El Salvador is the spiritual homeland of Central America’s most notorious street gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. For years, these gangs terrorized poor urban neighborhoods across the country, but they appear to have been largely dismantled following a brutal and controversial government crackdown that has seen over 1.5% of El Salvador’s population jailed for alleged gang ties since early 2022.

The country is also a relatively small player in the drug trafficking business. It serves as a drug receiving and storage point along the Pacific Coast, and a land bridge for cocaine transiting between Honduras and Guatemala, bound for Mexico and the United States.


As a small nation, El Salvador’s relatively high population density and mountainous terrain impede traffickers from transporting goods by air. Nonetheless, the country is home to overland smuggling routes that have been used for decades to traffic humans, weapons, contraband, and illicit drugs. Porous borders with neighboring Honduras and Guatemala aid the movement of illegal goods in and through the country. Additionally, El Salvador’s short coastline provides traffickers numerous places to unload and repackage drugs into smaller quantities for the journey north or distribution and sale to the country’s domestic drug market.


After more than a decade of civil war in which over 75,000 people lost their lives, the Salvadoran government and leftist guerrillas signed a peace agreement in 1992. The peace accords were hailed as a success by the international community, particularly efforts to create an integrated police force that included members of the rebel coalition, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN). Yet violence in El Salvador did not end with the war. Instead, the accords opened a new type of conflict, leading to political and social turmoil that has derailed the achievement the accords once represented.

The first phase of this post-war criminal spree included both former military and ex-combatants. Some former guerrillas, for example, never gave up their weapons and instead created criminal enterprises, engaging in car theft, kidnapping, and human smuggling.

The second phase came with the rise of street gangs, commonly referred to as “maras.” Two dominant gangs emerged – the MS13 and Barrio 18. Poor, urban youths were attracted to the gangs. Social issues — including marginalization, lack of access to basic services and educational opportunities, and dysfunctional families — also led to their growth. Meanwhile, the gangs modeled themselves on US street gangs after the repatriation of gang members from the United States. A pre-existing culture of violence and access to weapons left over from the region’s civil wars fueled gang killings.

The government responded to the threat posed by gangs with a harsh “mano dura,” or “iron fist,” approach. This repression, however, served to further marginalize the country’s youth and stimulated gang recruitment, in addition to doubling the prison population. Within prisons, the gangs built operational sanctuaries to manage their activities without fear of the law or rival gangs.

The gangs primarily engaged in extortion, domestic drug distribution, and kidnapping. They sold marijuana, crack, powder cocaine, and amphetamines in mostly poor neighborhoods. On rare occasions, they were also contracted by larger organizations to serve as killers or to perform other specific tasks. On even rarer occasions,  the more ambitious gang members tried to expand into bulk distribution and international trafficking, albeit with limited success.

In March 2012, the Salvadoran government and local Catholic Church leaders secretly brokered a truce between the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs, granting concessions to imprisoned gang leaders in exchange for a reduction in violence. As part of the truce, the government implemented “peace zones,” or areas where the gangs pledged to halt criminal activity, and the government promised to withdraw the military. After its implementation, the truce did lead to a drop in homicides, but violence began rising again in 2014 when the truce started to unravel. Critics of the truce have questioned whether it was ever effective at reducing killings, with some theorizing that the homicide rate was artificially low because victims were being “disappeared” by gang members.

The truce led to debate over the nature of the gangs. More specifically, there were concerns that it allowed the gangs to become more cohesive and sophisticated. Indeed, there have been reports of gang leaders meeting with Mexican criminal organizations — such as the Zetas and, more recently, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación) — highlighting apparent intentions to move into the international drug trade. Yet these are exceptions, and security officials have long considered the gangs too disorderly to make reliable partners.

The disintegration of the truce contributed to an escalation of violence in El Salvador. In particular, during 2015, the gangs stepped up attacks on Salvadoran security forces, a move some observers viewed as a means of pressuring the government to reopen truce negotiations and grant the gangs certain concessions. Inter- and intra-gang violence also increased. By the end of 2015, El Salvador had a homicide rate of over 100 per 100,000 inhabitants — the highest in the world outside of a warzone. Violence, however, declined and stabilized through 2016 and early 2017.

President Nayib Bukele came into office in June 2019, promising to reduce violence and increase security. During Bukele’s first year in office, El Salvador’s murder rate plunged from 51 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018 to 36 per 100,000 in 2019. That figure more than halved over the next two years, reaching 17.6 per 100,000 in 2021. The country had not experienced such a radical reduction in violence since the end of the civil war. 

The Bukele administration attributed the historic decline in violent deaths to the government’s flagship security plan, the so-called Territorial Control Plan (Plan Control Territorial), an opaque seven-point program that largely appeared to mirror the hardline policies of previous administrations.

But the unprecedented nature of the drop also sparked rumors of some kind of new agreement between the El Salvador government and the gangs. That was confirmed when, in September 2020, Salvadoran media outlet El Faro published an investigation documenting how top government officials had been engaging in talks with imprisoned gang leaders since at least October 2019, intending to reduce violence. Some of the officials involved in the alleged dialogue had also worked with Bukele when he was mayor of San Salvador, during which time his municipal administration negotiated with the gangs as part of efforts to revitalize the capital city’s Historic Center.

The secret negotiations largely succeeded in reducing violent deaths until an egregious killing spree in March 2022, when the gangs allegedly murdered 87 people in 72 hours. The Bukele administration responded to the massacre by enacting a nationwide state of emergency, suspending some constitutional rights and loosening rules on making arrests. What followed was an unprecedented arrest frenzy, with security forces capturing tens of thousands of suspected gang members and collaborators in a ruthless iron fist campaign. The speed and scale of the arrests decimated gang ranks. Those not detained were driven into hiding or exile. 

The state of emergency has been extended for over two years, during which time security forces have succeded in disabling the bulk of gang structures, operations, and communications. Violence has hit new lows. In 2023, El Salvador registered 2.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest rate in Latin America.

The security gains have helped Bukele sustain sky-high approval ratings in El Salvador. But his anti-gang campaign has also drawn criticism from human rights and civil society groups, which have documented thousands of state abuses – including arbitrary arrests and prison torture – allegedly committed during the crackdown. 

Meanwhile, little has been done to address the root causes of gang violence – particularly poverty and social exclusion. Some also question whether the government can sustain such aggressive security policies in the long term, or whether remnants of the gangs may regroup if the crackdown eventually subsides.

Criminal Groups

In addition to gangs, El Salvador is also home to drug transportation networks, known as “transportistas.” These groups began moving contraband across the borders with Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala during the civil war. They continue to use these routes to move migrants, contraband, pirated goods,  and illegal drugs.

Transportistas often operate with the aid of corrupt border, police, and military officials. They are not tied to a particular drug trafficking organization. Rather, they offer their services to Colombian and Mexican cartels, including powerful Mexican groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and, in the past, the Zetas. While the transportistas are responsible for drug shipments transiting El Salvador, gang violence has historically driven much of the country’s violent crime.

Security Forces

As of 2022, El Salvador had around 24,500 active personnel in its armed forces – making it Central America’s largest military force – and over 27,400 officers in the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil – PNC). Serving as a police officer in El Salvador has historically been an extremely dangerous and low-paying job. In 2014, security forces increasingly became the target of attacks by gang members, driving desertions from the PNC. To supplement shortcomings and lack of resources, El Salvador has routinely called on the military to perform police duties. In 2019, for instance, the government, as part of Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan, deployed 3,000 soldiers to recover territory in gang-affected municipalities. Under the state of emergency, Bukele has relied on the military to facilitate mass arrests and, in some cases, encircle entire communities in the hope of smoking out gang members.

Throughout the security forces’ battles with the street gangs, there have been indications of police and military officials engaging in extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals.

Judicial System

A weak judicial system has long exacerbated El Salvador’s general insecurity. Most crimes go unresolved, and suspects may spend years behind bars before facing trial.

Corruption within El Salvador’s judicial system has been another key issue.  Some judges have been discovered to be accepting bribes from organized crime groups in exchange for favoritism.  Additionally, the selection process for appointing Supreme Court judges has previously been obstructed by congressional representatives with links to corruption and organized crime. 

El Salvador’s weak judicial system has also contributed to a death squad phenomenon, with instances surfacing of citizens and possibly police conducting “social cleansing” of criminals and others deemed undesirable.

Under President Bukele, key justice institutions have aligned with the government’s interests. In 2021, the president leveraged his party’s overwhelming majority in the country’s legislative assembly to reshuffle Supreme Court justices to his favor. Lawmakers aligned with Bukele also fired the country’s top prosecutor, who was investigating government corruption. The legislative assembly also purged the judiciary in late 2021, firing dozens of judges. Many of the replacements had links to the Bukele administration.

Aligning these forces has all but erased judicial independence, helping the president take iron fist security measures to new heights. The courts have remained silent amid the systematic violation of due process, while prosecutors have helped facilitate waves of dubious arrests, many based on little to no evidence. 

The government has also passed legislation to introduce mass trials for groups of up to 900 suspected gang members, raising further concerns about access to fair trials. The first such trial – implicating almost 500 defendants – began in February 2024


El Salvador’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded. Years of strict anti-gang legislation have filled the country’s penal institutions to several times their capacity. Bukele’s state of emergency has exacerbated the problem – as of late 2023, El Salvador’s prisons housed over 105,500 detainees, more than double the penitentiary system’s estimated capacity. Pretrial detention contributes to rampant overcrowding, as does the suspension of constitutional rights to legal defense under the state of emergency, which has left suspects languishing in prison for months or years before seeing a judge.

El Salvador’s prisons were once divided along gang lines, with members of different gangs sent to various prisons. This policy allowed the MS13 and Barrio 18 to establish complete domination over the prisons they controlled, turning them into centers for recruitment, criminal operations, and gang consolidation — in many ways a de facto gang headquarters. This was facilitated by understaffed and under-resourced facilities, which meant prison guards were typically relegated to simply standing watch on prison walls, leaving inmates in control of day-to-day life.

During this era, free gang members were expected to provide for those behind bars by sending money and supplies. Incarcerated gang leaders often directed criminal activity on the streets via cell phones and message couriers. This symbiotic relationship rested partly on the logic that all gang members will, at one point or another, spend time in jail and, once there, will need the gang’s protection to survive — a form of “prison insurance.” MS13 and Barrio 18 gang leaders have traditionally been held in maximum-security facilities, such as the infamous Zacatecoluca prison, also known as “Zacatraz.”

The situation in prisons has undergone a radical transformation. This began gradually – the official policy of gang segregation was reversed in 2015. Then, the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén regained some control behind bars with the enactment of hardline security measures aimed at cutting gang communications. Bukele accelerated the process, in 2020, by placing members of the MS13 and Barrio 18 into common cells and depriving prisoners of sunlight. The government has also resorted to extreme measures to suppress gang activity in prisons following a mass influx of suspected gang members during the state of emergency. Accounts from within prisons suggest authorities now maintain near-complete control behind bars and routinely subject prisoners to beatings and psychological torment.