Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Criminal Justice


Mangai Natarajan

Committee Members

Jana Arsovska

Eric Piza

Al Valdez

Subject Categories

Latin American Studies


MS-13, gangs, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, narcotrafficking


The Mara Salvatrucha 13 (mara) and Barrio 18 (pandilla) gangs have become a major concern for the governments of the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) and the United States. In recent years, government officials have attributed violence and the exodus of Central Americans to the developing capacities of gangs. The Mara Salvatrucha 13(MS-13) and Barrio 18 have been identified to strategically implement violence and extortion rackets which have led to transformations in their organizational structures and increased participation in drug trafficking. Furthermore, officials insinuate that gangs have developed capacities to confront security forces that enter gang territory with an increase in confrontations. This has resulted with Northern Triangle governments reclassifying gangs as organized crime and/or terrorist organizations; but, do these gangs meet the requirements to be classified as such?

The overall purpose of this study is to examine the evolution of MS-13 and Barrio 18 in the Northern Triangle of Central America using mixed methods. Crime pattern theory provided the framework to understand the crime opportunity structures to explain the concentration of violence (homicides, extortion, and confrontations). Organized crime and gang concepts were used to evaluate gangs’ evolution with regards to their use of violence, extortion rackets, transformations in organizational structures, and roles in drug trafficking with a focus on their alliances with Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel (Mexican DTOs). Phase I of this study used official quantitative data to map the spatial concentration of homicides, extortions, and confrontations (gang-related crimes) at the municipality level for each country from 2007-2017. Phase II gathered qualitative data through purposive, semi-structured interviews with subject matter experts (academics, law enforcement, and NGO personnel) to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the concentration of violence and whether gangs had evolved to organized crime organizations. Triangulation of the study data provided a more concise display of where these crimes concentrate and contributing factors to the gangs’ evolution.

This study concludes illicit political economic networks between corrupt officials, narcotrafficking groups, and gangs contribute to violence and impunity in the Northern Triangle of Central America. The concentration of homicides in border municipalities was often associated with drug trafficking, homicides in urban areas were often associated with gangs, and homicides in rural areas were attributed to vengeance murders. Extortion concentrated in urban centers and was described as a crime of opportunity with various “imitators” involved. Confrontations between law enforcement personnel and gangs have led to formal accusations of extrajudicial executions. Moreover, the politicization of gangs has limited attention to address criminal activities and violence that are not associated with gangs. Therefore, this study’s findings indicate violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America can be attributed to 1) inter-and-intra gang violence, 2) inter-and-intra narcotrafficking violence, 3) state violence and 4) non-gang related violence. Lastly, it is unquestionable MS-13 and Barrio 18 have evolved, while it is premature to classify these gangs as an organized crime group; this study puts forth categorizing gangs as “organized delinquency” to best describe their capacities.

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