Ulises Rodriguez / Reuters Imprisoned members of street gang Mara 18 sit behind handmade knives and cell phones they were keeping illegally at the Izalco prison, about 65 km (40 miles) from San Salvador May 20, 2013.

Digital Tough Guys

How El Salvador's Gangs Stay Ahead of the Police Online

Over the last five months, El Salvador has suffered unprecedented levels of homicidal violence. According to the country’s Institute of Legal Medicine, more than 5,050 people were murdered this year at a rate of 18 killings a day. There were more assassinations in the past few months than in all of 2012 and 2013 combined. The country’s homicide rate today is almost 100 murders per 100,000 people, or 15 times the global average. El Salvador is not just having a few bad months—it is having a bad century.

And the problems keep getting worse. Following the dissolution of a controversial gang truce between rival groups last year—which temporarily halved the homicide rates but failed to reduce other criminal activities, such as extortion—the government doubled down on super mano dura (iron fist) policies designed to crush the country’s maras (gangs). The launching of an aggressive new police offensive known as the Reaction Police Group is linked to hundreds of deaths and disappearances of gang members. Law enforcement officers are routinely accused of using excessive force and massacring innocents.

Complicating matters, the country’s principal gangs—the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18—are coming apart at the seams. They are not only at war with the police and with one another—each is also waging a civil war within its own ranks. With the gangs purging and punishing “traitors” and “snitches,” the bloodletting shows little sign of abating. 

Yet there is something different about the surge in murders over the past few months. Until recently, gang violence was mediated by members of the old guard from inside their prison cells. MS-13 leaders inside the notorious Ciudad Barrios prison directed operations using smart phones. Barrio 18 chiefs locked up in the Izalco prison sent out orders using text messages. Some of gang leaders even posted updates of their criminal activities to Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. In one instance, a prisoner was caught using Facebook on his cell phone to order hits on rival gangs. 

This seizing thousands of phones from inmates. But as state authorities resorted to high-tech solutions to disrupt gang networks, gangs reverted to lower-tech tactics such as sending coded messages, known as willas, using pen and paper. With low-tech solutions comes miscommunication, however, and difficulties for gang leaders to send the right orders. 

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