perpetrated by authorities, by the media, and sometimes by the youths themselves. The gangs are far from
a homogenous phenomenon.
The classic mara member participates in cross-border criminal networks and has broken with all “
traditional connectors” in society, such as family, school
and work, in order to dedicate himself to the gang.
Youths belonging to this insular culture carry three
tattooed dots on one hand, representing death, hospitalization and jail. Not surprisingly, these underline
the central experiences of a marero. The mara gangs
enforce their values as criminal societies outside the
mainstream by imposing brutal codes on recruits,
such as MS- 13’s practice of administering a “13-sec-
ond beating” to new members.
But this represents only one side of the story. It
covers some (but not all) members of the leading confederations of maras, such as the MS- 13 or Barrio 18.
At the other extreme is the less-known marero whose
participation in mara culture is limited to wearing
be noticed and recognized, which is why they sport tattoos all over their bodies, dress in a particular style and
“mark” their territory with graffiti or placazos (graffiti
tags) in the street. That clearly limits their mobility.
A survey of imprisoned mara gang members by
researchers of the Universidad Centroamericana in
El Salvador revealed that only 15. 8 percent ever lived
or traveled outside Central America—and their foreign excursions were confined to either Mexico or the
tattoos and taking part in the gang’s partying and social
life. This type of gang member most likely has never
migrated outside of his home city nor has he completely
abandoned his home or school. His participation in the
wider criminal world is rather limited.
The fact that most maras, either by choice or circumstance, have few contacts across national borders undermines the assertion by some researchers
that these groups are the embryonic structures for a
surge of transnational crime or even terrorism. As the
gang member in San Salvador pointed out, few maras
can hide behind the anonymity preferred by professional organized crime groups. The point of the mara
phenomenon is visibility. Gang members want to
Even so, there is evidence to suggest that some gangs
are expanding their reach, with the potential of becoming a much more serious threat than they are at present.
A few mara groups, primarily in the Northern Triangle,
have indeed begun to transform themselves into the
kinds of profit-making criminal organizations that conform to the widely held stereotypes about them. They
have developed more clearly defined hierarchic structures and operate clandestinely in
ways that amount to a departure
from the gangs’ commonly understood behavior.
What are the reasons behind
this transition? Before answering
this question two clarifications
need to be made. First, the majority of gangs are not affected by this
new development. And second,
this transition is often a matter of individual choice.
While a few gang members or adult ex-members have
made the leap into organized criminal net works thanks
to contacts made inside prisons, it is not necessarily the
case that an entire gang, or even one of its sub-units,
has made a collective move toward organized crime.
It is also no coincidence that such transitions are
occurring in countries where numerous crime crackdowns or policies of “zero tolerance” have been put
in place. Such crackdowns have indirectly pushed
individual mara members into the ranks of organized
crime, or at least into acts of ferocious violence. In other
cases, the incarceration of large numbers of gang members in often brutalizing prison conditions has helped
In El Salvador, the National Civil
Police attributes just
26. 5 percent of registered
homicides to gang members.