(Mis)Understanding Gang Violence in El Salvador

Denise Rivera

Fear remains one of the most powerful forces to influence humans to flee or endure hostility. The influence of fear can be seen in any terrible act of violence, or even in the mere utterance of such words as “gangster” or “terrorist.” So what happens when the two words come together? When thinking about Al Capone, the word “terrorist” seems to be the last word that comes to mind. Yet, the word “terrorist” too has evolved into a different meaning. On 24 August 2015, the Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court) of El Salvador formally declared both supporters and members of the notorious gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), as terrorists. The verdict was in response to the high murder rates and social instability that had been terrorizing citizens, many of whom cornered into conceding to MS-13’s extortionist demands. And this past summer, El Salvador had officially been ranked as having the highest murder rate in the world without being involved in a war.

Historically, El Salvador has not been a stranger to bloodshed. It was plagued by a civil war from 1979 to 1992—a fight between the conservative Salvadorian military government forces known as La Fuerza Armada (Armed Forces), and the leftist guerrilla forces that would eventually create the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) political party. The Chapultepec Peace Accords of 1992 officially ended the civil war but achieved little in establishing peace. Despite the terms of this peace agreement to reduce military size, demobilize both the Armed Forces and the guerrilla army, create a new police force, permit more political freedoms, provide more land reform policies for rural workers, and implement more beneficial social programs, it failed to resolve the socio-economic inequality that remained prevalent among the majority of Salvadorians.

During the civil war, many Salvadorians fled and sought asylum in the United States, the most popular destination being Los Angeles, California. Due to existing segregation amongst Mexicans and African-Americans, and with both creating their own gangs to establish control over certain neighborhoods, MS-13 was formed to protect Salvadorians from other rival gangs. Eventually, MS-13 members themselves got involved in other criminal activities that would lead the United States to implement tougher deportation policies to deal with the rampant gang violence on its soil. The unresolved socio-economic inequality in El Salvador, coupled with the huge influx of deported MS-13 members, paved the way for years of political instability in El Salvador. Moreover, it didn’t help matters that the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party targeted the MS-13 as the root of many social concerns that predated their arrival.

MS-13’s criminal activities range from car theft and extortion from business owners and workers to kidnappings and drug trafficking. It heavily recruits Salvadorian youth—a strategy that reflects the lack of educational and vocational opportunities for teenagers from low-income families. In October 2012, the United States Department of Treasury officially classified MS-13 as the first gang to function as a transnational criminal organization. The presence of Mara Salvatrucha is global, having members from the West Coast and the East Coast of the United States, Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, and even Spain. Although it does not have as strong a global presence as its rival, the 18th Street Gang is another organization notorious for its violent acts in El Salvador. In 2003, former Salvadorian President Francisco Flores Perez implemented a measure called Plan Mano Dura (Iron Fist). It gave the police authorities the power to imprison any person suspected of being a gang member without any evidence. While this led to increased incarceration, it was also compounded by a reciprocal increase in gang violence.

When Mauricio Funes came into office in 2009, optimism and hope returned to many Salvadorians. Funes was the first FMLN party candidate to win the presidency. He promised to create better programs to assist in reducing poverty but he also authorized the army to collaborate with the police to find an effective solution to gang violence. This concerned many Salvadorians, as it was reminiscent of the government operations during the civil war when death squads were employed to kill those who supported the leftist guerrilla forces. What shocked El Salvador and the rest of the world was when MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang declared a peaceful truce in March 2012. Monsignor Fabio Colindres, head chaplain of the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) and the National Civil Police (PNC), and Raul Mijango, former FMLN congressman and guerrilla member, conducted this negotiation. In return, gang leaders lived in better prison conditions and gained more privileges such as the right to family visits. The news sparked controversy among Salvadorians who were not only suspicious of the clandestine nature of the negotiations but distrustful of the commitment of gang members, known to be unpredictable and hostile towards innocent civilians. Nevertheless, when the truce was announced, the murder rate did start to decline gradually. Yet, by the end of 2013, the FMLN government withdrew its support due to public pressure and media reports of gang members being transferred to low security prisons, along with accusations of increased extortion and drug trade activity. The current Salvadorian President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, when inaugurated into office in January 2014, he formally declared the end of the truce, thus endorsing the refusal of the governing party to negotiate with gang members. Cerén further announced an initiative called El Salvador Seguro (Safe El Salvador), a $2 billion USD plan intended to incite institutional reform through violence prevention programs, provide education and training opportunities, build parks and sports facilities, etcetera. Although this initiative sounds promising, it does not significantly alleviate the many problems Salvadorians face.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provides significant financial aid to Central American countries with the objective of preventing violence. Yet this aid cannot supplement programs that assist or work with active gang members. This has affected the availability of sufficient rehabilitation and support programs needed to rehabilitate gang members and introduce them to alternative means of livelihood. The lack of sufficient working relationships between gang members and rehabilitative professionals widens the misunderstanding about gang members’ intentions. This has perpetuated the stigma that gang members face from the media, political parties, and citizens. One of the their demands, for instance, is that the government invest in poor neighborhoods, repair roads, provide health clinics, schools and loans to start businesses, and reform the police force.
Reports of murdered police officials and bus drivers targeted for extortion and assassination, and the government’s desperate attempts to keep the peace through harsher law enforcement measures make the Safe El Salvador plan a distant illusion. Bus drivers have gone on strike, demanding better security measures even as many individuals continue to use private trucks and military vehicles in order to get to their destinations safely. The National Forensics Institute reported that El Salvador has seen 4,246 murders since the beginning of this year, an average of nearly twenty murders per day. To remedy the predicament El Salvadorians face, the government gave the police force unrestrained power to use fatal tactics against gang members without facing legal repercussions.

El Salvador’s Supreme Court defined terrorism as organized and systematic exercise of violence. The classification of MS-13 gang members as terrorists was designed to issue harsher prison sentences while decreasing the high homicide rate in the nation. What is not sufficiently addressed is that the prevalence of MS-13 reveals the failures of the 1992 peace accords to effectively implement social reforms and policies that would enable Salvadorians to successfully transition from a war-torn country into a peaceful society. Today, the social and political climate in El Salvador mirrors the civil war days of twenty-three years ago. In fact, on 22 June 2015, the United States Department of State urged traveling U.S. citizens to remain alert of their surroundings while bearing in mind that El Salvador lacks the resources necessary to investigate and further prosecute criminal cases.

Salvadorian gang members have been portrayed as both perpetrators and victims of this current conflict. The public showed them no empathy after their classification as terrorists. Yet the label itself seems to be evolving with time. What seems to be forgotten is that during the civil war, the leftist guerrillas were considered terrorists, although they sought governmental reform and voiced opinions against a socio-economic system that simply failed to address the urgent needs of the people. Salvadorians became gang members to survive in a world that showed little opportunity and care for them. While it is imperative to recognize the immense hardship and cruelty that constitutes their everyday, it cannot condone the various counts of violence that these gang members stand guilty of. To label MS-13 gang members as terrorists will no doubt incite a new conversation and international response regarding how the other neighboring countries may contain this transnational criminal organization and break the cycle of violence.


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