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Since El Salvador’s civil war formally ended in 1992 the small Central American nation has undergone profound social changes and significant reforms. However, few changes have been as important or as devastating as the nation’s emergence as a central hub in the transnational criminal “pipeline” or series of recombinant, overlapping chains of routes and actors that illicit organizations use to traffic in drugs, money weapons, human being, endangered animals and other products.

The erasing of the once-clear ideological lines that drove the civil war and the ability of erstwhile enemies to join forces in criminal enterprises in the post-war period is an enduring and dangerous characteristic of El Salvador’s transnational criminal evolution. Trained, elite cadres from both sides, with few legitimate job opportunities, found their skills were marketable in the growing criminal structures. The groups moved from kidnapping and extortion to providing protection services to transnational criminal organizations to becoming integral parts of the organizations themselves.

The demand for specialized military and transportation services in El Salvador have exploded as the Mexican DTOs consolidate their hold on the cocaine market and their relationships with the transportista networks, which is still in flux. The value of their services has risen dramatically also because of the fact that multiple Mexican DTOs, at war with each other in Mexico and seeking to physically control the geographic space of the lucrative pipeline routes in from Guatemala to Panama, are eager to increase their military capabilities and intelligence gathering capacities.

The emergence of multiple non-state armed groups, often with significant ties to the formal political structure (state) through webs of judicial, legislative and administrative corruption, has some striking parallels to Colombia in the 1980s, where multiple types of violence ultimately challenged the sovereignty of state and left a lasting legacy of embedded corruption within the nation’s political structure.

Organized crime in El Salvador is now transnational in nature and more integrated into stronger, more versatile global networks such as the Mexican DTOs. It is a hybrid of both local crime – with gangs vying for control off specific geographic space so they can extract payment for the safe passage of illicit products – and transnational groups that need to use that space to successfully move their products. These symbiotic relationships are both complex and generally transient in nature but growing more consolidated and dangerous.


"The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this report (paper) are those of the author(s) and should not be construed as an official Department of the Army position, policy or decision unless so designated by the official documentation.

Funded by the National Defense Center for Energy and Environment (NDCEE), ID W91WAW-09-D-0022, delivery order number 0616."



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