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El Salvador's Rival Gang Members Might Soon Become Cellmates

El Salvador's government has said it can no longer provide “exclusive” prison facilities for the notorious MS 13 and Barrio 18 gangs.
Photo via AP/Luis Romero

El Salvador’s government is considering ending the practice of separating prisoners based on their gang affiliation, meaning that members of Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Barrio 18, the country’s most notorious gangs, could call themselves prison mates in the “not too distant” future.

According to Benito Lara, minister of Justice and Public Security, Salvadoran gangs have become so divided that authorities can no longer provide “exclusive” infrastructure for each group.


Gang members make up around 36 percent of El Salvador’s jail population and ever since 2003 the country has been splitting up inmates based on their gang pledge in an attempt to reduce prison violence and prevent large-scale riots.

Currently, 5,432 members of MS13 live in two prisons throughout the country, while Barrio 18 is divided between four prisons, as reported by La Prensa Grafica. The 2,351 Revolucionarios, who represent one faction of the gang, are locked into two prisons and 2,135 Sureños are detained in the other two.

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Yet critics say this separation has had unintended consequences, only making the gangs stronger by allowing them to rule the facilities and easily operate from behind bars. The reality is that prison gang leaders have been effectively running some parts of El Salvador for many years.

Historically, El Salvador has been a hotspot for gang-related crime for decades and had one of the world’s highest homicide rates for many years. In March 2012, the government brokered a truce between the two gangs in an effort to end the violence.

The peace worked at first and cut the country's murder rate to a 10-year low by mid-2013, with an average of about five homicides a day. That was a significant improvement from the 2012 rate of about 14 murders a day.

Recently, however, the truce appears to be failing and the homicide rate shot back up by nearly 70 percent over the last year. It is unclear yet whether prison gang desegregation will distract MS 13 and Barrio 18 members behind bars, or just aggravate more violence out on El Salvador's streets.

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