Gangs, Guns and Governments; a look into Violence in El Salvador

Current Events Sep 02, 2019

By Leah Meyers
Published 2018-12-12

The year is 2015. The place is El Salvador. The government is brought to its knees in what Oscar Martinez called a “ruthless show of force” by three Salvadoran gangs. Gangs halt the public transition system, warning bus owners and employees across the country not to drive. La Mara Salvatrucha gang, or MS-13, kills a driver and burns three microbuses as a warning. The next day, six drivers who ignore these warnings are killed. Soldiers are deployed and tanks are sent to the streets. Government vehicles are diverted to the country’s capital, San Salvador, to serve as a replacement for public transportation. Despite government efforts, however, the gangs “[succeed] in almost completely paralyzing San Salvador’s transportation system for four days” affecting 1.3 million Salvadorans and resulting in an $80 million loss in the economy.

The year is 2017. The location is El Salvador. MS-13 reportedly begins implementation of “Plan Orphan Child,” a plot to kill security forces and their families in retaliation for the government’s toughening of incarceration conditions. In a 48 hour period, three relatives of security force members are murdered. Eight die in a two week period.

In the face of gang violence, the government of El Salvador appears impotent. Its own citizens by a nearly 4 to 1 margin believe that it is the gangs rather than the government who really “rule” El Salvador according to a 2017 El Mundo poll. The evidence of gang power is right before their eyes: El Salvador is reported to have a “level of deadly violence unparalleled outside war zones: 103 homicides per 100,000 residents [in 2017], compared with five in the United States” as data gathered by the World Bank reveals. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime put the numbers slightly higher for 2015, at 109 homicides per 100,000 people in El Salvador. As many as one in twelve people have ties to the gangs in El Salvador. MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs extort roughly 70% of all businesses in the country. Extortion by gang members cost Salvadoran companies “$756 million in 2014 — a staggering 3 percent of the country’s GDP — the total cost of gang-related violence that year reached 16 percent of the GDP.”

The current paper will begin with a review of some of the main causes of gang violence in El Salvador, namely, after-effects of the civil war, mass emigration, and the difficulty in extricating members from gangs. The paper will then review the Salvadoran government’s two main responses to gang violence: 1) tough anti-gang legislation known as the Mano Dura (iron fist) and 2) facilitation of gang truces. Next, means of reducing gang violence through rehabilitation programs, evangelical efforts, strengthening of security forces, reduction of law enforcement corruption, intelligence sharing aimed at capitation of gang leadership, as well as improvement and protection of the judiciary system will be reviewed. The paper will conclude by noting the global reaches of Salvadoran gangs such as MS13 and the benefits of adopting global initiatives to address Salvadoran gang violence.

Causes of Gang Violence

1. Effects of the Civil War and Mass Emigration
El Salvador experienced a devastating civil war from 1980 to 1992. Leftist guerilla group Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) fought the right-wing government, backed by the United States (in an effort to thwart communist initiatives). The civil war caused widespread migration to the United States. Emigration rates in El Salvador accelerated at the onset of civil unrest in 1979, reaching “more than eleven times its level of six years earlier” as reported by Jones, by 1981, a year after the start of the war. In 1982, migration soared higher “with an estimated 129,000 individuals recorded leaving the country” that year alone. There was over a seven- fold increase in the number of Salvadoran immigrants who came to the United States from 1985 to 1990 as compared to 1970 to ‘74. Numbers swelled higher over the next few decades, fed in part by the aftermath of the 2001 earthquakes and the U.S. decision to award Temporary Protected Status to over 200,000 Salvadoran refugees. Upon arrival to Los Angeles in the 1980s, Salvadorans formed MS-13 and later Barrio 18 to defend themselves against other local street gangs. Sheridan describes how “Young men who had fled El Salvador's civil war banded together at that time to protect themselves from Mexican American and African American gangs.”

In 1996, the United States Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act “whereby non-US citizens sentenced to one year or more in prison were to be repatriated to their countries of origin.” Felons born outside the U.S. could have their citizenship revoked and be expelled after serving their prison sentence. The Act resulted in almost 46,000 deportations of convicts to Central America from 1998 to 2005. An additional 160,000 illegal immigrants “caught without the requisite permit” were also deported. Rogers reports that those deported solely on the basis of their undocumented status included gang members in their ranks: “Many of these deportees were members of the 18th Street and Salvatrucha gangs who had arrived in the United States as toddlers but had never secured legal residency or citizenship.” The gangs, then, originated in the United States, but members were sent back by the tens of thousands to El Salvador, giving rise to their emergence in that country. The skyrocketing emigration rates combined with deaths from the war itself caused dramatic depopulation of males in particular in El Salvador, placing the resulting fatherless children at increased risk of gang violence and vulnerable to gang recruitment efforts. The percentage of males fell from 98.98 in 1970 to only 88.96 in 2015. Estimates put the number of people killed in the war at 75,000. Most of non-civilian deaths were presumably male soldiers. Depopulation may have facilitated the recruitment of boys to gangs. In addition, the number of emigrants to the US are overwhelmingly male: As many as 91% by one count. Young men are the demographic group most susceptible to gang recruitment and most likely to commit crimes. Without the presence of a male figure in the household, researchers report that the likelihood that children will join gangs increases. In one psychological study “gang involvement,” was found to be one of ten adverse outcomes elevated in homes missing a father. “A high percentage of gang members come from father-absent homes,” since “Having a father in the child’s life greatly reduces the likelihood of a child joining a gang.” One reason for this is the need for a sense of belonging. As other studies on why young men join gangs suggest, there are “tens of thousands of grunts who are not seeking personal profit, only respect and a sense of belonging.” For teenagers, gang membership might be “less tangible but more valuable” than financial or monetary benefits. Children with limited opportunities “are often driven to seeking out activity and acceptance on the streets” to join others like them. “Through gangs, youth find a sense of community and acceptance. In addition, the gang leader may fill the role of father, often leading members to model their behaviors after that individual.” Emigration may separate sons from fathers in two ways: One type of separation occurs when the major wage-earner leaves the family to go to the United States and his kids are left with other relatives; a second type occurs when unaccompanied boys come to the United States (ironically to flee gangs in El Salvador only to be pressured too often upon arrival to join one), separating from their father in their homeland.

The catastrophic economic effects of the civil war also contributed in other ways to the increase in gang membership and violence. A lack of education and few employment opportunities are listed as leading factors in gang recruitment, according to Strickland. Gang members are “often recruited at very young ages and normally come from poor families with very little education” as described by Strickland. The “economic constraints” that El Salvador continues to face from its civil war are “significant.”

An additional contributor to ongoing violence is “A history of using violence to resolve conflicts.” As Wade argues “Violence is likely to increase in post-conflict societies.” She explains that after the “demobilization of old police and military forces,” and before “the deployment of new forces,” a vacuum is created allowing for increased violence. After El Salvador’s civil war, the armed forces were rapidly dissolved and there was a “lack of a transitional security plan,” resulting in “a security gap in postwar El Salvador.” The increased availability of arms resulting from the war also contributed to the country’s increased or ongoing violence.

2. No Escape From the Gangs
The adage “once a gang member, always a gang member” unfortunately holds true in El Salvador. According to Martinez, gang members have few ways of escaping the gang. “For a gang member tired of the gang life, at any rate, there is nowhere to go.” Tattoos of gang names and symbols make gang members identifiable for life. Common spray-painted graffiti written on walls in cities and towns throughout El Salvador say “Jail or the Cemetery,” a short list of life (or death) options available for gang members. El Salvador has few gang-prevention initiatives aimed at high-risk youths. Furthermore, rehabilitation centers and reintegration programs for gang members who seek refuge or re-immersion into society are largely absent. The gangs themselves prevent members from leaving as well. Sometimes they will permit older members to transition into “calmado” status (or “calmed down”) where they are called upon only as needed in an auxiliary role. A second exit acceptable to the other gang members is to become an Evangelical Christian as discussed later.

Government Responses to Gang Violence

The Salvadoran government has attempted to reduce gang violence and lower homicide rates using two main techniques: The Mano Dura (iron fist) policies and imposition of gang truces. Anti-gang legislation put forth by the Salvadoran government led to blanket and mass incarceration for everyone identified as a gang member. The second largely unsuccessful response to gang violence was government-supported gang truces. These government initiatives and their affects will now be explored in greater detail.

1. Anti-Gang Legislation
Wade writes on the political and societal pressure to crack down on gangs through the implementation of anti-gang legislation dates back to the 1990s in El Salvador. At various times throughout the decade, members of Salvadoran political parties ARENA and FMLN “favored policies that were tough on crime.” Additionally “Security and business sectors” in El Salvador criticized the reform of the 1998 Penal Code against gangs for being “too soft.” In July 2003, COENA, the highest authority ARENA, pressured President Francisco Flores to implement an “anti-gang plan, known as Mano Dura (Iron First),” despite his initial resistance towards such “tougher” approaches to crime.

The Mano Dura legislation “authorized soldiers to work with the police in joint- operation groups called Grupos de Tarea Anti-pandilla (GTAs) in an effort to crack down on crime.” One of the Mano Dura policies was known as Operation Firm Hand. The legislation allowed attorneys to prosecute “gang members over 12 years of age... as adults, and [permit them to] receive up to 20 years in prison.” Ley Antimaras was another anti-gang (specifically, anti-MS-13) law that was implemented as part of the Mano Dura policies in 2003. The Ley Antimaras “aimed to facilitate the detention and prosecution of suspected gang members based on the newly defined felony of, ‘illicit association’ (asociación ilícita) and gang membership.” The police and army used “gang tattoos, hand signals, some dress codes, and physical appearance” as evidence of gang membership and permission to arrest a suspected gang member. Wade writes that “The plan also included harsh penalties for merely being (or even appearing to be) a member of a gang, including arrest and two to five years in prison…As many as 3,000 alleged gang members were arrested in the first three months of the plan.”

The “militarized policing policies,” continued to be enforced, and perhaps were even elevated, under Muaricio Funes, Salvadoran President from 2009 to 2014. Starting in November, 2009 for a six-month period, Funes ordered “an additional twenty-five hundred troops to join police patrols in new anti-gang units.” By June of 2010, a year into his presidency, Funes had increased the number of army troops deployed to “back up police in the fight against criminal violence” to 4,000, stating that “We cannot permit a group of vicious criminals to take hold of Salvadoran society." The military’s presence also expanded from 19 to 29 “high-crime communities.” Following a gang attack on public transportation buses in June 2010 that killed 17 civilians in the nation’s capital, San Salvador. Funes implemented new anti-gang legislation, adding to Mano Dura. The new policy was called the Law Prohibiting Maras, Gangs, Groups, Associations and Organizations of Criminal Nature, or Anti-Gang Law of 2010 for short. The law, passed and signed in September 2010, administered tougher prison sentences for gang members, making gang membership punishable by up to ten years in jail. Funes took measures against gangs further, so far as to breach the peace accords (administered by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court), by appointing “former General David Munguía Payés as Minister of Justice and Public Security and recently retired General Francisco Ramón Salinas Rivera as the Director of the Policia Nacional Civil,” or the Civil National Police.

In 2016, under current President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled that gangs could be classified as terrorist organizations “allowing [law enforcement] more liberty to use violence against [the gangs].” Additionally, as an expansion of the GTAs or joint-operation groups of gang-fighting soldiers and local policemen, authorities implemented new anti-gang legislation, which allowed the army to mobilize in some municipalities to fight gangs.

a. Mass Incarceration
Not only did the Mano Dura policies create negative public sentiment and feelings of vengeance leading to more brutality on the streets, but they also may have resulted in more violence in jails and problems with the government in following human rights laws. Operation Firm Hand in El Salvador, described by Strickland “resulted in serious prison overcrowding.” A Vice News Documentary concluded that the policies allowed law enforcement officials in El Salvador to “pursue and capture youths suspected of belonging to a gang without evidence or due process.” The operations essentially “allowed for the capture and mass incarceration of gang members, thus saturating and overpopulating their prisons. A major problem with these policies was that the prison system could not (and cannot) support this level of incarceration.” The prisons are notorious for being overcrowded and corrupt. In addition, the nature of the prisons is very dangerous, and they have even been called “warehouses of violence.”

Although incarceration acts as a temporary solution to ending gang violence on the streets, it did not serve to end gang members’ criminal activity. Most national gang leaders operate from prison, using cellphones and arranging private visits with lawyers to retain tight control of their gangs’ criminal activities and finances. Hamilton et al. show how gang leaders are able to “oversee street-level drug dealing and extortion, and to order kidnappings and murders” from their prison cells. Authorities have therefore “decided to take the fight against the gangs to their home base: the country's... prisons.” Justice Minister Mauricio Ramírez told reporters “[Prisoners] are going to be subjected to a higher security regimen, with greater control to make sure communication from inside the prison system is stopped." The same report writes that in March of 2016 “the government declared a state of emergency in seven prisons, promising deep searches for weapons, money, and cellphones. They also moved 299 high-ranking MS-13 members into a maximum security prison near San Salvador, the country's capital…It is painfully obvious that in Central American prisons... no one is really watching— and, more important to panopticism, the prisoners know that they have been left alone.”

The government's action also raises issues regarding international human rights laws. One NGO focussed on the subject claims “Overcrowding is a consequence of criminal justice policy, not of rising crime rates, and undermines the ability of prison systems to meet basic human needs, such as healthcare, food, and accommodation…It also compromises the provision and effectiveness of rehabilitation programs, educational and vocational training, and recreational activities.” Further, prison conditions are so violent, gang members are often killed. The move from one prison population to another “es igual a la pena de muerte (is the same as a death sentence)” as quoted by O’Neill. Arresting more gang members ultimately may not provide a complete solution to reducing gang violence. As Strickland adds “All of these [policies and] operations are effective law enforcement actions that result in more arrests, but they do not necessarily reduce the crime threat and are limited in dealing with the root causes of the problem.”

b. Other Negative Effects of the Mano Dura Policies
While initially thought to be a potential solution to gang violence, some critics have argued that legislation against gangs in El Salvador has ultimately been ineffective and exacerbated the problem. They argued that indiscriminate nature of the laws worked against the goal of reducing violence. The policies have been called “special laws, executive acts, and the rewriting of criminal codes to allow the police to round up, incarcerate, and prosecute gang members and any youth suspected of criminal activities.” As Wade summarizes “In addition to being ineffective, there was strong evidence that the policies were actually counterproductive to reducing gang violence.” Former Salvadoran gang truce negotiator, Raúl Mijango stated that “It’s been shown that taking repressive action simply doesn’t work. It’s the opposite, it makes things much worse.” As another source simply puts it “Domestic party politics in the three countries have resulted in the reliance of heavy hand (mano dura) responses to the gangs, which have mainly served to exacerbate the problem.” Critics marshal arguments such as the following: During the Mano Dura period, between 2003 and 2009, there were “23,721 recorded homicides in El Salvador,” in comparison to “8,845 homicides from 1999 to 2002,” before the implementation of the policies. MS-13 and 18th Street “have been fighting a battle for territory for decades. Now they are also fighting a new enemy as the police and military have been ordered to crush them. Violence has now risen to levels that haven’t been seen since the country’s civil war. ... [There have been] Over 900 murders in August” in El Salvador. Wade argues that this is “a clear indication that the policies did nothing to alleviate, and may have possibly exacerbated, the homicide epidemic.” Instead of succumbing to the law enforcement’s suppression, the New York Times reports that “The gangs are fighting back.”

Bruneau concludes “These heavy hand policies were essentially plans for suppressive police intervention.” One of the six main suggestions to address the problems of gang violence, as put forth by a cohesive group of Americans and Central Americans in the fields of social services, government, and law enforcement at a conference in 2015 was that “Governments need to scale back on heavy-handed law enforcement approaches.”

These critics may have been premature in their conclusions: The US State Department writes that “Crime statistics indicate the 2017 annual homicide rate – 60.07 per 100,000 inhabitants – was significantly lower than 2016’s 80.97 per 100,000,” which, in turn, is dramatically lower than the 100 plus per 100,000 rate cited earlier for 2015.

2. Government- Supported Gang Truces
Quantitative data and qualitative reports from journalists and gang members themselves reveal that the anti-gang legislation from 2003 to 2009 did not appear to reduce homicide rates: As a result, the government tried a new tactic—a gang truce agreement. The gangs agreed to stop killing each other and halt forced recruitment, and Wade shows how in return, the government granted them “improved prison conditions, less onerous visitor inspections, and opportunities for employment and reintegration.” Arse describes this dynamic in his review of the Gang Truce. The government allowed “top gang leaders out of El Salvador’s maximum-security prison to regular facilities where they were able to coordinate with lieutenants on the street.” The prison provided televisions to gang members in jail and inmates were granted “increased visiting rights,” to encourage the truce. The gangs discovered that their “most preposterous demands,” including reports of “prostitutes in prison, unfettered cell-phone communications, [and] police withdrawal from the interiors of jails, could be met if they dumped enough dead bodies on the streets,” using homicide as what Farah calls their “primary negotiating tool.” Additionally, as part of the compromise “Gangs living in ‘peace zones,’ municipalities where they promised to cease violent activities, were eligible for reinsertion and education programs (Wade).” In other words, they were essentially granted impunity.

Following the truce agreements, from about 2010 to 2013, homicide rates in El Salvador appeared to decrease dramatically. A Barrio 18 gang leader “Santiago,” says the high death rates and a responsibility to reduce the amount of bloodshed led Barrio 18 “to make a truce with [their] mortal enemy,” MS-13. Raúl Mijango believes “The only success we have had [in lowering levels of violence] was the process we called the truce. It was the only measure that reduced the death toll.” Santiago concurs with this, explaining how the truce resulted in a large reduction in homicides.

According to Maritnez et al., the 18-month long truce between MS-18 and Barrio 18 seemed at first to be extremely effective. “The [MS-13] leaders sent out an order from behind bars: Stop killing.” And according to the New York Times “from one day to the next, homicides dropped 60 percent to a level that, with small variations, was maintained until the government’s negotiations with the gangs... ended two years later.” The New York Times in a second article reported that “the homicide rate fell from an average of 15 deaths a day to just five. There were days without a single murder.” A Vice article stated that “murders fell by 40 percent nationwide in nine months” during the 2012 truce. Sources went on to report that the homicide rate continued to drop. In 2012 and 2013, the truce between “El Salvador’s biggest gangs” with help from the government, was said to have brought down “the nation’s devastating murder rate by more than half.” During the truce, top leaders of MS-13 and Barrio 18 posted a video on YouTube ordering “their forces to stop the killings throughout the country.” “Murder rates declined significantly during this period,” according to authorities. UNODC data appeared to show that the homicide rate (death per 100,000) in El Salvador was 64.1 in 2010, 69.9 in 2011, and only 41.2 in 2012. The truce between gangs was deemed “central to the nation’s strategy for taming its infamous violence.” Lead mediator of the truces, Mr. Mijango, called the truces a “peace process.” The truces fell apart in 2014 when President Salvador Sánchez Cerén took office. The gangs were said to have immediately began fighting each other and law enforcement. “Now since the truce has failed, the murder rate is the highest it has been since El Salvador’s brutal civil war in the 1980s.”

Later reports, however, have drawn the rosy picture of a drop in homicide rates into question. Later reports brought attention to the increased number of people who have disappeared or gone missing. Vice shows how “The discovery of mass graves suggested that the killings may have simply continued clandestinely” while Hamilton et al concludes that “Extortion and other crimes reportedly continued.” Justice and Security Minister David Munguia Payes confessed that “extortion would not stop while unemployment remained high.” Farah argues that the gangs used the truce to gain power. “They used the cease-fire to rearm, reorganize, and build closer ties to regional cocaine transport networks. The leadership had almost two years to develop a political and economic strategy, bring in advisors, and begin a profound metamorphosis from street gangs to criminal organizations with territorial and political control.”

Possible Solutions to Gang Violence

Solutions to gang problems should be “multi-agency and multinational, and require resources, time, and a balanced approach with prevention programs, law enforcement, and rehabilitation opportunities” as defined by Strickland. Solutions to gang violence will not be easily implemented.

1. Gang Prevention and Rehabilitation Programs
A potential solution to reducing gang violence in Central America would be increasing the presence of gang prevention programs. Strickland points out that “Thus far, programs have focused mainly on law enforcement,” arguing that “little support has been given to a more balanced approach that includes prevention programs and intervention.” He further explains that, while “Law enforcement actions have considerable merit,” they “do not provide a comprehensive approach to all the issues or address the root causes of the problem.” USAID similarly states that “There must be a balanced approach with law enforcement and prevention programs,” arguing that it is “the only way to achieve a long-term solution.” These programs are expensive, however, and require government intervention from an already overtaxed government.

If the prevention program fails, there needs to be a way to escape the gang. A solution to this would be increasing the presence of rehabilitation programs. Another solution would be an affirmative action law “for gang members who quit and need jobs” as mentioned by Arce. A combination of state and non-governmental organizations would likely be needed in order to successfully implement gang prevention and rehabilitation programs. Again, however, government economic constraints present difficulties for implementation. Outside assistance may be effective. “Job programs were started in 10 municipalities,” Arce writes “with support from international donors.”

2. Evangelical Solutions
Although the only two traditional options available to those who wish to leave their gang are either jail or the graveyard, church ministers in El Salvador instead say “There are only two ways out. One is death. The other is Christian conversion.” In recent government efforts to reduce gang violence and create stability “charismatic and Pentecostal ministers” in El Salvador, work in streets and in church confessionals to “open the hearts of gang members to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.” Though “There is little reliable data on how many members have left the MS13 by joining a church,” in a recent study of “nearly 1,200 gang members in El Salvador’s jails, 58 percent said the church was the, ‘most appropriate organization to lead rehabilitation programs.’” Dudley’s review of the project says that the evangelical Pentecostal church specifically “drew [gang members] into its fold and wrenched them, prayer service by prayer service, from the tenacious grip of the gangs. The gangs, in turn, respected this exit.” Leaving the gangs for Christianity could therefore prove an acceptable escape from gangs, and potentially work to reduce gang membership and violence.

Both the church and the gang are tightly knit social organizations, places where people find an alternative family that require deep emotional and time commitments. Church members address one another as brother and sister, and like gang members, they are expected to look out for one another, providing jobs, shelter and food when needed. Churches are also highly patriarchal. Churches may fulfill needs for family and protection in father-absent households.

Many evangelical churches tackle the gang menace not just on a spiritual and an emotional level but also a practical one. They provide jobs and job contacts, informal child-care services, and access to health care. Perhaps most important, they monopolize their members’ time. Church services happen every night or nearly every night, coinciding with the hours when gang members are expected to “hangear,” as they like to say in Spanglish, with fellow gang members.

3. Improve the Security Apparatus: A Lesson from Nicaragua
While countries in the Northern Triangle have the highest per capita murder rates in the world, levels of violence vary dramatically to the region’s Southern neighbors, namely Nicaragua. Recent data (2015) reveals that Nicaragua has an estimated homicide rate of between 13 to 15 homicides per 100,000 people. The homicide rates in El Salvador are as high as 109 homicides per 100,000, as previously mentioned. In addition to lower homicide rates, gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 are virtually nonexistent in Nicaragua. Further, Nicaragua has an economic disadvantage, with the lowest per capita income or social development compared to three neighbours to its North. Bruneau thus advises that the “anomalous situation of Nicaragua... should [therefore] attract the attention of serious researchers.” In explaining why violence levels differ across Central America and Nicaragua’s lower homicide rates, some experts on Central American gangs and violence emphasize “the very different security apparatus in Nicaragua in contrast to the other three [Northern Triangle] countries.” In line with Wade’s theory that violence is likely to increase in post-conflict societies due to the vacuum created after the demobilization of security forces, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua “with the help of Cubans and allies in East/Central Europe, created a security apparatus that filled voids existing in the other countries.” Thomas Bruneau further argues that the presence of the law enforcement officials under the Sandinista government prohibit the most violent gangs from establishing “footholds” in Nicaragua. Bruneau decides that “While the security apparatus is integrated and coherent in Nicaragua, it is anything but in the other three countries.” Nicaragua, then, could perhaps act as a model/ set an example for the Northern Triangle countries in lowering violence levels by strengthening their security apparatus.

The situation in Nicaragua today, however, demonstrates the potential downside of a government with security forces that are too powerful. Daniel Ortega remains the President of Nicaragua, 40 years after leading the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN to take over the Somoza regime in 1978. Recent protests against the Ortega regime have killed over 300 people since April, 2018. The same security forces who filled a void and served as a deterrent to violent gang members has taken a turn down a slippery slope toward a potentially equally violent alternative, a military regime.

4. Reduce Corruption in Law Enforcement
Reducing corruption in governing bodies and law enforcement might also provide an effective strategy to reducing gang violence in El Salvador. Wade quotes research findings indivating that police corruption in Central America “had a significant impact on popular perceptions about the police and its ability to fight crime. Salvadorans were reluctant to report crimes to the police, both for fear of retribution and for fear of police shakedowns…Reports of police abuses and extrajudicial killings, including a particularly damning report by El Faro on a 2015 police massacre of suspected gang members, raised concerns about police professionalism amid growing crime…Many of those transferred [into the Civil National Police, or PNC] became high-ranking officials within the PNC, and almost half of them would later be investigated for corruption and ties to illicit organizations, including drug trafficking and death squads.” Citizens have no reason to confide in law enforcement officials if they are just as unlawful and brutal as the gang members themselves.

The threat that gangs play to law enforcement officials, however, offers a challenge to strengthening law enforcement and police. Gang violence against police officers caused more than 800 officers from the National Civil Police to quit their jobs from early 2013 to 2016 “reporting that their families had been threatened.” Police may be tended to retaliate against those threatening or causing violence through extrajudicial killings. Violence directed toward security officials and their families may also make it difficult to recruit top talent.

5. Improve Intelligence-Sharing Networks
During a 2008 Policia Nacional Civil Anti-Gang conference in El Salvador, an FBI intelligence analyst determined that the U.S.-Central American exchange of intelligence was a weakness in their fight against the gangs. According to the FBI, the countries’ agencies therefore created “a forum and a mechanism to exchange this information…The players must promote information exchange between affected countries to assess costs, share lessons learned, and to discuss anti- gang efforts, plans, and programs.” The best way to fight gangs is said to be understanding their organizations from top down through “Cooperative intelligence sharing across borders.” The Central American Intelligence Program (CAIP) is a joint initiative of United States and Central American Intelligence agencies designed to thwart organized crime and gang activity. USAID states that “Solutions to gang problems will require U.S. Government involvement with cooperation from all agencies and the Central American countries. Independent action alone will not be fully effective…In an effort to further enhance law enforcement efforts, the FBI also created the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) in 2005. The NGIC is also a multi-agency effort that attempts to integrate intelligence across all law enforcement levels on the various gang activities that pose a threat to the United States.”

6. Improve and Protect the Judiciary
Weak judicial institutions and impunity are one of the main contributors to ongoing violence in El Salvador. Wade’s sources estimate that “as many as 60 percent of arrests [in El Salvador] never made it to trial…In 2005 only 14 percent of murders were brought to trial, and a mere 4 percent resulted in convictions. A 2014 study by the IUDOP revealed that between 2009 and 2013, only 6.5 percent of cases initiated resulted in a judgment. When cases did make it to trial, witnesses discovered that there were no provisions for their protection. This low capacity within the criminal justice system not only failed to protect citizens but also reinforced public perceptions that institutions were weak and ineffective.” The failure in the criminal justice system is largely attributed to the Civil National Police’s inadequate training in investigative techniques which “hindered the job of prosecutors.” Further “Only 1.1% of the arrests for drug-possession were then formally indicted by the courts.” Again, according to Bruneau the explanation for the lack or virtual inexistence of indictments was that “the judge either did not find sufficient evidence or determined that the evidence was collected illegally, meaning that the detention was illegal.” Mass incarceration of everyone identified as a gang member, as done under the iron fist legislature, is less costly, less time-consuming, and does not require potential fearful witnesses to report crimes to police and testify. Another alternative would be to use rotating judges from the UN or outside the country to avoid corruption and threats against those in the judicial system and their families.


The focus of the present paper has been on El Salvador. Crime resulting from gangs, specifically MS-13 and Barrio 18, to a lesser extent, however, poses one of the greatest security risks and is perhaps the most pressing issue facing Central America and neighboring countries today. Largely due to gang violence, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, otherwise known as Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” have the highest homicide rates in the world. According to the United States Department of Justice “MS-13 is one of the largest Hispanic criminal street gangs... with an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 members and associates worldwide.” Other estimates put the number of MS-13 gang members internationally at over 100,000. In 2012, the United States Treasury Department designated MS-13 as a “transnational criminal organization,” becoming the first street gang in history to merit that categorization. Gang violence has a spillover effect into neighboring countries such as Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica, Panama, and elsewhere, leading to transnational gang networks, escalated rates of crime, and causing regional and even global insecurity.

The Salvadoran gangs originated in the US before migrating back to El Salvador. Returning gang members have wreaked havoc upon their return to the US. To end this cycle, expanded exchange of intelligence information on gang members and leadership would seem to be a sound step forward. Non-government organizations from the US and other countries may also be of help in the fight against MS13 and other gangs. Evangelical Christian groups appear to hold a unique role in extricating members from gangs as reviewed earlier. Evaluation of immigration policy might also take the lop-sided gender ratio of El Salvador migrants into account: Highly disproportionate numbers across gender may have unintended adverse consequences in creating father-absent households which psychologists report are vulnerable to gang influence. Finally, on a high note, El Salvador may be doing a better-than-reported job of reducing gang violence through its own iron fist policies: The homicide rate has plunged dramatically in each of the last three years as discussed in the current paper.

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