Reports of increasing extortion in southern Mexico suggest crackdowns on gangs in Central America may be pushing gang members to migrate, swelling the ranks of formerly small Mexican branches and potentially helping them step up their criminal activities. 
Drivers and owners of public transport companies in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state on the border with Guatemala, have reported a rise in extortion attempts by “Central American criminals” over the past year, according to a January 25 investigation by the Associated Press (AP). 

Towns around Tapachula, a city that lies just north of the Mexico-Guatemala border, have been badly affected. In Huixtla, a town 80 kilometers from the border, drivers have been shot, and extortion has become seemingly generalized over the last year, according to the AP and local media outlets.  

SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2022: El Salvador’s Gang Crackdown Has Steep Human Rights Cost

Drivers for buses, passenger vans, and taxis in several parts of Chiapas provided the AP with documents proving extortion payments for the last year. At least three drivers have reportedly been killed for refusing to pay up, while others have been roughed up and had their vehicles burned, according to the Mexican newspaper Excelsior. 

In October, the Attorney General’s Office in Chiapas stated it had opened 122 investigations against MS13 and Barrio 18 members in Chiapas. In total, 148 alleged gang members were arrested in Chiapas from January to September 2022, including 50 from El Salvador, although the charges were not specified. A special anti-gang task force has been created within the state police, and 350 soldiers have been deployed at transport hubs in response. 
The MS13 and Barrio 18 are the two strongest gangs in Central America, with tens of thousands of members each. 

Authorities have directly blamed the ongoing gang crackdown in El Salvador, which has jailed over 60,000 alleged gang members and sent others fleeing from the country.  

“People are coming to hide from that, but there are also gang leaders who come to create a criminal group here,” José Mateo Martínez, Chiapas state prosecutor for migrant affairs, told the AP. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The theory being investigated by authorities, namely that Salvadoran gang members are seeking to replicate their leading criminal economy in Chiapas, is credible.  
The state, especially Tapachula, has long been a transit point for Central Americans migrating north to the United States. And from April to September 2022, the number of Salvadoran migrants requesting asylum in Mexico, most of them in Tapachula, rose 80 percent from the six months prior.  
“The presence of the MS13 in Tapachula has been going on for many years. But they have traditionally been passing through,” explained Carlos García, a Central American gang expert living in Mexico and contributor to InSight Crime. 
The crackdown in El Salvador has stripped the MS13 and Barrio 18 of much of their income and power, with much of their membership behind bars. To escape, some may have followed the flow of migrants north to seek other means of income outside El Salvador.  
The type of crime reported also fits the Chiapas state prosecutor’s theory. Extortion of the public transport sector has been a significant and consistent earner for the MS13 and Barrio 18 in Central America. Chiapas borders Guatemala and lies a few hundred kilometers from El Salvador.

SEE ALSO: The Birth of the MS13’s Mexico Program 

But Salvadorans may not be solely to blame. Of the 148 reported gang members arrested in Chiapas, 61 were Mexican, 50 were from El Salvador, and 15 from Honduras.  
“The (AP) report stated they were from El Salvador, but we have to see if those committing the crimes are…really from El Salvador or if they are Mexicans somehow working with the Salvadorans,” García said. 

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