A Brief History of El Salvador, Gangs, the U.S., and The Difficulties of Empathy

Oscar MartínezWriter at, Author of the History of Violence
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Some Context

Let me give some context for the current violence taking place in El Salvador. This would be a very long conversation, so I’ll attempt to give an overview. The war in El Salvador ended in ’92. Peace accords were signed that were in reality political agreements meant to finalize the war and not a pathway to construct a peaceful society. These accords were designed, not for transforming the country into a peaceful place, but to give the guerrilla the ability to enter into a democracy.

So, what am I referring to with all of this? There was never an economic agreement of reconciliation created that would lift the majority of the people out of poverty. There was no agreement concerned with either social restructuring or giving victims assistance. It was a political agreement meant to end the conflict with the guerrilla.

Meanwhile, in 1989 the United States had begun to deport young men with criminal records involved in gangs in Southern California. This was a cocktail with two very dangerous ingredients. We’d just clawed out of a violent hole after 12 years. There were many orphans, a lot of poverty­­: it was a tumultuous region. The Salvadoran state was far too weak to deal with the influx of this criminal element. They came down here as experts in organizing gangs having learnt in the world capital of Latino gangs, which is in Southern California, specifically Los Angeles, where there are over 60 Latino gangs.

Those 4000 deportees, and we’ll move quickly now in our timeline, have now become 60,000 gang members. They are now present in all 14 states of El Salvador. After years of disregarding the problem, and hard line measures taken since 2003 to address it (when repression was thought to be the avenue to a solution, though each year only proved to show that repression increased gang violence in terms of homicides and gang numbers), these failed policies left El Salvador with the highest murder rate in the world by 2009. The rate was of 71 homicides per 100,000 people.

This murder rate of the world’s deadliest country was overtaken by Honduras two years later when they registered a rate of 86 homicides per 100,000 people. Then, in a type of final of the worst of sports, El Salvador took back the number one spot from Honduras in 2015 with a rate that had never been seen this century: 103 homicides per 100,000 people. This implies that in El Salvador one out of every 972 people was murdered in 2015.

All of this occurs in a maelstrom where the state had attempted a ceasefire with the gangs in 2012. A shadow ceasefire that they didn’t want to make public and hid. It failed because the leaders at that time, in 2012, had decided not to risk the votes since making a pact with the gangs was highly unpopular with Salvadorans.

When this very same party, this same government, won the presidency in 2014 they decided to change course. They began a strategy of extreme repression the likes of which had never been seen. In El Salvador there’s an average of three armed confrontations between the police and the gangs daily. We resemble a war zone more than a problem of public safety.

Of course, this primarily affects the young in the rural areas. The marginalized are dominated by the gangs. 50 to 60 percent of Salvadorans live in these areas. The people in these areas are facing a war. The young, those between 9 and 17 years old that aren’t involved in gangs, are caught in the crossfire. The police see them as gang members and treat them as such. There have been cases of extra-judicial executions of people that weren’t gang members. Then also, there are the pressures and threats from the gang itself to join. These young people live between two powerful and violent forces. They have no choice but to resign themselves to a hard life of uncertainty, closed off inside their homes, with miserable wages—or try to flee the country in search of a better life.

2014: The Eye of the Hurricane

This is what came into focus in 2014 with the 64,000 children migrating from the three Central American countries. This was the eye of the hurricane but every year, since 2009 primarily, many teenagers have migrated. Around 10,000 to 16,000 teenagers a year have attempted to leave the Northern Triangle of Central America.

I’ll sum up in a very short blunt way. Honduras at the moment has high rates of homicide, violence, and organized crime. They have somewhere around 60 homicides per 100,000 people. El Salvador is experiencing high rates as well. The current political climate leaves gang controlled neighborhoods to be invaded by the state, which behaves more like an army at war than a democratic government. This is our current situation. High levels of violence expressed in high rates of homicides that we hadn’t seen before this century because last century, after the war, the figures were very vague and unclear, but in this century the homicide figures are very clear. All they’ve done since 2003 is increase, which is when the state began its repressive tactics.

Currently, the state is in favor of war, not prevention. This public policy of near extermination of gang members leaves the Salvadorian youth even more forgotten. It’s clear that it’s the underage children confronting this violent situation. When you ask a gang member how old he was when he entered the gang, he’ll normally tell you it was somewhere between 9 and 15 years old. So, in El Salvador to be a male of that age is to be in a disastrous time. It’s the age when the gangs are trying to recruit you. If you live in a gang zone and don’t want to be recruited, you’ll have a very restrictive life. You’ll have to live inside of your house, which will be quite small. Sixty percent of Salvadoran youth live under the subjugation of gangs. That’s the number.

Children playing football in rural Central America

Credit: Tomas Ayuso
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Organized Crime and Gangs: Identity vs. Money

Organized crime and gangs have a very marked difference. Organized crime is purely interested in a financial reward through crime. If I belong to the Zetas and I’m a hitman and I’m not paid, then I won’t kill. Being part of a gang is defined mainly by a sense of cultural identity and not economics. In other words, how do I define myself as an adolescent? In that sense, I don’t need to be paid to be a gang member when I join. Instead of being a poor young man attending a mediocre school, in a gang zone where my life has no meaning, I’m not respected, because the gang itself is the one that demands respect, I join the gang. I prefer to be poor but respected, armed, have girls, and be looked up to in the neighborhood.

The logic of joining a gang has nothing to do with financial logic. It has more to do with a logic linked to values that these youths recognize: respect, family, albeit a violent one, but for many the only one they’ve ever known. It has to do with the question of cultural identity.

Though you see a cultural identity created in organized crime groups, the Zetas have a distinct culture from the Sinaloa Cartel, their primary reason for joining the group is not to identify with the culture. The reason is money. That’s also one of the principal differences between organized crime and gangs: what motivates you to join.

Extortion Affects All of Society

The majority of El Salvador is affected by extortion. The problem with extortion is that it’s the economic model of the worst criminal groups. In the first place, it doesn’t pull the members of the criminal group out of poverty. It creates a subsistence economy. The logic would be that extortion would lead the gangs to receive large sums. In El Salvador we estimated that MS-13 received somewhere around 31 million dollars a year from extortion. Now, there are over 40 million members, and if you divided up the extortion money equally between all the gang members, each one would earn 34 dollars a month. That is if this was done equally, but it’s not.

Extortion money usually rises to the top leaders. The low ranking members collect the extortion money and send it up. They also have their own personal extortions which are smaller and take place in the marginal zones they control. These are the poor areas where they live.

The leaders spread the extortion money to cover costs like funerals. Lawyer fees of those imprisoned are also paid by the gang, as well as bail for those in jail. Some members’ widows are given some money. There are many costs the gang has to cover at minimum to maintain their 60 million members in service.

While gang members aren’t pulled out of poverty by extortion, the victims themselves are impoverished by this crime. A worker asked to pay 60 dollars a month loses a quarter of his salary. Those extorted face a huge problem. They lose their businesses and are forced to flee the country. Extortion is a ruthless crime because if you don’t pay you will be killed. This problem touches all of Salvadoran society, from the lady selling tomatoes to The Coca-Cola Company.

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  • Term


    An Oligarchy is a system in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes. It is often described as a government by the few, for the few. Oligarchs use their relationships and money to influence elected officials.

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All of Us Lose

Extortion doesn’t benefit anybody financially. It doesn’t even create a thriving class for the country. Gang members don’t become wealthy and they impoverish those that are struggling to get out of poverty. It’s an economic model where all of us lose.

The oligarchy is touched in a more indirect fashion. Some of the wealthiest businessmen in El Salvador are from the Poma family. The Pomas aren’t extorted because they travel with a group of bodyguards. No gang could get to them. Yet, the gangs generate costs for them. At any of their shopping centers they need to have 50 guards to keep out the gangs. Indirectly they are affected by the costs, even if they’ve never seen a gang member in person.

So the gangs don’t reach the oligarchy and get extortion money, so to speak. But, these people end up using their money for guards at their shopping centers and their luxury hotels. Many of these people choose to invest their money in beach hotels in Costa Rica even though property is more expensive there. They do this for the simple reason that in Costa Rica infrastructure costs aren’t as high. They don’t have to build high walls to separate their hotel from the people. They don’t need 50 armed guards so that people at their hotel feel safe. Indirectly, the gang phenomenon creates costs for all businessmen, from the tomato peddler to the multi-millionaire.

A Substitute Government

As to whether El Salvador is a failed state, in this debate people stick to formal terms like, “What does a ‘failed state’ mean according to the United Nations Conventions?” But let’s speak as the people on the street speak. There are many places in El Salvador, 60 percent of the country, where the government is the gang. If the state wants to enter these areas, they can, with 20 policemen and 20 soldiers.

But the state is the gang. The gangs decide who studies and who doesn’t. They decide if children from an MS-13 neighborhood can go to a school in a Barrio 18 neighborhood. They decide who can live in what neighborhood. If somebody seems suspicious to them, that person has to leave or he will be killed. They decide when and if the bus departs. If they decide there will be a bus stoppage, even if the minister of transport is opposed and says that the buses will run, the buses stop. The gang decides what streets the buses can use. They decide what time all businesses will close.

There are many areas in the country where the state enters as visitors. The gang is the government that’s left. Call that what you want. There are people that become offended with the phrase “failed state.” I don’t know, call it a substitute government if you like.

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  • Term


    Extortion is the act of obtaining money or property by intimidation or threat to a victim's property or loved ones.

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Realpolitik and the Role of the U.S.

When thinking of the role of the United States in this current situation it’s important for us to remember one thing: people like you and I are involved in the topic of migration and Central America, so we create this false idea that the United States cares a lot about what happens in this region. In the first place, let’s remember that the United States doesn’t care about what happens in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

They care about some countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, but they don’t care about Central America. Let’s make that clear. We’re not the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth priority of the United States. All the belief we have in our work as being of utmost importance, it’s not. Governmentally speaking it’s marginal.

Central America and El Salvador were of much interest to the United States during the civil wars. That’s because this is where the end of the Cold War was being settled. Also, the Sandinista model deeply frightened the United States: they thought it could spread up towards Mexico.

During the wars, the United States participated in training the assassins in the death squads of Central America. A report from the United Nations confirms they were indeed assassins. The United States knew they were assassins from the beginning and yet financed them until ’89 when they killed the Jesuit priests. The United States then feigned surprise, and said it looks like you were assassins, but the government had known the truth for 9 years.

This was the origin of the great Central American migration, before the gangs. The origin of the great migration was the war funded by the United States. Then, the second great migration of recent years of children, is a consequence of the bad policies of deportation implemented by the United States.

The gangs formed because many people migrated because of the war and then found themselves alone in Southern California. They formed into a group and called themselves Mara Salvatrucha.

The Gangs Were a U.S. Import

The United States government played a direct part in each of the problems that have expelled masses of Central Americas from their countries. Direct participation: financing a war, and a useless policy of deportation. I’m saying the US government had a direct effect on the situation and yet they behave as if they were helping to solve an unconnected problem. They are helping to solve a problem that was created between their governmental policies and our governmental policies. This situation was created by both.

The children are fleeing a problem that wasn’t created here; it was created in Southern California. The problem was exported to El Salvador by the government of the United States. There were no gangs in El Salvador. They didn’t exist. We had a few small neighborhood gangs. But this concept we now have of Central American maras, homicidal very structured violent gangs, didn’t exist.

In the marginalized violent areas there used to be a few groups, like the Máquina, but they were small. The Mao Mao was more interested in selling drugs than anything else. So, no. The phenomenon of the maras was exported by the United States to Central America.

An Economic and Human Catastrophe

We are already quite afraid of the simple fact that President Trump might deport as many people as Obama. That would be disastrous for our region. Obama tripled, or at least doubled, the deportation numbers that Central America had experienced during George W. Bush. He deported as nobody had deported before. Following that trend would be terrible.

Evidently, with Trump we expect those or greater numbers of deportees. But we are especially frightened by the idea that Trump might not pass TPS: Temporary Protected Status. TPS has allowed close to 100,000 Salvadorians, for more than two decades now, to work legally in the United States for a year. After the year they are able to renew their TPS.

Those people who might have only had a one-year permit have built their lives in the US. Their children have been there for 20 years. They are stable supporters of 100,000 families of El Salvador. To not have TPS would be an economic and human catastrophe for the country. Those 100,000 would be multiplied by the million people who have a financial relationship with the tepesianos (TPS recipients), as we call them. We are afraid that a program of this type might be cancelled by such a crazy man.

On the other hand, we suppose that Trump will strengthen his position by having more courts and make the refugee process quicker to resolve. Deportations will be much quicker. I think that with the environment of fear that exists, there will be more people who won’t show up to their court dates. They’ll decide to stay an undocumented person. A process will be begun, they’ll get themselves a few months, and then won’t appear again. I suppose a wave of fear will go out that one could go to court and receive an order of deportation. Many people will have deportations orders but they won’t be around for it to be fulfilled.

We think this will generate a new generation of undocumented people. They will build their lives in the United States without anybody’s permission, until the day they’re deported. It’s a new generation guaranteeing that within five or ten years we’ll continue to receive lost teenagers, who speak better English than they do Spanish, and can’t build a life in a violent place like El Salvador. We don’t have a positive outlook with the arrival of Trump.

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Fate of The Children: Stories that Fade Away

Those who had fled from gangs and have been deported have to find somewhere else to go. There is no study as to the fate of those children that are deported back to the country after fleeing the gangs. He can no longer return to the place he fled because he has a death sentence on him there. There is no study that gives numbers about this topic.

These are stories that fade away. When a child is deported his family receives him and he leaves. He tries to survive wherever he can, in an uncle’s house or some relative’s.

Having an Impact

I’m personally motivated because I think that journalism can affect change. Not at the pace I’d want, not at all at the pace I’d like. In fact, it does so at a very slow, clumsy, and indecent pace, but it does change things. I’ve yet to find a better way to have an impact than this one. If I found a better way I’d leave this profession, but I haven’t.

It’s a profession that for me has two simple objectives: screwing with certain people’s lives by showing their corruption and ineptitude, their evil, and bringing awareness to the lives of those nobody speaks to: nobody tells their stories, nobody visits their homes. Those are the two most basic functions of this profession, which is, most of the time, very frustrating.

The Barrier of a Disinterested Public

I can’t think at the moment of a message of grand eloquence to leave for the people of the United States. What I have always believed is that it’s very difficult to generate empathy within the United States with these stories. There are groups of people, such as yourselves, who are familiar with the subject, but it’s very difficult to break the barrier of a disinterested public.

These are good people who love their children and their neighbors. They are good people who don’t want to kill anybody. And the people that I’m telling you stories about are the same kind of people. But there’s a kind of mental block whereby they categorize human beings in different ways, even though they might not want to. It’s very difficult to attempt to understand that the person riding on the top of a cargo train could be your brother or your sister.

Imagine if when I describe the story of a young man of 16 you thought of your own child of 16? People disassociate from this type of reality. They can’t think of their child undergoing such circumstances.

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