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Central America cracks down on gangs in coordinated swoops

Soldiers take part in the official launch of the Trinational Force against organized crime in Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras on November 15, 2016 © AFP/File / Marvin RECINOS

SAN SALVADOR, Sep 15 – Central America’s “northern triangle” — consisting of its most crime-ridden nations — waged a coordinated crackdown this week on two major gangs infamous for extortion, murder and violence: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18.

Security forces in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala on Monday and Tuesday arrested more than 1,000 suspected gang members and seized 35 properties, after discovering the gangs were using small businesses they extorted to also launder money.

The thrust of the swoops, code-named Operation Shield, was to attack the finances of the gangs.

In El Salvador, where 428 of the arrests were made, it followed another series of raids last week in which 41 businesses — most of them restaurants and small grocery stores — and 70 vehicles were confiscated.

‘It represents a new stage in the relationship between the extortionists, in this case the gangs, and those extorted,” a university researcher, Carlos Carcach, told AFP.

“This relationship has shifted to a parasitical relationship, a symbiotic relationship,” he said, explaining that the business owners worked out the only way they could keep operating was to work with the gangs seeking to launder money from crimes such as drug trafficking.

According to authorities, there are an estimated 70,000 gang members in El Salvador, 36,000 in Honduras, and 10,000 in Guatemala.

With around 16,000 murders last year, the northern triangle is considered one of the most deadly regions in the world outside of war zones.

One gang analyst, Istmania Platero, said he believed the three-nation crackdown was carried out “as part of the policies of (US) President Donald Trump.”

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Several Central American countries are under the sway of Washington, relying on it for aid money to improve security and prevent outflows of migrants toward the US.

Trump has vowed “to destroy” MS-13, which also operates in the United States, and other gangs. In July, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, met with chief prosecutors from the northern triangle in El Salvador’s capital.


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