Alarm over the spreading influence of Central American “maras” is nothing new. Groups like MS-13 and their rivals, Barrio 18, have expanded across Central America, as well as operating in Mexico and the United States. In recent years, analysts have become concerned about the potential for their growth in South America. Since as far back as 2005, US law enforcement officials have been warning that cells of the Mara Salvatrucha have sprung up in Ecuador, and there have been reports of members of both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 in countries as distant as Bolivia, Venezuela and even Argentina.
But while there may be small cells active in these countries, these groups do not pose anything like the same menace that they do in Central America. Claims to the contrary overlook a primary feature of the maras’ history: the fact that they first formed in the US, and that their spread throughout Central America is due mostly to a wave of deportations of gang members from the US that began in the 1990s.
Both MS-13 and M-18 began as small scale street gangs made up of mostly Central American (and some Mexican) migrants in the barrios, or slums, of Los Angeles in the late 1980s. They eventually became some of the most powerful gangs in the California prison system. By the end of the 1990s, the US started to see these groups as a serious criminal threat. Partly as a result, the Clinton administration significantly strengthened US deportation policies, beginning to send large numbers of foreign-born convicts back to their home countries.