisticated transnational criminal organizations in a region.

The Cartel de Texis and Los Perrones Orientales

Among the transportista groups that exemplify the new generation of transnational criminal activity in El Salvador is the Cartel de Texis, named for the town of Texistepeque, where some of its leaders come from. In an extensive series of reports the online investigative newspaper El Faro in El Salvador detailed the growing importance of the organization and some of its links to Mexican DTOs.22 A main hub of the group’s operations is the town of San Fernando, Chalatenango, on the border with Honduras and close to the Guatemalan border.

The organization is allegedly run by José Adán Salazar Umaña, AKA “Chepe Diablo,” a well-known leader of a Division 1 soccer team and rancher based in the western city of Metapán. The cocaine is reportedly delivered by sea or air in Honduras, than transported overland to the care of Cartel de Texis. As described by El Faro, the system works seamlessly.

San Fernando is the hand-off point where the Hondurans hand the drugs off to the Salvadorans, on a route directed by Mexicans and Colombians. A highway worth millions of dollars to those who control it, composed of businessmen, ranchers, mayors, police, gang members, coyotes [those who handle human trafficking], and congressmen. Everyone plays a role. The policemen bought by narcos guard and move the drugs, remove roadblocks and warn of impending operations. The mayors give construction permits, formalize businesses and act as privileged informants– in one case acting as a group leader; congressmen give access to high levels of power. Gang members kill and traffic in local markets; and some judges and prosecutors make sure no legal case can advance.23

Like most of the known transportista networks, the Cartel de Texis is not new, and has been in operation since at least 2000. Its operational territory along the Honduran border includes the once famous “ruta del queso” or “cheese route” used to smuggle Honduran cheese into El Salvador at the turn of the 20th century.

The trafficking of drugs represented in many ways an easy expansion of these long-time illicit transportation pipelines, where the protection of customs officials and local law enforcement was already established. The addition of cocaine to the pipeline added orders of magnitude to the profits for all involved but represented relatively little risk to the transporters.

What is different is the size of the operations, the amount of money made, the level of political influence, and the violence that accompanies the group’s criminal activities and the range of Mexican DTOs involved. Salvadoran and regional law enforcement officials said the group was among the most important in the region.24

The Cartel de Texis is similar in many regards to another transportista network, Los Perrones Orientales, operating on the Pacific coast, headquartered in the city of San Miguél and using the coastal highway network as the primary transportation route to Guatemala. Most of the cocaine moved by this network arrives on go-fast boats that drop their cargo in the high seas near the coastline with GPS guidance systems attached so they can be found. An increasing amount of the deliveries are coming through submersible and semi-submersible crafts being built in Ecuador and Colombia. In addition to being virtually impossible to detect, the newer crafts have the capacity to carry up to 10 tons of product, far more than the few hundred kilograms the go-fast boats can carry.25

The group modeled itself on the Mexican cartels and, imitating the preferences of many of the Mexican DTO leaders, imported large numbers of thoroughbred horses to race, built expensive car racing tracks and commissioned “narco corridas” or songs about their exploits, often played on local radio stations.

Like the operation of the Cartel de Texis, the Perrones integrated their corruption in a structured system of protection for their illicit activities, including police officials, local and national politicians, gang members as hired muscle and local judges and prosecutors. And like the Texis operation, they were able to work with numerous Mexican DTOs, from the Zetas to the Sinaloa cartel and even the Tijuana organization. They also laundered considerable amounts of money through seemingly legitimate business.

For example the attorney general’s office charge the owner of a large car sale business in San Miguel gave cars to a PCN member of the National Assembly that were used to bribe at least 10 local mayors and other officials. The business claimed to have done $13.2 million worth of business but could only account for about $30,000 of that amount.26

When the first arrests of the Perrones began in 2008 they included several senior police officials and several locally powerful politicians in the San Miguel area. According to public reports as the investigations unfolded, at least 43 police officers are under investigation in the case, many of them members of the U.S.-funded elite Anti-Narcotics Division (División Anti-Narcótico-DAN). Among those suspended from his job and still under investigation in the case is Godofredo Miranda, who was the DAN commander.27

According to an internal police report obtained by the author, the Perrones organization maintained ties to prominent politicians in the eastern region, where the right-wing ARENA party has dominated and the National Conciliation Party (Partido de Conciliación Nacional-PCN), traditionally linked to the military, remains a force. The document outlines the Perrones ties to businesses for laundering money, bribes for protection, and ties to extensive influence within municipalities in the region.28

Money Movements Through El Salvador

There is broad agreement that the decision to convert El Salvador’s official currency from the colón to the U.S. dollar in 2001 marked a significant change in El Salvador’s national life. While there were numerous reasons for taking such a dramatic step, one of the most important collateral consequences over time has been to make the tiny nation a center of money laundering activities.29

As the U.S. State Department noted in its most recent report on money laundering 

El Salvador has an unusually rapidly growing banking system with little, other than its dollarized economy and remittance flow, to support such growth … The country’s dollarized economy and geographic location make it an ideal haven for transnational organized crime groups, including human and drug trafficking organizations. The Central America Four Agreement between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua allows for the free movement of citizens of these countries across their respective borders without passing through immigration or customs inspection. As such, the agreement represents a vulnerability to each country for the cross-border movement of contraband and illicit proceeds of crime.30

With a poorly regulated banking structure and no need to convert from another currency to cash, El Salvador’s booming banking systems is indicative of a significantly enhanced role in laundering drug money, particularly since the Mexican government has made it more difficult to move money directly into Mexico. Sources with direct knowledge of illicit money movements in the region said that much of the bulk cash that traditionally flowed into Mexico is now being moved from the United States to El Salvador and other “dollarized” economies (Ecuador and Panama both use the U.S. dollar as their official currency), then trucked north through Guatemala or placed in the formal banking structure through complicit banks.31

"There is really nothing easier,” said one source familiar with cartel money operations. “If you get the cash to El Salvador then there is no problem getting it into the banks, because no one asks any questions, and the cartels have prearranged everything. The money goes in as dollars and comes out as dollars in ‘clean’ account. The cartels can get access to it from anywhere in the world and it is washed, laundered and dried.”

In one recent incident that demonstrates the amount of money moving through the country, in September 2010 police investigators found two plastic barrels full of $100 bills and Euro notes buried on a small farm outside the town of Zacatecoluca, in central El Salvador. The first barrel was reported to contain $7,196,850 in U.S. dollars and 1,684,500 Euros, and the second barrel had a similar amount.32

“The real problems the Mexican cartels are having now is how to convert $10 and $20 bills into larger bills, to reduce the bulk,” said another source who had dealt with illicit money flows. “The second is how to move all the money that is accumulating in Central America back to Mexico or on to Colombia. They have more money than they can move comfortably now, but no one wants to leave millions of dollars in a warehouse. The risk is too high. So there is a large bottleneck.”33

These issues are similar to those encountered by Colombian cartels during the heyday of the Medellín and Cali cartels, when Gonzalo Rodrigo Gacha, Escobar and others were known to bury millions of dollars on their extensive rural properties. And like El Salvador, Colombia saw an explosion of banking activity that would be hard to justify in normal economic terms. The circulation of such large amounts of illicit money has numerous consequences on the legal economic structure. The primary one is to drive legitimate businesses out of the market and a secondary is to provide enormous amounts of money that amplify the ability of drug traffickers or their allies to buy their way into the system for protection.34 Years after reducing the existential threat of the drug cartels to the state and the passage of numerous laws to combat the flow of illicit funds, Colombia is still struggling to make headway against this phenomenon.

The Road Ahead

El Salvador, like the rest of Central America, is rapidly reaching a tipping point in its ability to successfully tackle, even in a limited sense, the multiple issues in combating transnational organized crime and the money that flows from those organizations. This constitutes a direct threat to the nation’s fragile democratic process and post-war recovery by hollowing out the state and draining enormous amounts of resources from the legitimate economy.

As it has in recent years, El Salvador, with its extensive and lightly guarded land and sea borders and ideally situated geographically as a transshipment point, will likely continue to grow in importance. What sets El Salvador apart from other nations in the region at this point is that it remains meeting and recruitment ground for multiple Mexican DTOs, rather than territory largely controlled by a single organization. In contrast, Guatemala is a significant area of influence of the Zetas while Honduras remains a stronghold for the Sinaloa cartel.

Given the demonstrated adaptive capacity of the gangs in El Salvador and their growing sophistication and ties to the Mexican DTOs, it is likely these groups will continue to expand their territorial control and become more integrated into the armed structure of larger organizations.

As the cases of the Cartel de Texis and Los Perrones demonstrate, El Salvador’s primary value added to the cocaine pipeline is to successfully move illicit products across the territory they control before handing the goods off to Mexican organizations. This multi-national transportista network, tied together both through the gangs and through long-standing smuggling networks, has an extensive reach into the political, law enforcement and judicial structures of El Salvador and most of the rest of the Central American region. Given the time it has taken to begun to unravel known groups and the political cost of doing so, these groups will likely continue to grow in power and influence.

Organized crime in El Salvador has now reached the point where it is transnational in nature and more integrated into stronger, more versatile global networks such as the Mexican DTOs. It is a hybrid of both local crime -- with gangs vying for control of specific geographic space so they can extract payment for the safe passage of illicit products – and transnational groups that need to use that space to successfully move their products. These symbiotic relationships are both complex and generally transient in nature but growing more consolidated and dangerous.

1 This report is based in significant part on research in El Salvador and Guatemala carried out of the past year with the support of the International Assessment and Strategy Center. Interviews used in this report and documents cited were from trips to Central America in 2010 and May and July 2011.

2 Steven Dudley, “Central America’s ‘Transportistas,’” InSight: Organized Crime in the Americas, November 21, 2010, accessed at: 

3 Fact Sheet: Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime,” Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, July 25, 2011, accessed at:

4 The most clearly documented case in recent times of the former FMLN groups operating is the case of Jose Luis Merino, AKA Ramiro, who was a Communist Party urban commando during the war and implicated in kidnappings in the mid-1990s and weapons sales to the FARC rebels in Colombia as late as 2008. For details of Merino's alleged ties, see: José de Córdoba, "The Man Behind the Man," Poder 360 Magazine, April 2009; Douglas Farah, "The FARC's International Relations: A Network of Deception, NEFA Foundation, September 22, 2008; José de Córdoba, "Chávez Ally May Have Aided Colombian Guerrillas: Emails Seem to Tie Figure to a Weapons Deal," The Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2008.

The clearest case of the far right networks continuing to operate is the case of Luis Posada Carriles, Carriles is a Cuban exile and former CIA agent and anti-Castro activist, accused of carrying out numerous terrorist activities in Latin America from the 1970s to the 1990s. During the civil wars, he spent extensive time in El Salvador and Guatemala as an civilian adviser to anti-Communist groups, and was part Oliver North's clandestine group that supported the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. He was arrested in Texas in May 2005 and is awaiting trial for illegal entry into the United States and other charges. See: Jack Epstein, "Arrest of Cuban Ex-CIA Figure Puts Bush in Tough Political Spot," San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 2005; Ann Louise Bardach and Larry Rohter, "A Bomber's Tale: Decades of Intrigue, Life in the Shadows, Trying to Bring Castro Down," New York Times, July 13, 1998; and Carol J. Williams, "Cuban Militant Must Stand Trial in the U.S.," Lost Angeles Times, August 15, 2008. For a look at the enduring network in Central America, see: “Células nunca se desactivaron,” La Prensa Gráfica (El Salvador), August 31, 2010, accessed at: 

5 See, for example: Shirley Christian, “Central America a New Drug Focus,” the New York Times, December 16, 1991, p. A10, where she described the movement of cocaine by “using private planes, small boats, tractor-trailer rigs and other vehicles.” See also: Lindsey Gruson, “Drug Trafficking and Poppy Growing Find Lush Home in Guatemala,” October 17, 1989. In his article, Gruson noted that Guatemala is “almost exactly halfway between the Colombian cocaine processing laboratories and the American markets.”

6 “Castillo: Pablo Escobar se reunion con Vinicio Cerezo,” Siglo XXI (Guatemala), July 31, 1996.

7 The investigation was carried out by a special commission formed in 1992, composed of the nation’s human rights ombudsman, a representative of the United Nations Secretary General, and two representatives of the Salvadoran government. The commission was formed by a political agreement among all the major parties due to a resurgence in political violence after the signing of the historic peace accords. See: “Informe del Grupo Conjunto Para la Investigación de Grupos Armados. Ilegales con Motivación Politica en El Salvador,” El Salvador, July 28, 1994, accessed Jan26 at:

8 For a more complete look at the evolution of these gangs, particularly the seminal kidnapping of Andrés Shuster, see: Douglas Farah, “Organized Crime in El Salvador: The Homegrown and Transnational Dimensions,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, February 2011.

9 Jason Beaubien, “El Salvador Grapples With Upswing in Drug Traffic,” NPR Morning Edition, May 31, 2011.

10 Author interviews in the region, May and July 2011.

11 Author interviews, May 2010 and June 2011.

12 For a good summary of the cases in Honduras and Guatemala see: Geoffrey Ramsey, “Cable: Honduran Military Supplied Weaponry to Cartels,” InSight Crime, April 25, 2011, accessed at:

13 Associated Press, “Cárteles mexicanos buscan robar armas a Centroamérica, alertan,” Excélcior (Mexico), June 1, 2011, accessed at:

14 Seis militares a juicio por hurto de 1,812 granadas,” La Prensa Gráfica (El Salvador), May 28, 2011, accessed at:

15 “Ex-Salvadoran army officer pleads guilty in sting,” Associated Press, May 11, 2011.

16 Author interviews in El Salvador and Guatemala, May and July 2011.

17 For an examination of the “cultures of contraband” and their implications in the region see: Rebecca B. Galemba, “Cultures of Contraband: Contesting the Illegality at the Mexico-Guatemala Border,” Ph.D dissertation, Brown University Department of Anthropology, May 2009.

18 For a more complete look at how these routes emerged and the level of violence that the current trends have engendered see: Farah, op. cit.

19 There is extensive literature on the culture of sicariato in Medellín, for example see: Eliza Griswold, “Medellín’s Mean Streets,” National Geographic, March 2005. For a look at the inner workings of Salvadoran gangs see: Douglas Farah and Tod Robberson, “U.S.-Style Gangs in El Salvador: Washington Post, August 28, 1995, p. A01.

20 “BACRIM, Una amenaza y hay que contenerlas, dice Naranjo,” El Colombiano (Colombia), January 26, 2011, accessed at:

21 Author interviews with law enforcement officials in Ecuador and Colombia, November 2010.

22 Sergio Arauz, Óscar Martínez, and Efren Lemus, “El Cartel de Texis,” El Faro, May 16, 2011, accessed at:

23 Araúz, Martínez and Lemus, op cit.

24 Author interviews, May and June 2011.

25 Author interviews with Colombian, U.S. and Mexican intelligence officials. Interestingly, the first attempts by the Colombian drug traffickers to move to this type of shipment came in 2000, when the cartels were found to have plans to construct a Russian submarine, and had acquired most of the necessary parts. The groups then moved to homemade semi-submersibles, a technology pioneered and likely copied from, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. While few of the crafts are built in Ecuador, many are built near the border region in Esmeraldas and launched almost immediately into Ecuadoran waters.

26 Equipo de Nación, "FGR: Los Perrones Dieron Autos a Silva Para Pagar Sobornos," La Prensa Gráfica, May 28, 2010.

27 Godofredo Miranda was also named by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass), as a possible accomplice in the April 1999 murder and rape of a 9-year-old girl, Katya Miranda, who also requested that President Funes investigate the Perrones for possible involvement in the November 2004 murder of U.S. Teamster labor organizer Gilberto Soto. McGovern's June 8, 2009 private letter to Funes requesting further investigations into these cases was leaked to the Salvadoran press and reported widely but not released by McGovern. According to Salvadoran investigators, Soto, who was organizing truck drivers in around the port of Usulután, was killed because he stumbled on the Perrones drug operations in the port warehouses and their use of tractor-trailer trucks to move cocaine. For more on the ongoing investigation into Miranda, see: Equipo de Nación, "Inspectoría Continúa Indagando a Ex-Jefe DAN," La Prensa Gráfica, August 31, 2010.

28 Confidential internal police report in possession of the author.

29 For a comprehensive look at the pros and cons of the dollarization, see: David S. Block and William Robert Nelson, Jr., “Dollarization in El Salvador: The Costs of Economic Stability,” Latin American Law and Business Report, April 30, 2003.

30 United States Department of State, 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Volume II: Money Laundering and Financial Crimes Country Database, May 20, 2011, accessed at:

31 Author interview in Central America May and July 2011.

32 Marcela Solís and Mauricio Bolaños, "Encuentran Segundo Barril con Dinero en Zacatecoluca," La Prensa Gráfica (El Salvador), September 4, 2010. 

33 Author interview in Central America May and July 2011.

34 For a look at the consequences of drug trafficking on legitimate businesses in Colombia see: Douglas Farah and Steve Coll, “Cocaine Dollars Flow Via Unique Network; Colombian Brokers Bid to Ship Cash,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2003, p. A1.

back to top ^

Powered by eResources