MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
The drug war in Mexico has ramifications throughout the wider region. As the Mexican government attacks the drug cartels, they've sought new markets and smuggling routes. Several of them have been moving into smaller Central American nations. The cartels have crossed into Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, giving this region the highest homicide rate in the Americas.
In El Salvador, there's fear that the Mexican cartels are aligning themselves with the country's street gangs. NPR's Jason Beaubien has this final installment in our series on the drug war in Central America.
JASON BEAUBIEN: El Salvador has a gang problem and has had for quite some time. The two main gangs the 18th Street and the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS are so powerful and so volatile that their members get sent to separate prisons.
Impoverished neighborhoods in the capital, San Salvador, are clearly divided as belonging either to the MS or to the 18th.
The gang members control street-level drug sales, charge local residents for security, and battle to keep their rivals out of their territory.
Luis Alberto Espinoza Aranda is a 23-year-old gang member in San Salvador. Tattoos on his shoulders saying 18 make his allegiance clear.
Mr. LUIS ALBERTO ESPINOZA ARANDA (Gang member): (Through translator) It's a tough life. You suffer a lot of discrimination from the authorities and ordinary people.
BEAUBIEN: Espinoza joined the 18th Street gang five years ago, along with his two brothers. Just as Espinoza was leaving a one-year prison term for murder, his younger brother was sent away for drug trafficking.
Mr. ESPINOZA: (Through translator) It's a world where, like in prison, the authorities and everyone else treat you like you don't have a right to anything, just for the fact that you're a gang member.
BEAUBIEN: Espinoza says the Mexican cartels have been moving aggressively into El Salvador over the last couple of years. He says they mainly are trying to hire gang members to transport drugs.
Mr. ESPINOZA: (Through translator) This is the riskiest thing - to move the drugs. Selling it doesn't pose that much risk. You're just in one place. But when you're moving it around in the streets, this is when you're going to clash with the police or the soldiers.
BEAUBIEN: Like many gang members, Espinoza has a regular job. He and his mother sell tostadas from a stand in the street. He'd like to get out of the gang life, he says, but in the 18th Street leaving isn't an option.
The Mexican drug cartels control roughly 90 percent of the cocaine flowing from South America into the U.S., according to a�2010 State Department report. Much of that cocaine comes through Central America.
As the Mexicans move south, it's led to�cartel shootouts and huge massacres in Guatemala, a skyrocketing murder rate in Honduras, and�more drugs on the street here�in El Salvador.
Mr. HOWARD AUGUSTO COTTO (Salvadoran National Civilian Police): The Mexican cartels are not paying with money. No. They're paying with drugs.
BEAUBIEN: Howard Augusto Cotto is the deputy director for investigation with the Salvadoran National Civilian Police. There have been some large-scale seizures of drugs recently in El Salvador. But there haven't been firefights between the security forces and Mexican narcos as have unfolded, for instance, in neighboring Guatemala.
Mr. AUGUSTO: A lot of people he's talking about, if - if the�maras, the gangs here, are involved with that kind of criminal organizations in Mexico, I don't think that in this moment that relation is high or is strong, you know, but we are very concerned about that.
BEAUBIEN: The police commissioner points out that the Salvadoran gangs and the Mexican cartels have very different organizations. The Mexican cartels have relatively vertical structures focused on criminally lucrative activities.
The�maras�have horizontal structures, offer security to their members and a way to make some money. The�maras�could offer and according to some security analysts, already are offering the Mexican cartels access to a vast criminal network. The�maras�have stashes of weapons, established communications networks, and ruthless foot soldiers who have no qualms about smuggling drugs or assassinating rivals for a price.
Both the 18th Street gang and the Mara Salvatrucha originated on the streets of Los Angeles several decades ago. Their presence grew in El Salvador as members were deported from California. U.S. officials warn that an alliance between the Salvadoran gangs and the Mexicans could pose a great danger because the Salvadorans already control street-level drug distribution in some American cities.
Mr. USIEL PENA (Sociologist): (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: This is the barrio La Victoria, which is controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, according to Usiel Pena, a sociologist in San Salvador. He's standing on a dirt path amidst shacks made of cinder blocks and metal sheeting.
Pena was a soldier with the leftist FMLN rebels during El Salvador's civil war. As a guerrilla, he was based in this crowded neighborhood. Pena says the MS now controls this area the same way the FMLN did in the 1980s.
Mr. PENA: (Through translator) It's the same web, the same structure as when the guerrillas were here. It's the same neighborhood, the same little old grandmother who prays for them.
BEAUBIEN: The smoke from cooking fires wafts through the air, as does the pungent smell of marijuana. Outhouses serve as toilets. The second in command of the MS in La Victoria is a 33-year-old who only wants to give his nickname, Blue.
The head of the MS here, Triste, is laying low after a couple of people were gunned down in the barrio the night before. Blue says the MS only sells drugs to outsiders, except marijuana, which is permitted by the gang.
BLUE (Gang Member): (Through translator) Selling drugs is for the benefit of everyone. If someone sells drugs, it's because of all the needs of everyone in the community. There are colleagues who don't have a mother or anything, and only the gang helps them no one else.
BEAUBIEN: With his shirt covering his tattoos, Blue looks more like an evangelical preacher than a leader in one of the most feared gangs in the hemisphere. He's wearing a short-sleeved beige button-down shirt and black slacks. His hair is neatly parted and swept across his brow. It's only his missing right arm, which got blown off by a hand grenade, that hints at his violent career.
Blue talks of the MS as a social organization that protects the civilians in the neighborhood. They help get water lines connected. They're refurbishing the community hall. To him it's normal that residents have to pay rent to the gang for these services.
His clique of the MS doesn't yet work with the Mexican cartels, but he says they would if the conditions were right. Roughly half the members of the MS in El Salvador are in prison, and Blue says it's nearly impossible for them to find work when they get out.
BLUE: (Through translator) There are a lot of my colleagues who want to learn something, have something, function in a different way without bothering people constantly with extortion.
BEAUBIEN: But for gang members in El Salvador, he says, there are few good options available. And that's why they're quite open to the arrival of the Mexican narcotics cartels.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.