Members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang are guarded by policemen upon their arrival at the Quezaltepeque jail in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, on 29 March 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas
Report 64 / Latin America & Caribbean

El Salvador’s Politics of Perpetual Violence

Intense gang warfare continues to plague El Salvador, undeterred by successive governments’ heavy-handed and militarised repression policies. More investment in holistic violence prevention strategies and economic alternatives to criminal violence are necessary if the country's chronic insecurity crisis is to be alleviated.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report
  • What’s the issue? After fifteen years of failed security policies, the government of El Salvador and criminal gangs are deadlocked in an open confrontation. Efforts aimed at tackling the deep-rooted social issues behind the gang phenomenon have not produced desired results due to a lack of political commitment and social divisions that gangs use to their advantage.
  • Why does it matter? Born in the wake of U.S. deportation policies in the late 90s, gang violence in El Salvador has developed into a national security problem that accounts for the country’s sky-high murder rate. The combination of mano dura (iron fist) policies and the U.S. administration’s approach to migration could worsen El Salvador’s already critical security situation.
  • What should be done? All political actors should honour the government’s holistic violence prevention strategies by fully implementing them and reframing anti-gang policies. Specific police and justice reforms, as well as a legal framework for rehabilitating former gang members, are crucial steps toward a future pacification process.  

Executive Summary

El Salvador, a small country in the isthmus of Central America, is wracked by an implacable strain of gang warfare. Exceptionally intense and persistent violence pits rival street gangs against one another and in opposition to the police and state. Formerly hailed for its smooth transition to democracy and for turning the two foes of its 1980s civil war into political forces competing vigorously yet peaceably for power, El Salvador once again is famed for its bloodletting. Its recent murder rates rank among the highest in the world and its jails are among the most overcrowded. For the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, its main gang, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), personifies the menace of undocumented immigration. Although the Salvadoran state has developed a series of strategies for violence prevention, its mainly repressive efforts over the past fifteen years have checked the influence of these alternative approaches. It should now implement plans to prevent crime, rehabilitate gang members and spur development in marginalised communities. Most urgently, El Salvador will require protection from the turbulence that U.S. mass deportations could provoke.

The permanence of violence owes as much to the success as to the failings of the peace accords. The two former wartime foes have jostled for democratic supremacy, repeatedly using security policy for electoral purposes by seeking to satisfy public demand for mano dura (iron fist) against the gangs. Although government has changed hands, security methods have not altered: mass detentions and incarceration, as well as militarisation of policing, have become standard procedure whether under the rule of right-wing elites or former guerrillas. U.S. authorities have recently offered support to this approach, pledging to “dismantle” the MS-13.

In private, however, high-level officials from across the country’s political divide lament the harmful effects of this crackdown on over-stretched courts and front-line police. Blueprints geared to preventing the drift of young men from low-income neighbourhoods into gang life have been drafted: the government launched the most recent, the “Safe El Salvador” plan, as a holistic strategy to restore the state’s territorial control. But as violence soared after 2014 following the disintegration of a truce with the gangs, extreme measures of jail confinement and police raids have once again become the government’s predominant methods to choke the gangs. Allegations of police brutality and extrajudicial executions have multiplied.

Recent surveys suggest that veteran members of these gangs wish to cease the violence. However, the economic dead-end of El Salvador’s urban outskirts – the country’s recent GDP growth rate of 1.9 per cent is among the lowest in Central America – continues to drive a supply of willing young recruits, and consolidate a rearguard of sympathisers dependent on income from the gangs’ extortion schemes and other rackets. The reality and stigma of gang violence combine to block off alternative ways of life for those born into these communities, cutting years of schooling for young people in areas of high gang presence and alienating potential employers. Instead of succumbing to the state’s offensive, gangs set up roadblocks in their neighbourhoods and impose their own law; their fight against security forces has claimed the lives of 45 police officers so far this year.

The deadlock between a tarnished set of security policies and a gang phenomenon that thrives on the ostracism and contempt of mainstream Salvadoran society can only now be resolved by recasting the way the country treats its security dilemmas.

The deadlock between a tarnished set of security policies and a gang phenomenon that thrives on the ostracism and contempt of mainstream Salvadoran society can only now be resolved by recasting the way the country treats its security dilemmas. Judicial and security institutions require careful reform to ensure resources are distributed to areas with the highest concentrations of violence, and used to boost intelligence-led policing that targets gang members committing the most serious crimes. Jail-based reinsertion schemes, and cooperation with diverse churches, NGOs and businesses that offer second chances to former gang members, must be strengthened to provide a legal framework for rehabilitation as well as material incentives for the gangs to eventually disband. Although the country’s main political parties and most of the public oppose any hint of negotiation with gangs, the reality in many poor areas is of constant daily encounters with these groups. Tolerance for these grassroots efforts, despite the existing legal restrictions on any contact with gangs, is essential to build the confidence that will be required for dialogue in the future.

None of this will be easy, nor is it likely to be assisted by U.S. policy toward either gangs or Salvadoran immigrants. The potential cancellation of the rights to residency in the U.S. of 195,000 beneficiaries of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program threatens to overwhelm the Salvadoran state’s capacity to accommodate returnees, not unlike the experience of the late 1990s when mass deportations of gang members from the U.S. to El Salvador exported the criminal capital that led to the lightning rise of the MS-13 and its main rival, the 18th Street gang. El Salvador is simply unprepared, economically and institutionally, to receive such an influx, or to handle their 192,700 U.S. children, many of them at the perfect age for recruitment or victimisation by gangs. At a time when levels of violence remain extraordinarily high, with exhaustion toward an unwinnable conflict voiced on both sides, the arrival of thousands of migrants back to their crime-affected homeland would impose huge strains. To escape its perpetual violence, El Salvador needs support, not the recurrence of past mistakes.


To improve El Salvador’s public policies on security and prevent further regional spillover of gang violence and undocumented migration.

To the government of El Salvador:

  1. Fully implement the five axes of “Plan Safe El Salvador”, and balance investment between law enforcement, institutional strengthening and violence prevention.
  2. Approve a legal framework for rehabilitation, with special emphasis on the reinsertion of former gang members into society in coordination with local NGOs and the church.
  3. Recognise the existence of forced displacement in El Salvador, adopt the Comprehensive Regional Framework for Protection and Solutions (MIRPS), and work in coordination with local NGOs to implement protection mechanisms for its victims.
  4. Allow visits from humanitarian organisations to high security jails.
  5. Institutionalise by executive order monthly meetings between the security cabinet and human rights groups to monitor alleged violations of human rights by security forces.
  6. Create stronger coordination protocols between the National Civil Police and the prosecutor’s office, and strengthen the former’s internal control unit to ensure those suspected of abuse or corruption are held accountable. 

To members of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly:

  1. Promote multiparty efforts on security and support the government in the implementation of “Plan Safe El Salvador”.
  2. Revise the distribution of resources in the judiciary to ensure they are based on intensity of criminal activity rather than administrative criteria.
  3. Stabilise funding to the prosecutor’s office by giving it a fixed percentage of the annual state budget, and mandate the office with monitoring forced disappearances.

To the government of the U.S.:

  1. Avoid massive deportations, and redesignate El Salvador for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
  2. Continue providing El Salvador with financial support to carry out violence-prevention initiatives, and place a greater emphasis on investigative policing and general skills training in the security forces.

To El Salvador donor countries and institutions:

  1. Promote creation of an independent observatory to provide monthly information on crime victims, gang expansion and homicide figures.
  2. Finance a plan in coordination with the private sector to offer incoming youth deportees job skills and employment opportunities.

Guatemala City/Brussels, 19 December 2017

I. Introduction

In January 2017, El Salvador’s celebrated the 25th anniversary of the end of its civil war (1980-1992), which killed 70,000 people and displaced over a million. Sealing the end of the conflict, the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accords enabled the former guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front(FMLN) to transform into a political party, and created a new civilian police force. Since then, El Salvador has remained among the most politically stable countries in Latin America, with two main parties that are heirs to the two sides of the internecine conflict – the left-wing FMLN and the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) – peacefully alternating in power.[fn]On 26 January 1992, the government of El Salvador and the guerrilla group Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) signed in Chapultepec, Mexico, the final peace accord that ended a twelve-year civil war. “From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador”, Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, April 1993.Hide Footnote

However, the country’s post-war political and security institutions have proved singularly unable to respond to an evolving and expanding criminal landscape. The country has suffered at least 93,000 murders since 1993, over half of which can be attributed to gangs.[fn]Crisis Group calculations, based on homicide counts from Salvadoran police and the prosecutor’s office between 1993 and 2016. Armas de fuego y violencia”, UN Development Programme (UNDP), 22 June 2003.Hide Footnote These groups now have around 60,000 active members and an estimated social support base of 500,000 – 8 per cent of El Salvador’s 6.2 million population – making them the largest criminal organisations in Central America.[fn]The social support base includes both active collaborators and ordinary citizens indirectly related to these groups, but who do not necessarily support them. Estimates from El Salvador defence ministry in 2015. “Munguía Payés: Hay más pandilleros que militares activos”, El Diario de Hoy, 20 October 2015. Crisis Group interview, Raúl Mijango, gang truce mediator, San Salvador, 9 March 2017.Hide Footnote Although gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the two factions of 18th Street gang have a worldwide presence, their violent behaviour in El Salvador constitutes a national security crisis. Gangs control an undefined number of informal settlements and urban outskirts all over the country, and finance themselves mostly through small-scale extortion.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America and Caribbean Report N°62, Mafia of the Poor: Gang Violence and Extortion in Central America, 6 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Since 2003, both FMLN and ARENA governments have anchored their anti-criminal policies in restoring full state control over territory with high gang presence, mass incarceration and joint police and military operations. The current fight against crime, unveiled in early 2015 by President Sánchez Cerén of the ruling FMLN party, is the latest in a long line of law enforcement campaigns, although this initiative places more emphasis than predecessors on violence prevention in selected municipalities. Yet past and present anti-gang policies have achieved little in terms of stemming violent crime, and in some cases have even contributed to gang recruitment, financial prowess and firepower. Between 2013 and 2015 El Salvador experienced its steepest escalation in violence since 1994, with 11,934 homicides in 2015 and 2016 combined, a 53 per cent increase in comparison to the 2013-2014 period.[fn]Crisis Group calculations from El Salvador National Civil Police.Hide Footnote

Far from abating, El Salvador’s extreme insecurity could well intensify in 2018 as a number of threats loom over the country and the Central American region as a whole. These include the potentially devastating shock of new U.S. migration policies, economic and financial strains, and the possibly disruptive interference by gangs in forthcoming local elections.

This report, Crisis Group’s first ever publication on El Salvador, assesses the origins of the country’s violence, as well as the characteristics of and motives behind past and present security strategies. Combining original quantitative analysis based on official violence and migration statistics from El Salvador and the U.S., as well as extensive fieldwork across the country, the report identifies the principal causes behind security policy failures and highlights opportunities for a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to crime reduction.[fn]Crisis Group started monitoring El Salvador and Honduras in January 2017 to expand its Central America coverage. For more on Crisis Group’s recent quantitative research work please refer to Crisis Group media release, “Alexander Soros Donates $500,000 for Crisis Group Fellowships on the Economics of Conflict”, 12 January 2017.Hide Footnote Crisis Group conducted over 70 interviews with top-level government officials, grassroots NGOs, academics, humanitarian workers, diplomats, security experts, and victims living in gang-controlled areas. All fieldwork was carried out in the country’s most violent areas, such as the capital San Salvador and the smaller municipalities of San Miguel and Santa Ana.

II. State and Crime in El Salvador

Two strong political parties with deep social roots, a judicial system marked by an unequal distribution of resources, and a police force increasingly backed by military clout stand out among the main features of El Salvador’s public security institutions. The MS-13 gang and the two factions of the 18th Street gang are the largest criminal groups operating in the country; their ability to inflict high levels of violence and intimidation is directly related to an increase in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees and asylum seekers in the region.

A. Security Policies and El Salvador’s Two-party System

El Salvador has a robust two-party system dominated by the FMLN and ARENA. The country’s fourteen departments and 262 municipalities depend largely on the central government – controlled by the FMLN since 2009 – for the design and implementation of security policies. Most security powers fall under the remit of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, which runs the police and the prison system. The country’s parliament, the Legislative Assembly – dominated since 2012 by ARENA – has 84 deputies from five parties, and a specific committee overseeing security matters. Local governments have gained a greater say in recent years over the implementation of violence prevention initiatives, but their main role continues to be that of sustaining the parties’ social support base in a context of constant electoral campaigning.[fn]Under the Salvadoran constitution, legislative and local elections are held every three years, and presidential elections every five. The next assembly and local elections are scheduled for 4 March 2018. El Salvador constitution (1982). Álvaro Artiga, El Sistema Político Salvadoreño (San Salvador, 2015), pp. 7, 123, 206, 233, 268.Hide Footnote

The FMLN and ARENA both draw on strong public roots and feature hierarchical structures and leadership cohorts that have remained largely intact for the last 25 years. The FMLN has around 30,000 rank-and-file militants, most of them from urban areas; ARENA has more active affiliates, 50,000, with a support base primarily located in rural municipalities.[fn]These figures are from the official number of activists who participated in primary elections in recent years. “Apoyan reelección de Medardo González”, La Prensa Gráfica, 13 October 2015. “ARENA ya tiene sus 262 candidatos para las elecciones de marzo 2018”, El Diario de Hoy, 28 July 2017. Crisis Group interview, Álvaro Artiga, political scientist, San Salvador, 10 July 2017.Hide Footnote The two parties represent opposite social and ideological poles. Whereas the FMLN still deploys revolutionary rhetoric and aligns itself with other left-wing political movements in the hemisphere, ARENA was founded as an anti-communist party and is backed by the country’s economic and business elites. In both parties, decision-making is concentrated in a select circle of high-level figures, most of whom have been in charge since 1992.[fn]The political committee is the highest authority in the FMLN, and is mostly composed of former combatants. Decision-making in ARENA depends on its National Executive Committee (COENA), consisting of leading businessmen and historic party leaders. Álvaro Artiga, Carlos Dada, David Escobar Galindo, Hugo Martínez (eds.), La polarización política en El Salvador (San Salvador, 2007), pp. 109-111. Crisis Group interviews, Álvaro Artiga, political scientist, San Salvador, 10 July 2017; Jorge Villacorta, former lawmaker, San Salvador, 13 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Despite stark ideological differences, the main parties’ approaches to security are surprisingly similar. From 1999 to 2009, ARENA based its anti-criminal strategy on swift judicial processes, more arrests and mass incarceration. The FMLN continued this punitive approach – especially since its second mandate started in 2014 – with even harsher confinement conditions for jailed gang members and an enhanced role for the military in public security. Since losing executive power, ARENA has expressed only modest opposition to decisions taken by the Security Cabinet, the highest authority on these issues. Its most prominent members are the Vice President and presidential appointee for security Óscar Ortiz; the Minister of Justice and Public Security Mauricio Rodríguez Landaverde; and the Director of the Police Howard Cotto.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, FMLN security adviser, San Salvador, 13 July 2017; high-level FMLN official, Ministry of Justice and Public Security, San Salvador, 30 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Only a handful of cross-party agreements have been reached, while more than 25 negotiation attempts in key policy areas have collapsed.

However, decision-making on security and other national priorities has been handicapped in recent years by a divided Assembly controlled by ARENA, which has forced the FMLN to compromise and seek support from smaller groups. New parties such as the right-wing Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA) have benefited from this parliamentary blockage, with its leader Guillermo Gallegos elected president of the Legislative Assembly in 2015.[fn]GANA is a conservative alliance founded in 2010 by right-wing lawmakers. Along with GANA, the National Concertation Party (PCN) and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) play an important role in strategic legislative alliances. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, San Salvador, 28 September 2017. Álvaro Artiga, El Sistema Político Salvadoreño, op. cit., p. 255.Hide Footnote Only a handful of cross-party agreements have been reached, while more than 25 negotiation attempts in key policy areas have collapsed.[fn]Crisis Group interview, political analyst, San Salvador, 22 November 2017.Hide Footnote The most recent was a six-month UN-backed mission launched in January 2017 to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the war, which failed to establish common ground between the main parties. The chief of mission, Mexican diplomat Benito Andión, finished the mandate in July 2017 concluding that “conditions [for consensus] were not met” in the current political climate.[fn]The UN mission began a new phase after the second half of 2017, sponsoring closed-door talks with all political parties on economy, violence and education, among other issues. “Termina mandato de enviado especial de la ONU para el diálogo en El Salvador”, UN News centre, 7 July 2017. Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, San Salvador, February-November 2017.Hide Footnote

The arrival of young leaders on the national political scene, and a sharp drop in popular support for both the FMLN and ARENA, could be the harbinger of a shift away from traditional two-party rule. “Around 40 to 50 per cent of the Salvadoran population have not made up their minds as to which party to vote for”, affirms a San Salvador-based political analyst.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, political analyst, 30 November 2017.Hide Footnote The most well-known representatives of this younger political generation are San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele – who was expelled from the FMLN in October 2017 after a series of internal party squabbles – and Johnny Wright Sol, an ARENA lawmaker who opted not to stand for re-election in 2018 due to disagreements with the party’s leadership. Both have announced they will stand as independent candidates in the 2019 presidential elections, when the strength of the main parties will be tested.[fn]In a June 2017 survey by the Central America University José Simeón Cañas (UCA), San Salvador President Cerén received the lowest approval rating of the country’s past five presidents at the same point in their terms in office. Leading opposition party ARENA did little better, with nearly 70 per cent of participants saying they would not want the conservative party back in power. “Los salvadoreños evalúan el tercer año de Gobierno de Salvador Sánchez Cerén”, press release, UCA, June 2017. “Bukele y Wright ponen a madurar los frutos del árbol antipartidos”, El Faro, 29 October 2017.Hide Footnote

B. The Judicial System, Security Forces and Jails

The institutions in charge of investigating and trying crimes in El Salvador are the prosecutor’s office, the police and the judiciary. The prosecutor’s office (in Spanish Fiscalía General de la República) is part of the larger public ministry, while the judiciary is headed by the Supreme Court and its different chambers. Both are independent public powers; in contrast, the National Civil Police is run by the executive branch’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security.[fn]The judiciary is considered to be well-funded as it automatically receives 6 per cent of the national budget. On the contrary, the prosecutor’s office and the police receive less generous funding and usually require alternative means of financing, such as foreign assistance. El Salvador National Council of the Judiciary, Criminal Procedure Code of El Salvador commented, Volume I (San Salvador, 2004), pp. 343-368. Crisis Group interviews, Rodolfo González, magistrate, El Salvador Supreme Court of Justice, San Salvador, 26 September 2017; Arnau Baulenas, lawyer, Central America University Institute of Human Rights (IDHUCA), San Salvador, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Saturation of courts and a chronic paucity of forensic evidence are common challenges for most Latin American judicial institutions,[fn]On the difficulties faced by forensic experts in El Salvador, see the account of efforts to disinter the mass grave found at the bottom of a well in Óscar Martínez, A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America (London, 2016), chapter 6. Around 95 per cent of judicial evidence is drawn from testimonies and comes primarily from protected witnesses (criteriados, in Spanish). Crisis Group interviews, judges, San Salvador, 12 July-31 August 2017. “La situación de la seguridad y la justicia 2009-2014”, Central America University (UCA), 10 September 2014, p. 58.Hide Footnote but in El Salvador extreme criminal violence and new norms of legal prosecution based on mass detentions have gravely undermined the country’s courts. Since the distribution of judicial personnel is purely based on the country’s administrative divisions, magistrates working in more violent areas process up to ten times more cases than colleagues in quieter municipalities: “[our work] looks like a maquila [a factory that assembles goods]”, explained a judge from San Salvador. Poor relations with the police undermine the prosecutor’s office, spurring Attorney General Douglas Meléndez to demand that he be given his own investigative force: “we work with borrowed hands and teeth”, said Meléndez in a July 2017 conference.[fn]“Fiscal general quiere una policía aparte de la PNC”, El Faro, 13 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, the Salvadoran police have come under increasing pressure as it seeks to deal with demands to combat violent crime and armed attacks from gangs. The National Civil Police has 28,000 officers, around 90 per cent of whom come from humble social backgrounds, and the average salary is $424 per month. This forces many to live in gang-controlled areas, usually neighbourhoods with lower rents, putting them and their families at risk.[fn]Most low-ranking police officers have to live on around $170 per month, just above the average cost of living of $120 according to the official statistics institute of El Salvador (Dygestic). “Bono para 24,000 policías del nivel básico”, National Civil Police press release, 4 March 2016. “Las fuerzas de seguridad son un barril de dinamita”, El Faro, 7 March 2017. “El Salvador: Information Gathering Mission Report – Part 1”, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, September 2010.Hide Footnote Officers in the field describe feeling alone and emotionally exhausted during but also after work. “After work, when we become normal citizens, I feel vulnerable … I just had a colleague killed this week during his time off”, said one police officer on the El Salvador-Guatemala border.[fn]Although the government is supposed to give $2,500 and pay all funerary costs as compensation to families of slain police officers, there are testimonies of widows who declared not having received any help from state institutions. Crisis Group interviews, police officers, El Salvador, August-September 2017. “Ser viuda de un policía es ser nada”, El Faro, 22 October 2017.Hide Footnote Criminal groups reportedly killed 45 officers from 1 January to 6 December 2017.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-ranking police officer, San Salvador, 26 September 2017. “Asesinados: 45 policías y militares en 2017”, El Diario de Hoy, 13 December 2017.Hide Footnote

The rising gang presence has increasingly pushed the police force toward methods based on armed raids in gang-affected communities as well as direct confrontation and firefights.

Originally designed in the peace accord to have a community-oriented role, the rising gang presence has increasingly pushed the police force toward methods based on armed raids in gang-affected communities as well as direct confrontation and firefights. These rose from 256 in 2014 to 676 in 2015, leaving 83 officers and 359 alleged criminals dead. Human rights groups argue this increase conceals a wave of extrajudicial killings, and presented this data to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in September 2017. Government authorities acknowledged there may be some cases of excesses or misconduct but said they were “personal decisions [by officers], not a state policy”.[fn]Figures presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights indicated that for every policeman who died in armed clashes with gangs in 2016, 59 alleged gang members were killed. Crisis Group interviews, Verónica Reyna, officer, Servicio Social Pasionista, San Salvador, 7 June 2017; Arnau Baulenas, lawyer, Central America University Institute of Human Rights (IDHUCA), San Salvador, 26 September 2017. “Idhuca denunciará ejecuciones extrajudiciales ante la CIDH”, FACTUM, 1 September 2017; “CIDH interpela a El Salvador por ejecuciones extrajudiciales”, La Prensa Gráfica, 6 September 2017. On the issue of rising clashes, see “Nuevas Tendencias de los Patrones de Violencia en El Salvador (2010-2015)”, Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social, August 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote However, several media outlets have published in-depth investigations of alleged massacres of suspected gang members, sexual abuse of minors and extortion.[fn]The most notorious cases are: the killings of Cantón Pajales, in San Salvador department, in August 2015, when four suspected gang members who had arrest orders were allegedly shot at close range by the police and armed forces as they tried to escape, according to the official version; and the massacre in Finca San Blas, in the Western department of Santa Ana in March 2015, when seven unarmed alleged gang members and a non-gang suspect were supposedly attacked by the police. Although a September 2017 sentence declared there had been at least one extrajudicial killing in Finca San Blas, the accused officers were acquitted after the judge ruled there was not enough evidence to find them individually responsible. FACTUM online magazine also released an investigation in August 2017 based on WhatsApp conversations between members of an alleged elite death squad inside the police suspected of several homicides, sexual abuses and extortion. The police reacted promptly and started immediate prosecution of the suspected officers. “El juicio bufo de San Blas”, El Faro, 22 September 2017; “Cinco muertes sin explicación”, La Prensa Gráfica, 25 October 2015. “En la intimidad del escuadrón de la muerte de la policía”, FACTUM, 22 August 2017.Hide Footnote Although the police monitors alleged abuses, and senior security authorities meet monthly with human rights representatives to discuss relevant cases, NGOs have denounced lack of accountability for officers suspected of abuse.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, judges and human rights lawyers, San Salvador, August-September 2017.Hide Footnote

The burdens on the police have pushed the military towards deeper involvement in public security issues, converting its participation in anti-crime operations into a semi-permanent strategy. The Salvadoran army is the national institution with the highest public approval rating, and included around 24,800 active members in 2014.[fn]“Legitimidad y confianza pública en la Policía en El Salvador”, Florida International University and Central American University, July 2017, p. 68. Jeanette Aguilar, “El rol del ejército en la seguridad interna de El Salvador: lo excepcional convertido en permanente” in Re-conceptualización de la violencia en el Triángulo Norte (San Salvador, 2016), p. 77.Hide Footnote It understands its security role as a temporary measure limited to following police orders. However, senior officers consider military involvement to have become normal procedure given the transformation of the gang phenomenon: “we operate in a grey area … the criminal problem in this country has turned from a public security to a national security issue”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-ranking official, El Salvador ministry of defence, San Salvador, 29 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Corruption is prevalent in Salvadoran judicial and security institutions, though this is also common in many Latin American countries. A total of 31 per cent of Salvadorans report having paid a bribe to access basic public services over the past year according a 2017 Transparency International study, below other countries in the region such as Mexico (51) or Panama (38).[fn]“People and Corruption: Latin America and the Caribbean”, Transparency International Report, 9 October 2017, p. 31.Hide Footnote The lack of effective internal control mechanisms harms these bodies’ reputation. Accountability in most cases relies on the individual probity and political will of high-level officials, who themselves are chosen by a majority vote of the Legislative Assembly.[fn]El Salvador constitution, op. cit.Hide Footnote The case of former Attorney General Luis Martínez, detained by his successor Douglas Meléndez, illustrates alleged abuses of state power. Martínez was incarcerated in August 2016 on charges of conspiracy, litigation fraud and withholding evidence during his mandate, although he denies the accusations and so far has not been convicted of any crime.[fn]Martínez was detained along with businessman Enrique Rais and some of their collaborators on charges of justice fraud related to Rais’ business interests. “Ex-attorney general of El Salvador arrested on corruption charges”, EFE, 23 August 2016.Hide Footnote

At the end of the country’s penal process stands a prison system that is among the world’s most overcrowded.[fn]According to the World Prison Brief, El Salvador’s has the third most overpopulated jail system in the world. With an occupancy level of 348.2 per cent by August 2016, it is one of the few countries in the world with jails exclusively dedicated to criminal groups. “World Prison Population List: Eleventh Edition”, World Prison Brief, 2 February 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote Fourteen prisons house approximately 39,000 inmates, of whom 26,000 have been sentenced and 13,000 are remanded in custody. This includes prisoners in police detention stations, some of them converted into longer-term facilities due to lack of space. Roughly 6oo officers and prison guards watch over the jail population, far below the ideal ratio of public officials to prisoners.[fn]Data from El Salvador penal system online database, accessed 26 September 2017. Crisis Group interviews, officers, El Salvador penitentiary system, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote Some jails have been placed under a state of emergency since early 2016, when the government imposed harsh new confinement conditions on gang members. El Salvador’s Human Rights Prosecutor and several NGOs have denounced “systematic human rights violations” in jails under the new measures.[fn]Due to run until March 2018, these measures include special jail regimes for gang members, suspension of transfer of inmates, restrictions on visits and blocking phone signals near jails. The government has denied the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to the affected jails. “Gobierno niega estar en guerra con pandillas”, Diario Contrapunto, 8 July 2015. Crisis Group interviews, local NGOs and ICRC personnel, San Salvador, March-September 2017. El Salvador Legislative Assembly, Transitory Decree No. 321, March 2016.Hide Footnote One prison officer described the sixth sector of Zacatecoluca prison, where the national leaders of the largest gangs are held, as follows: “[from that place] you either leave dead or demented … it scared the hell out of me”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior officer, El Salvador penitentiary system, San Salvador, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote

C. Gang Violence and Homicide Rates

Gang violence is a regional phenomenon rooted in the countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle, but which now has international reach. The largest, most violent groups are the MS-13 and the two factions of 18th Street gang (in Spanish Barrio 18), 18-Southerners and 18-Revolutionaries.[fn]The MS-13 is considered the largest and more vertical structure, followed by the 18-Southerners and 18-Revolutionaries. The two factions of the 18th Street gang split after 2004 and become rivals since then. Although the Salvadoran government says there are internal divisions in the MS-13, there is not enough evidence to confirm a fracture. Crisis Group interview, Roberto Valencia, journalist, San Salvador, 12 July 2017.Hide Footnote The origin of these groups, and the long history of rivalry among them, can be traced back to emigrant Central American communities in 1980s California. After mass deportations from the U.S. in the late 1990s, Salvadoran gangs adopted U.S. gang culture and identity, and pioneered the expansion of MS-13 and the 18th Street gang in the early 2000s.[fn]José Miguel Cruz, “Beyond Social Remittances. Migration and Transnational Gangs in Central America”, in Susan Eckstein & Adil Najam (eds.), How Migrants Impact Their Homelands (Durham, 2013).Hide Footnote These gangs have a worldwide presence of around 140,000 members, of whom 40,000 live in the U.S. and 100,000 are based in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Italy.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Mafia of the Poor, op. cit. “Pandillas: el origen del odio”, El Faro, 30 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Figure 1: Homicide rates in municipalities with low and high gang presence and yearly criminal deportations from the U.S. National Civilian Police and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

A. The exceptional problem of gang violence in El Salvador

In light of El Salvador’s size and population, the extent of gangs’ territorial presence, as well as its armed power, has no equal anywhere in the world. The country has the largest number of active gang-members in the region, an estimated 60,000, which exceeds the approximately 52,000 Salvadoran police and military officers. The gang social support base rises to 500,000 people – almost 8 per cent of total population – including sympathisers and former members, or calmados (gang lexicon for those who have desisted from gang activities).[fn]There are three ways an active gang member can make a case to leave the group or calmarse: by joining an evangelical Christian church; demonstrating family responsibilities that are incompatible with gang life; and abandoning criminal activities. After leaving, members become a sort of gang reservist, and are eligible for specific and non-violent requests from the group. Crisis Group interviews, Raúl Mijango, gang truce mediator, San Salvador, 9 March 2017; Otto Argueta, Interpeace program coordinator, Guatemala City, 6 February 2017.Hide Footnote

The typical profile of a gang member in El Salvador is a young male around 25 years old, born to a low-income, often broken family, who joined the gang at the age of fifteen. According to a March 2017 survey of over 1,000 jailed gang affiliates, most members came from marginalised neighbourhoods, and 70 per cent lived on less than $250 a month. The same study suggested that some 94 per cent do not have a secondary education; over 80 per cent have never held formal employment; and more than half come from families that had suffered a break-up.[fn]“The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador”, Florida International University, 22 March 2017, pp. 21-22.Hide Footnote

The relationship between criminal activity and territorial presence is perhaps the most unique feature of the country’s gang phenomenon. Gang revenues are drawn from extortion rackets and, to a lesser extent, drug-trafficking and sales. Gangs such the MS-13 gain up to $31.2 million per year from extorting 70 per cent of all the businesses in the territories where they are present, estimated at 247 out of the country’s 262 municipalities.[fn]“Killers on a shoestring: Inside the gangs of El Salvador”, The New York Times, 20 November 2016.Hide Footnote Most of their victims are small- and medium-sized business-owners, informal tradespeople and transport workers.[fn]“Extorsiones a la pequeña y micro empresa en El Salvador”, Fundación Salvadoreña para el Desarrollo Económica y Social (FUSADES), 23 June 2016, pp. 3-4.Hide Footnote Unlike their peers in Honduras, Salvadoran gangs do not have direct business control over parts of the drug trade, but have sub-contractual relationship with narco-traffickers, who employ them sporadically as muscle in some operations.[fn]“Organized Crime in El Salvador: The Homegrown and Transnational Dimensions”, Wilson Center, 11 August 2010, p. 8. Crisis Group interview, Raúl Mijango, gang truce mediator, San Salvador, 9 March 2017.Hide Footnote

The response from the Salvadoran state to the gang threat has triggered major transformations inside these organisations. After 4,000 gang members were jailed between 2004 and 2008 – and segregated by rival groups to avoid violent clashes – gang leaders began to centralise operations and behave more like traditional criminal bosses. According to Jeannette Aguilar, a Salvadoran academic: “the rise of the jail population [after the first] anti-gang plans … enabled [these groups] to find in jails a suitable niche for their formalisation and institutionalisation, making jails their new spaces for territorial control”.[fn]Jeannette Aguilar, “Los resultados contraproducentes de las políticas antipandillas”, ECA, Vol. 62, No. 708, p. 884.Hide Footnote El Salvador’s security policies in the 2000s, based on mass incarceration of suspected gang members, also helped gangs diversify their criminal activities – including extortion – by improving communication channels, and discouraging tattoos so as to avoid police identification.[fn]Steve Dudley, “Drug Trafficking Organizations in Central America: Transportistas, Mexican Cartels and Maras”, Woodrow Wilson Center, 1 May 2010, p. 84. Sonja Wolf, Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador (Austin, 2017), p. 12. Crisis Group interview, Carlos Martínez, journalist, San Salvador, 11 July 2017.Hide Footnote

A failed attempt at state-led indirect dialogue with gang leaders between 2012 and 2013 spurred the most recent transformation of Salvadoran gangs. The collapse of the truce led to “anarchy” inside gangs’ neighbourhood cells, or clicas, as leaders were isolated in maximum security prisons after the implementation of “extraordinary measures” in mid-2016. According to various sources, gangs have intensified violence against public officials and expanded their presence into rural areas.[fn]“Hoy toca que los sedientos de sangre, los de las pandillas y los del gobierno, se sacien”, El Faro, 12 October 2015. Crisis Group interviews, Raúl Mijango, gang truce mediator, San Salvador, 9 March 2017; Mario Vega, evangelical preacher, San Salvador, 29 August 2017; grassroots NGO representatives, San Salvador, 30 August 2017.Hide Footnote Media investigations and testimony gathered by the prosecutor’s office suggest that, in the run-up to the 2014 presidential elections, ARENA and FMLN party bosses allegedly paid gangs $350,000 in exchange for votes in territories under their control.[fn]Released on 10 August, this testimony was from a former 18th Street gang known as “Nalo” – a protected witness of the general prosecutor’s office – and was part of the evidence presented in a trial against 22 individuals prosecuted for their involvement in the gang truce. Nalo accused specific FMLN and ARENA leaders of offering $350,000 in cash to representatives of the MS-13 and the two factions of Barrio 18 in exchange for votes during the 2014 presidential elections, although both parties have repeatedly denied the accusations. “Relato de un fraude electoral, narrado por un pandillero”, El Faro, 11 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Many officials confirm in private that communication with gangs is inevitable.

If true, the alleged deal – denied by both political parties – would point to gangs’ extraordinary power to influence electoral processes and threaten candidates. Some local authorities fear ties between gangs and parties could also impinge on voting in upcoming polls.[fn]“Director PNC: pandillas van a coquetear con políticos de cara a elecciones”, El Diario de Hoy, 9 October 2017. Crisis Group interview, mayor, El Salvador, September 2017.Hide Footnote Many officials confirm in private that communication with gangs is inevitable: “Let’s be honest: every single party in this country talks to gangs, how they would not, since they have to organise rallies in their territories?”, said a veteran government official.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government official, San Salvador, 22 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Although nowadays gangs appear more dangerous than ever, there are signs that a significant number of members would be willing to lay down arms. In January 2017, gangs released a joint communiqué a week before the 25th anniversary of the 1992 peace accords asking the government for a new dialogue process, and offering to disband.[fn]The announcement was released on 9 January 2017 by El Faro digital news site a week before the 25th anniversary of the peace accords. It was followed by a rare day without a single homicide recorded on 11 January 2017. “MS-13 pide diálogo al gobierno y pone sobre la mesa su propia desarticulación”, El Faro, 9 January 2017. “A remarkable event in El Salvador: A day without murder”, The New York Times, 13 January 2017.Hide Footnote According to the previously mentioned survey, nearly 70 per cent of jailed gang members have intentions of leaving the group. The authors said respondents commonly gave personal reasons, such as becoming parents, surviving an attack or the effect of a friend’s or relative’s murder.[fn]

B. Beyond homicide rates

With a murder rate of 103 per 100,000 people, El Salvador became in 2015 the country with the highest murder rate in the world.[fn]In comparison, other Latin American countries recorded much lower homicides rates in 2015, including Guatemala (29.5), Colombia (25.5) and Mexico (12.9). “Balance de InSight Crime sobre homicidios en Latinoamérica en 2015”, InSight Crime, 15 January 2016.Hide Footnote This rise in homicides includes an increase in mass killings and femicides.[fn]Femicide is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “intentional murder of women because they are women”. Mass killings increased by 126 per cent between 2010 and 2015, and femicides by 750 per cent between 2012 and 2015 according to the study “Nuevas Tendencias de los Patrones de Violencia”, op. cit., p. 7. “Understanding and addressing violence against women”, WHO, 2012.Hide Footnote According to a 2013 study by Fundaungo, a local think-tank, over half those killed between 2009 and 2012 were fifteen-34 years old; approximately 80 per cent of the victims were male; 70 per cent of the killings were carried out by firearms; and nearly 40 per cent took place in public spaces.[fn]“Atlas de la violencia en El Salvador (2009-2012)”, Fundaungo, November 2013, pp. 14-15.Hide Footnote

How many of these murders can be attributed to gang violence is in dispute. But by 2012, the predominant role of gang violence in the overall number of homicides had become much clearer. During the first months of negotiation with the gangs, killings fell by 40 per cent. This sudden drop suggested that by 2012 gang leaders had sufficient power over local branches to reduce killings sharply nationwide.[fn]Charles M. Katz, E.C. Hedberg and Luis Enrique Amaya, “Gang truce for violence prevention, El Salvador”, World Health Organization, 1 June 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote Disappearances have also become a grave concern, even though no public institution in El Salvador systematically tracks these cases: between 2010 and 2016, the prosecutor’s office received 23,000 reports of disappearances, and the police 11,252.[fn]“Más de 23,000 desaparecidos en los últimos siete años”, El Diario de Hoy, 20 March 2017. Crisis Group interviews, San Salvador, July-September 2017.Hide Footnote

D. Criminal Violence and Migration

Central America is afflicted by a humanitarian crisis that has spread to the U.S. and Mexico. The number of refugees and asylum-seekers from the three countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) has seen nearly a tenfold increase since 2011 according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). In 2016, UNHCR estimated that there were 164,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador combined, as well as 450,000 irregular crossings from these countries to Mexico. Since 2015, Mexico and Costa Rica have experienced a steep increase in asylum requests from Northern Triangle migrants.[fn]Since 2015, asylum applications from Northern Triangle migrants have increased 156 per cent in Mexico and 319 per cent in Costa Rica. “NTCA Situation Update”, UNHCR, February 2017.Hide Footnote While migration in Central America has historically been tied to the search for economic opportunity, the recent spike in undocumented migration owes much to the flight from criminal violence. According to a May 2017 survey by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), nearly 40 per cent of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle in Mexico mentioned direct attacks from criminal groups as a reason for fleeing.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°57, Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration, 28 July 2016. “Forzados a huir del Triángulo Norte de América Central: Una crisis humanitaria olvidada”, MSF report, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The scope of the humanitarian emergency in El Salvador is hard to measure given the lack of official data on the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) – itself a reflection of the government’s refusal to recognise this phenomenon even though the Supreme Court of Justice and the human rights prosecutor have officially acknowledged it.[fn]Salvadoran public institutions refer to this phenomenon as “people affected by the crime of illegal limitation of freedom of circulation” (in Spanish, delito de limitación ilegal a la libertad de circulación, or LILIC). El Salvador’s Human Rights Prosecutor Office nevertheless recorded only 427 victims of internal displacement between January 2014 and March 2016. “Informe de Registro de la Procuraduría de DDHH sobre desplazamiento forzado”, El Salvador Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office, August 2016; “Sala ordena adoptar medidas para proteger a familias acosadas por pandillas”, La Prensa Gráfica, 6 October 2017. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, San Salvador, March-August 2017.
Hide Footnote
While many factors explain this refusal, the high domestic political cost ranks as the most relevant. Human rights groups insist that the state’s attitude means victims may go unattended, while NGOs are obliged to set up ad hoc protection mechanisms.[fn]Honduras is the only country in the Northern Triangle that recognises internal displacement. In a visit to El Salvador in early August, the UN special rapporteur on IDPs also criticised the lack of recognition of this issue. “Statement on the conclusion of the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on IDPs”, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 18 August 2017. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, San Salvador, March-August 2017; San Pedro Sula, 27 October 2017.Hide Footnote Some government officials also regret the lack of official recognition of this issue, but at the same time claim ongoing police efforts to protect victims is not appreciated either.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government official, San Salvador, 24 November 2017.Hide Footnote

III. Deportation and Gangs: The Spillover of Insecurity

U.S. migration policies in the 1990s exacted a heavy toll on El Salvador. Between 1998 and 2014, U.S. authorities deported almost 300,000 immigrants with criminal records to Central America. In El Salvador specifically, deportations between 1996 and 2002 led to the return of thousands of Salvadoran gang members who had fled their homeland during the war.[fn]“National Policies and the Rise of Transnational Gangs”, Migration Policy Institute, 1 April 2006.Hide Footnote Although U.S. policies sought to curb criminal activity by breaking up Los Angeles gangs, the long-term effect was an increase in violence across Central America and particularly El Salvador. When U.S. deportation figures and homicide data from El Salvador police are compared, the rise in killings that followed mass criminal deportations stands out, especially in areas with higher gang presence. This strong correlation between U.S. deportations and homicide rates in the receiving country suggests some sort of causal link between the two (see figure 2 for the trend lines in murder rates and criminal deportations).[fn]See Appendix B for more detailed information on statistical correlation between U.S. deportations and El Salvador criminality. On the basis of U.S. and El Salvador official data, evidence also points to the long-term spillover effects of deportations to El Salvador, which fuels child migration back to the U.S.Hide Footnote

Figure 2: Homicide rates in municipalities with low and high gang presence and yearly criminal deportations from the U.S. National Civilian Police and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Salvadoran authorities now fear a fresh wave of mass deportations. Initial action and rhetoric indicates that U.S. President Trump’s administration does not regard Central American migration so much as a flight from insecurity but rather as a conduit for greater violence in the U.S. Migration control and tough measures against gangs, above all the MS-13, have become matters of paramount importance. Indeed, Salvadoran gangs have received unprecedented attention from top-level U.S. officials, including a visit by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to El Salvador in late July.[fn]Migration helps President Trump to connect with the basis of his electorate. He has repeatedly justified the need for tougher border controls through the spread of gangs such as MS-13. In a 23 October statement, Sessions designated the gang a priority for the U.S. Justice Department. “Jeff Sessions makes MS-13 a priority for drug enforcement task forces”, CBS News, 23 October 2017. “MS-13 is Trump’s public enemy No.1, but should it be?”, CNN, 29 April 2017.Hide Footnote Tellingly, in the first months of Trump’s mandate, undocumented migrant detentions increased 38 per cent while the administration began winding down protection schemes for minors such as the Central American Minors (CAM) and the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA).[fn]For context on the DACA and CAM, please refer to: “Trump Administration Rescinds DACA, Fueling Renewed Push in Congress and the Courts to Protect DREAMers”, Migration Policy Institute, 15 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The most critical decision for El Salvador is now the prospective termination in March 2018 of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 195,000 of its nationals living in the U.S., none of whom can be considered criminals since they have registered and reported regularly to U.S. authorities for more than fifteen years, and have not been found to have violated national laws. More than 80 per cent are employed.[fn]TPS has been extended for some months to Honduras and cancelled for Haiti (albeit with an eighteen-month delay) and Nicaragua (with a twelve-month delay). “Las detenciones migratorias se disparan en Estados Unidos”, The New York Times, 19 May 2017; “Trump administration ends temporary protection for Haitians”, The New York Times, 20 November 2017; “DHS ends protected immigration status for Nicaraguans, but Hondurans get extension”, The Washington Post, 6 November 2017; Warren, R. and Kerwin D., “A Statistical and Demographic Profile of the U.S. TPS Populations from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti”, Journal on Migration and Human Security, July 2017.Hide Footnote Yet according to the U.S. State Department, Central Americans “no longer need to be shielded from deportation”.[fn]“Protected status no longer justified for Central Americans and Haitians in U.S., State Dept. says”, The Washington Post, 3 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and El Salvador’s close ties to Venezuela have complicated the country’s search for regional allies as it faces a hostile U.S. administration. Along with its Northern Triangle neighbours, El Salvador has become a Mexican bargaining chip in the NAFTA talks, as Mexico seeks to gain Washington’s sympathy and support by stressing its role as a buffer state able to both control undocumented migration along its southern border and foster economic development in Central America.[fn]Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray has explicitly warned that cooperation with the U.S. in security and migration control would be harmed by an unsatisfactory result in NAFTA renegotiations. “México advierte que reducirá la cooperación en seguridad y migración si Trump rompe el TLC”, El País, 13 November 2017.Hide Footnote The FMLN’s relations with Venezuela’s ruling party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), also have lumped El Salvador together with the small number of Latin American countries still supportive of Caracas.[fn]El Salvador Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez played an important role during the debate on Venezuela in the June 2017 Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in Mexico. His speech gave Venezuelan diplomats enough time to lobby against resolutions condemning the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Cancún, Mexico, 19-21 June 2017. El Salvador also refused to sign the 8 August 2017 Lima Declaration condemning the authoritarianism of the Venezuelan government, instead attending a meeting in Caracas in support of Maduro on the same day. “Cancilleres de América aíslan a la Venezuela que se olvidó de la democracia”, El Faro, 8 August 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. The Evolution of Security Policies

Law enforcement campaigns based on mass captures and joint operations by police and the armed forces are common denominators of anti-gang policies over the last fifteen years. However, the gangs’ rapid evolution has outpaced the rigid policy approaches developed in response.

A. Mano Dura

Between 1992 and 1999, the ARENA governments of Alfredo Cristiani and Armando Calderón Sol sought to consolidate the peace accords. With UN support, they undertook landmark security reforms, such as creation of a new civilian police force, separation of the intelligence service from the military, establishment of a human rights prosecutor and major changes to the armed forces’ mandate and size.[fn]Chapultepec Agreement, 1992.Hide Footnote These swift transformations, along with a sudden peak in post-war violence, hindered the state’s response to record criminal violence in the early 1990s, with 131 killings per 100,000 habitants in 1994.[fn]This peak of homicides is related to post-war violence, the high number of arms in circulation, and the limited response capacity of judicial and security institutions during the reform process. José Miguel Cruz, Luis Armando González, Luis Ernesto Romano, and Elvio Sisti, “De la guerra al delito: evolución de la violencia en El Salvador” in Asalto al desarrollo: violencia en América Latina (Washington, 2000), pp. 173-205.Hide Footnote

After a steady fall in homicides in the ensuing years, U.S. deportations appear to have contributed to rapid gang expansion in the late 1990s. President Francisco Flores (1999-2004), also from ARENA, launched the first anti-gang plans in El Salvador in 2003, through the “Iron Fist Plan” (Plan Mano Dura) and Anti-gang Bill.[fn]Mo Hume, “Mano Dura: El Salvador Responds to Gangs”, Development in Practice, Vol. 17, N°6, November 2007, pp. 49-53.Hide Footnote Both plans were announced eight months before the 2004 presidential election, suggesting to many observers that they were in essence electorally-driven strategies.[fn]This was confirmed by at least two interviewees close to ARENA. A leaked memo from the party also linked the launch of these anti-gang policies to the need for public support in the 2014 elections. “ARENA a pescar votos con el Plan Antimaras”, La Prensa Gráfica, 13 August 2003. Crisis Group interviews, current and former ARENA officials, San Salvador, June-July 2017.Hide Footnote The “Iron Fist Plan” was launched in October 2003, and included joint operations by the police and the military known as “anti-gang task forces”. The Anti-gang Bill, approved in December 2003, provided a temporary legal framework for the plan, criminalising gang membership and allowing detention of underage suspects.[fn]The Anti-gang Bill was declared unconstitutional on 1 April 2004. On the same day, the National Assembly approved a new law with a different name that included the same articles as the quashed bill. Mo Hume, “Mano Dura: El Salvador Responds to Gangs”, op. cit., pp. 49-50.Hide Footnote

ARENA again won the elections in 2004, and President Antonio Saca (2004-2009) launched the “Super Iron Fist Plan” (Plan Súper Mano Dura), continuing his predecessor’s approach while incorporating prevention and rehabilitation plans.[fn]For the design of the “Super Iron Fist Plan”, President Saca followed the recommendations of a group of policymakers, NGO representatives and international community members who between June-July 2004 agreed on a series of security initiatives that included reform on legislation related to juvenile offenders. José Miguel Cruz and Marlon Carranza, “Pandillas y políticas públicas: El caso de El Salvador” in Juventudes, violencia y exclusión: Desafíos para las políticas públicas (Guatemala City, 2006), pp. 133-171.
Hide Footnote
His two initiatives – “Helping Hand” (Mano Amiga) and “Extended Hand” (Mano Extendida) – identified priority communities and targeted at-risk youth and jailed gang members with special programs. However, lack of investment, delays in implementation and the low number of participants minimised their impact.[fn]“Central America and Mexico Gang Assessment”, USAID, April 2006, p. 54. Mo Hume, “Mano Dura: El Salvador Responds to Gangs”, op. cit., pp. 54-57.Hide Footnote

A continuous rise in violence led President Saca to relaunch his anti-gang efforts with a focus on strengthening police presence in violent hotspots and dismantling extortion rackets, an important source of gang income by that time.[fn]These initiatives were part of a renewed version of the “Super Iron Fist Plan” in mid-2006, and Plan “Sarissa” on May 2007. “El Gobierno de Saca reajustará el plan ‘Súper Mano Dura’ para reducir la delincuencia”, Europa Press, 17 January 2006. “Sarissa, la punta contra los homicidios”, Contrapunto, 24 April 2008.Hide Footnote But the large number of captures – 30,934 in two years – did not result in more convictions. Around 84 per cent of those detained were released by Salvadoran judges due to flimsy evidence of gang affiliation, as well as legal inconsistences between the recently created anti-gang laws and existing legislation on minors.[fn]Cruz and Carranza, “Pandillas y políticas públicas: El caso de El Salvador”, op. cit., pp. 162-164.Hide Footnote

B. The Truce

Former TV anchor and FMLN standard-bearer Mauricio Funes won the presidential election in 2009 and kick-started parallel prevention and repressive anti-crime campaigns. Funes’ government launched the first national violence prevention strategies between 2010 and 2013, which aimed to reduce the effects of criminal activity through actions targeted at the general public, people at risk and convicts.[fn]“Violence prevention” is a concept that comes from the field of health, and comprises various levels. Primary prevention includes a wide variety of actions, such as building soccer fields or organising social workshops in violence-affected communities; secondary prevention is directed to people at risk, and may include coaching boys living in gang-controlled areas; an example of tertiary prevention would be a job placement program for inmates. “Violence Prevention: The Evidence”, World Health Organisation report, 2010.Hide Footnote The strategies nevertheless proved to be little more than declarations of good intentions.[fn]These plans were coordinated by the new Institute of Youth (INJUVE) which replaced two institutions that previously coordinated prevention programs: the National Council on Public Security, in existence since 1996, and the Secretary of Youth, created in 2004. “Systematisation of Public Policies, Programmes and Projects on Violence Prevention and Public Security 2003-2013”, FUSADES internal discussion document, July 2014.Hide Footnote The Funes administration simultaneously intensified joint police and military operations and approved the Gang Proscription Law in September 2010.[fn]During the Funes administration the armed forces gained significant powers. The government passed seven decrees between 2008-2009 authorising military officers to participate in police operations, with the number of soldiers involved rising from 1,975 in 2008 to 6,500 in 2009. Jeanette Aguilar, “El rol del ejército en la seguridad interna de El Salvador”, op. cit., pp. 74-77.Hide Footnote

With the number of killings again reaching historic highs – 4,354 people were murdered in 2011 – Funes and his security cabinet changed tack, initiating an indirect dialogue with gang leaders to reduce killings in exchange for better conditions in jails. The process, known as the “gang truce”, was in essence a ceasefire agreement between the largest gangs starting in March 2012 after the government transferred some of their leaders from maximum security prisons to less restrictive facilities. General Munguía Payés, who was then minister of justice and public security and one of the strongest supporters of the process, appointed Fabio Colindres, head of the military bishopric, and former FMLN combatant Raúl Mijango as mediators, leading to frequent meetings with gang members and a drastic decrease in homicide rates.[fn]The loss of power by President Funes and his disconnection from the FMLN during the second half of his mandate gave greater decision-making capacity to key officials such as General Munguía Payés. Crisis Group interviews, Jeannette Aguilar, director of IUDOP, San Salvador, 22 February 2017; Raúl Mijango, gang truce mediator, San Salvador, 9 March 2017. Charles M. Katz, E. C. Hedberg and Luis Enrique Amaya, “Gang truce for violence prevention, El Salvador”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

However, lack of broad public and political support contributed to the end of the de facto truce. The FMLN and ARENA distanced themselves from negotiations, and were sceptical as to their impact on homicides, as were a majority of Salvadorans. Not even President Funes publicly admitted that the truce was official state policy. The truce started to collapse in 2013 after the Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional for a military officer to be in charge of the civilian police force, and Munguia Payés returned to his former post as defence minister.[fn]“Los salvadoreños y salvadoreñas evalúan la situación del país a finales de 2012”, IUDOP press release, 12 December 2012. Teresa Whitfield, “Mediating criminal violence: Lessons from the gang truce in El Salvador”, Oslo Forum papers, June 2013, pp. 12-13.Hide Footnote His successor, Ricardo Perdomo, declared in his first week in office that the government was not engaged in dialogue with the gangs.[fn]“Perdomo se desmarca de la tregua de pandillas”, El Diario de Hoy, 29 May 2013.Hide Footnote By the end of this process, in the second half of 2013, killings skyrocketed again, while gang extortion and recruitment, which had remained stable during the truce, increased afterwards.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, San Salvador, July-August 2017.Hide Footnote

C. New Measures

Sánchez Cerén, also from the FMLN, narrowly won the presidency in 2014 and the onset of his tenure was marked by deteriorating security.[fn]“Confirman triunfo de Sánchez Cerén en las elecciones presidenciales de El Salvador”, Univisión noticias, 13 March 2014.Hide Footnote In early 2015, his administration launched joint military and police rapid-reaction forces and approved so-called “extraordinary measures” in March 2016. The government has also sought to target gang finances under the aegis of “Operation Jaque” in July 2017 and “Operación Tecana” in September 2017.[fn]“Presentan a detenidos por Operación Tecana y los llevan a tribunal”, EFE, 10 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Although the focus of Sánchez Cerén’s security policies has been law enforcement, violence prevention initiatives also made some headway under the “Safe El Salvador” plan.[fn]The plan was the work of the UN-backed National Council of Citizen Security and Coexistence (CNSCC), the members of which included a wide variety of political and civil society representatives. The plan has five axes: prevention, attention to victims, law enforcement, rehabilitation, and institutional strengthening. “Plan El Salvador Seguro”, CNSCC, 2015. Crisis Group interview, government official, 22 November 2017.Hide Footnote Implementation came in various phases, starting in municipalities affected by higher levels of violence. Costing around $200 million per year, the plan is financed by international cooperation funds and an earmarked tax approved in November 2015. Of the $93 million collected in 2017 from these special taxes, around 70 per cent went to financing the police and the armed forces.[fn]In October 2015, the assembly approved two special taxes to finance the security plans: the “Law for Big Contributors”, which charges 5 per cent on individuals or companies that earn over $500,000 annually, and the “Law on Special Contributions”, which applies a 5 per cent tax on all telecommunication services. The government committed to investing 73 per cent of the money collected in prevention. “Consejo reclama al Gobierno por uso de fondos para seguridad”, La Prensa Gráfica, 11 October 2017.Hide Footnote

The merits of the new strategy have been disputed, as have its alleged accompanying human rights violations in the last two years.[fn]“Informe preliminar sobre el impacto de las medidas extraordinarias para combatir la delincuencia, en el ámbito de los derechos humanos”, El Salvador Human Rights General Prosecutor, July 2017.Hide Footnote Total homicides fell by 20 per cent from 2015 to 2016, and government officials had estimated another 27 per cent drop by the end of 2017.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalists and human rights activists, San Salvador, June-November 2017. “Seguridad calcula que necesita cinco años para ganar terreno a pandillas”, La Prensa Gráfica, 14 November 2017.Hide Footnote However, this foreseen reduction has not been sustained, nor has the general public noted a significant fall in violence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government official, San Salvador, 22 November 2017.Hide Footnote The second half of 2017 witnessed an uptick in violence, including 887 murders between September and October 2017.[fn]“El Salvador registró 452 asesinatos en octubre”, La Prensa Gráfica, 2 November 2017. “Más de 400 homicidios en septiembre”, Contrapunto, 2 October 2017.Hide Footnote In a stunning admission, a senior government official said that authorities were “fighting a war that cannot be won”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, San Salvador, 29 August 2017.Hide Footnote

V. Critical Flaws in Security Policies

For the past fifteen years, El Salvador’s security policies have struggled to contain the gang problem, which puts enormous pressure on the country’s institutions. Lack of adequate investment or qualified personnel has undermined prevention initiatives, putting the onus on more aggressive forms of policing. Residents in gang-controlled areas – especially women and children – pay the highest price as a result of the current escalation of violence.

A. Public Policies and Institutional Weakness

The National Civil Police, which spearheads implementation of anti-gang policies, has been profoundly affected both by the tide of gang violence and by the policies chosen to respond to it. Officers argue that the police has become the favoured institution to lead the fight against crime, but that it cannot fulfil its role without support from other government institutions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-ranking police officer, San Salvador, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote The state response to the rise of targeted killings and armed confrontations with gangs in recent years has focused on small increases in wages, while much-needed support to families of deceased officers and permanent protection mechanisms have been absent, mostly due to financial constraints rather than a lack of political will.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government officials, San Salvador, 10-14 July 2017. “Ser viuda de un policía”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Allegations of abuse by the police have also received limited attention. Although the police has a relatively efficient internal control unit, it lacks the personnel required to process the growing number of allegations against officers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arnau Baulenas, lawyer, Central America University Institute of Human Rights (IDHUCA), San Salvador, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote

In the context of generic institutional weakness, the armed forces, which continue to count on broad public support, remain the favoured option to combat gang violence. However, military support to police efforts has expanded without a legal framework determining the military’s specific role in public security. According to the Salvadoran constitution, its role is strictly circumscribed to foreign threats, reflecting the de-militarisation of public security that was one of the pillars of the peace accords.[fn]El Salvador constitution, op. cit.Hide Footnote The use of executive decrees over the last decade to normalise its role has put this institution into a legal limbo.

Judicial efforts to prosecute suspected criminals are constrained by the lack of a solid body of legislation to combat gang violence and of forensic evidence to try culprits. The Anti-gang Bill (2003) and its 2004 successor included a broad range of features that could be used to determine membership in an “illicit association”. In the following years, prosecutors and police applied the law by rounding up 30,934 suspected gang members, but the courts only sent to prison around 15 per cent of those captured.[fn]Cruz and Carranza, “Pandillas y políticas públicas: El caso de El Salvador”, op. cit., pp. 162-164.Hide Footnote Recent legislation has not changed this trend: according to one judge on the criminal circuit, evidence presented in court is still often highly circumstantial.[fn]Crisis Group interview, judge, San Salvador, 31 August 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Violence Prevention and Its Limits

As illustrated by data on El Salvador’s public spending on security, comparatively little is invested in prevention. From 2008 to 2014, the annual budget for justice and security rose by $120.2 million annually, to reach $775 million a year, equivalent to about 3 per cent of annual GDP in 2014.[fn]“Aumento de recursos y algunos resultados en seguridad y justicia, 2008-2015”, FUSADES report, February 2016, p. 4.Hide Footnote Some 44 per cent of the 2011 security budget was invested in the police and justice ministry, 31 per cent in the judiciary, and only 1 per cent on prevention.[fn]Ibid., p. 8.Hide Footnote The current allocation of funds is similar: though the government has committed to investing over two-thirds of the special security taxes on prevention, in reality it allocates less than 40 per cent.[fn]In response to criticism for failing to spend more on violence prevention, Minister of Justice and Public Security Mauricio Landaverde stated 31 October that a different allocation of funds would depend on a more stable security situation. “Ministro admite que Gobierno prioriza recursos para represión”, La Prensa Gráfica, 11 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Whereas all recent governments have admitted the need for a holistic approach to combating gang violence and its root causes, preventive strategies have tended to feature more on paper than in practice. El Salvador’s highly competitive two-party system steers policymakers toward measures that are politically and electorally appealing rather than those that address the multiple causes behind the gang phenomenon. Public fatigue, chronic violence and demands for punishment favour such coercive approaches.[fn]A July 2017 survey by the Central American University (UCA) showed 40 per cent of respondents were in favour of torturing criminals, and 34.6 per cent approved of extrajudicial killings as a means to combat gangs. “Legitimidad y con­fianza pública de la policía en El Salvador”, op. cit., p. 5.Hide Footnote An FMLN security adviser identified the lack of political will and public outrage as the main difficulties in promoting alternative security measures: “people fall in love with repression”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, FMLN security advisor, San Salvador, 13 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Authorities tend to avoid the political risks and uncertainties of combating criminality and its root causes by handing the security forces discretionary power to tackle the problem.

Security officials maintain that prevention plans “are the most important” aspects of anti-crime policy but fear they do not produce quick, tangible results. They also are concerned that these results cannot easily translate into either electoral support or attract sustainable funding. In this respect, the challenges faced by the Salvadoran government are not unique and affect other Latin American countries confronting high levels of violent crime. Authorities tend to avoid the political risks and uncertainties of combating criminality and its root causes by handing the security forces discretionary power to tackle the problem.[fn]See remarks by Argentine security expert Marcelo Sain in “Marcelo Sain: ‘Patricia Bullrich da más para gerenta del Cirque du Soleil que para ministra de Seguridad’”, Política Argentina, 28 August 2016.Hide Footnote

In the context of chronic insecurity, crime experts likewise question whether violence prevention initiatives can have a notable impact. The head of a NGO said, “the [social] disintegration [in El Salvador] is such that [prevention] programs are not sufficient … [decision-makers] look away when you explain to them that this repression-prevention duality does not work”.[fn]Remarks by president of NGO Fundación Forever Alejandro Gutman in an October 2017 interview “Hay cero posibilidades de que las pandillas se debiliten con el modelo actual de prevención”, El Faro, 25 October 2017.Hide Footnote Both ARENA and FMLN members referred to the ways ongoing repressive measures undermine alternative policies, with some arguing that “in this context, it [prevention] doesn’t work”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, FMLN and ARENA members, San Salvador, 10-14 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Lukewarm support for prevention initiatives and resort to traditional coercive policing methods also explain the limited impact until now of the “Safe El Salvador” plan. Although it is true that prioritised municipalities have seen a reduction in homicides of up to 60 per cent, statistically murder rates in the plan’s target municipalities have remained quite similar to those in other locations since December 2015, when the plan was first launched. This is illustrated in figure 3 below, which shows similar patterns both in prioritised municipalities under the “Safe El Salvador” plan and non-prioritised municipalities.[fn]This plan has been implemented in different phases, with each phase representing a different set of municipalities. The periods of are as follows: phase one, including the most violent areas, started in November 2015; phase two between December 2016 and July 2017; and phase three in November 2017. “Plan Safe El Salvador”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Figure 3: Homicides rates in municipalities prioritised by Plan Safe El Salvador versus homicide rates in non-prioritised municipalities. National Civilian Police and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

C. Lack of Employment Opportunities and Increasing Poverty

El Salvador’s sluggish economic performance and worsening fiscal conditions have impeded job creation for young men hailing from marginalised areas. According to the IMF, the country’s growth – on average 1.9 per cent between 2010 and 2016 – was one of the slowest in the Central American region, a reality it attributed to “crime, outward migration, consumption bias, and low savings”.[fn]“IMF Country Report No.16/209”, 1 June 2016, p. 17.Hide Footnote The current budget deficit stands at around 3 per cent of GDP, and public debt is expected to reach 61 per cent of GDP by the end of 2017. Some 25 per cent of Salvadorans aged fifteen-24 are neither working nor studying.[fn]Rafael De Hoyos, Anna Popova, and Halsey Rogers, “Out of school and out of work: a diagnostic of ninis in Latin America”, World Bank report, 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote

Although unemployed youth are more vulnerable to gang recruitment,[fn]Isabel Rosales, “Against All Odds: Youth in Post-War Societies. The Case of El Salvador”, German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), 2016, p. 6.Hide Footnote there are few public policies aimed at promoting training and generating employment for young people. According to the 2017 Florida International University study, only 36 per cent of gang members interviewed have ever received professional training. Of those that did, nearly 70 per cent were trained in manual work. Gang members’ aspirations, however, are considerably higher, with over 40 per cent wishing to join a profession or become an entrepreneur.[fn]“The New Face of Street Gangs”, op. cit., pp. 20-21.Hide Footnote

El Salvador also suffers persistently high poverty rates that increased between 2014 and 2015, mostly in urban areas.[fn]“The World Bank in El Salvador”, World Bank website. Last accessed 14 December 2017.Hide Footnote This has made implementation of prevention programs even harder, since officials tend to find that demands expressed by residents in marginalised communities are geared more to basic needs or food than improved public spaces or enhanced community facilities. “I arrived in a prioritised community where I went to give a talk on peacebuilding, and I realised how far from reality we were when people told me they didn’t even have drinking water”, explained an official from San Miguel municipality in charge of implementing “Safe El Salvador”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, San Miguel and San Salvador, June-September 2017.Hide Footnote

D. El Salvador’s Social Fabric: The Unaddressed Root Causes

The most important flaw in security policies is their failure to address living conditions in gang-controlled communities. Social anomie, the victimisation of youth and women, and a climate of constant fear and suspicion help explain both the resilience of gangs and how well-intentioned policies fail to affect realities on the ground.

A. Gang control and community bonds

There is a consensus among the highest security authorities in El Salvador on the need to reestablish state territorial control as the prelude to improving security. In some areas, gangs have accumulated so much power that they have become de facto custodians of these localities, setting up road-blocks, supervising everyday life and imposing their own law.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Carlos Martínez, El Faro journalist, 11 July 2017.Hide Footnote “Gangs did not steal the territory from the state, they simply occupied it when it was empty [after the armed conflict]”, explained one NGO worker.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Otto Argueta, Interpeace program coordinator, Guatemala City, 6 February 2017.Hide Footnote

At the same time, vigilante activity has become a common threat, especially in areas with major gang presence. These patrols are formed by civilians, some of them war veterans, who seek to stop the entrance of gang members in their territory. No public policy of the past fifteen years has sought to restrict these groups, or reduce their potential harm. Vigilantism has even been promoted by lawmakers such as the President of the Legislative Assembly Guillermo Gallegos, who has admitted financing some of these groups.[fn]“Diputado financia armas para autodefensa de comunidad de Zacatecoluca”, La Prensa Gráfica, 6 May 2017.Hide Footnote Gruesome pictures of slain alleged criminals appear regularly in social media accounts attributed to these groups, whose followers “celebrate the elimination of gang members”.[fn]Carlos A. Rosales and Anna Leonor Morales, “The re-emergence of social cleansing in El Salvador”, Open Democracy, 20 January 2016.Hide Footnote

Figure 4: Guerrilla presence in 1982 and average homicide rates 2003-2016. El Salvador National Civil Police; historical map from Cornell University PJ Mode “Collection of Persuasive Cartography” indicating the areas of control by FMLN guerrilla in 1982.

In general, areas with strong social and community bonds have seen far less gang expansion. While there are no empirical studies decisively proving the link, the map in figure 4 suggests a significant correlation. Taking the strength of the insurgency during the civil war as a proxy for social cohesion (since guerrillas depended on strong communal ties and collective mobilisation), the map shows that in 2015 districts where the insurgency had been strong had relatively few homicides in comparison with districts where the insurgency was weak.[fn]See Elisabeth Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge 2003). The impact of community building on reducing the risk of gang membership has been discussed in many academic papers. K.G. Hill, J.C. Howell, J.D. Hawkins, and S.R. Battin-Pearson, “Childhood risk factors for adolescent gang membership: results from the Seattle Social Development Project”, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 36, 1999, pp. 300-322. Craig D. Uchida, Marc L. Swatt, Shellie E. Solomon, and Sean P. Varano, Community, Crime Control, and Collective Efficacy: Neighborhoods and Crime (Lanham, 2015), p. 110.Hide Footnote

Previous studies have pointed to how a lack of community ties underpinned the expansion of gang control in parts of Central America, and how the presence of these groups proceeded to further undermine social cohesion. Whereas organised communities have been able to limit the impact of gang violence in their municipalities,[fn]“Nuevas Tendencias de los Patrones de Violencia”, op. cit., p. 63.Hide Footnote a 2007 survey from across the Northern Triangle found that 88 per cent of Salvadorans interviewed in gang-affected areas reported that they did not collaborate with their neighbours in dealing with crime problems in their community. The survey showed that interviewees in El Salvador and other regional countries instead had opted to change their daily habits, such as avoiding walking alone after sunset or buying a gun.[fn]José Alberto Rodríguez Bolaños and Jorge Sanabria León (eds.), “Maras y pandillas, comunidad y policía en Centroamérica”, Demoscopía, October 2007, pp. 79-80.Hide Footnote Some individuals who lived in gang-controlled areas also mentioned the limits on free movement imposed by these groups as a crucial factor behind the deterioration of community life.[fn]Crisis Group interview, San Salvador, 5 June 2017.Hide Footnote

B. The victims: women, children and teenagers

Young people are prime victims of the country’s insecurity, targeted by state law enforcement on one side and gangs on the other. The first “iron fist” plans in 2003-2004 targeted youth suspected of criminal activity, despite warnings from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that these new rules were too harsh on minors.[fn]Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, op. cit., p. 50.Hide Footnote

Lack of investment in education coupled with criminal activity in and around schools allows gangs to use them as recruitment platforms. Tellingly spending on education in El Salvador is the lowest in Central America, representing only 4.4 per cent of GDP.[fn]“UNICEF 2014 Annual Report El Salvador”, UNICEF, 2014.Hide Footnote Many schools are unsafe for students and teachers, both of whom are threatened by gang members and their children. A 2015 report from El Salvador’s Ministry of Education estimated that about 65 per cent of schools are affected by gangs; in these schools, almost 30 per cent of staff have reported threats.[fn]“Análisis Rápido de Educación y Riesgo de El Salvador”, USAID, June 2015, p. 5.Hide Footnote

The effect of gang recruitment and presence on education can be illustrated by comparing years of schooling in areas with a high gang presence to those with a low gang presence. Figure 5 shows that individuals who started school in 1990 and lived in what are now high-gang presence areas had significantly more years of schooling than their peers in areas that now boast a low gang presence, largely because education is weaker in rural areas, which tend to have fewer gangs. The schooling gap was reduced by nearly half over the next six years, mainly because of improvements in rural education. But much more strikingly, the gap was erased completely over the next six years, between 1996 and 2002, not because of further improvements in rural education (indeed, years of schooling in rural locations declined slightly over that time) but rather because of the precipitous drop in schooling in high-gang areas. That drop can be explained by the mass deportation to El Salvador beginning in 1996, which had a highly detrimental effect on schooling.

Figure 5: Average years of education in municipalities with low and high gang presence by the year school began. Household surveys from 2012 and 2013, El Salvador General Directorate of Statistics and Census (DIGESTYC).

Women, meanwhile, are the forgotten victims of the country’s security policies. Specific action to tackle the victimisation of women as civilians or as gang members has been missing from security policies. The role of women in the design and implementation of security policies is also limited, with no female members in El Salvador’s security cabinet. The levels of violence against women make this absence from key decision-making circles all the more worrying. A total of 10,546 female minors were reported to have been raped between 2006 and 2014, amounting to one of the highest such rates in the hemisphere. Many more go unreported for fear of retaliation.[fn]“Cada cuatro horas y 42 minutos ocurre una violación”, La Prensa Gráfica, 21 December 2015.Hide Footnote

C. “We fear each other”: accounts from gang-controlled areas

Testimony from people living in gang-controlled communities reveal high levels of distrust of public authorities, limited access to public spaces, and physical abuse against young people. Below are some of the most representative and disturbing concerns voiced by interviewees, all young people between fourteen and 25 years old from the suburbs of San Salvador. The statements underline the difficulties in devising and applying effective security policies in a context of widespread control by gangs coupled with public animosity toward them.[fn]The names and ages of interviewees have been withheld so as not to compromise their safety.Hide Footnote

“I saw a group of police officers who entered in our neighbourhood and started marking the houses where they thought gang members lived …. Some families were forced to flee [after that event, by the security forces]”.

“[I think] the police and us young people fear each other. But if they are scared of me for being young, imagine how I feel … they are the ones with the guns”.

“I remember I once went to an event [organised by the police in my neighbourhood] and I saw some of my former friends who had become gang members dressed up as officers. I told myself: are these the guys who are going to keep me safe?”

“[Verbal harassment against young girls] is totally normal here. We get that all the time from them [referring to both criminals and security officers]”.

“Do you see that place at the other side of the road? I could never get in there since that is the territory of a rival group … if they [members of the rival gang, in this case the 18th Street gang] see me there, they may think that I am a spy … I could easily get killed, for sure I would be beaten up”.

“They [gangs] use murders to send messages to the government … that is a way to tell the state that they are the ones running the show here”.

“We see investment, but we cannot get access to it [in reference to a sports club in the interviewee’s community that was part of the “Safe El Salvador” plan]. They [public officials] want us to join their groups, but unfortunately we can’t go there because we would be dead”.

VI. Opportunities Ahead

Conversations with high-level authorities suggest they are fully conscious of the limits of the repressive approach and the impossible task of prosecuting 500,000 alleged members of the gangs’ support base.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, top-level security officials, San Salvador, July-August 2017.Hide Footnote At the same time, the current government strategy aims at using all resources available to asphyxiate the gangs, including the militarisation of public spaces, to which the gangs have responded with greater violence.[fn]“Militarización de San Salvador disminuye al tercer día”, El Diario de Hoy, 21 September 2017.Hide Footnote While there is little evidence to suggest that the government or opposition will soon offer distinct policies, actions such as adapting the current security strategy, promoting rehabilitation efforts and reinforcing security and justice institutions could contribute to reducing insecurity.

A. “Safe El Salvador” and Territorial Recovery

Avoiding past mistakes and maintaining political support for government initiatives at the local level are some of the main principles behind the “Safe El Salvador” plan. Although there are doubts as to the plan’s achievements on the first score, the local approach of the plan has become a powerful tool for the main parties to bolster their electoral bases in municipalities they control. Large sums of money have been poured into the prioritised locations and allowed mayors to offer visible changes to communities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, mayors of municipalities of Zacatecoluca and Ciudad Delgado, El Salvador, July-September 2017.Hide Footnote

Converting “Safe El Salvador” into an effective territorial recovery strategy will require more intensive efforts to support at-risk populations. Since young people are both the primary victims and perpetrators of gang violence, it is essential to ensure that schools remain safe havens.[fn]Local organisation Foundation of Studies for the Application of Law (FESPAD) emphasises the need for legislation on attention to victims in its recent evaluation of the “Safe El Salvador” plan. “Avances y desafíos a futuro del Plan El Salvador Seguro”, FESPAD press release, 14 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The changing dynamics of criminal violence in El Salvador also suggest the need for a differentiated security strategy for areas with high and low gang presence. The “Safe El Salvador” plan could be continued for the most affected municipalities, while areas with lower levels of violence could experiment with an alternative approach based on community policing, support for civil society and primary prevention aimed at limiting the appeal and power of gangs. In contrast, the current mass arrests and generic targeting of teenage suspects are detrimental to efforts to win local support and garner information. This was confirmed by a police officer in San Miguel, who acknowledged the importance of community support: “We can have thousands of agents, but if the community does not trust us, we cannot do anything”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-ranking police official, San Miguel, July-September 2017.Hide Footnote

Supporting this shift in policy will require fresh allocations of resources and a change in the partisan political habits. All political parties, and above all ARENA, should avoid blocking legislation on issues where there is in theory broad cross-party agreement. If ARENA’s priority is winning the 2019 presidential elections, it should consider that a continued deterioration in security conditions could undermine support for the two-party system as a whole.

Although the government is clear that it has no intention to engage again in dialogue with gangs, in practice thousands of low-level officials and community leaders are compelled to negotiate daily with them.[fn]Informal negotiation with gang members was brought up several times in interviews with community leaders. Crisis Group interviews, El Salvador, June-August 2017.Hide Footnote In private, political parties recognised de facto gangs’ territorial presence all over the country. It is uncertain whether the gangs’ offer to disband in January 2017 is still in place, but the government should keep the door open to grassroots non-violent approaches through support for the work of local churches and civil society, and avoid demonising those who are trying to reduce local violence. The chances of a fresh attempt at national dialogue with the gangs of the sort that failed between 2012 and 2013 would very much depend on the incoming administration in 2019.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-level government official, San Salvador, 12 December 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Improving Judicial and Police Institutions

Legal reforms are urgently needed to relieve the judiciary of the pressures it faces. Possibilities include reducing sentences for minor offenses such as drug possession, or using trained community mediators to settle disputes outside of the courtroom, which has proven successful in Honduras.[fn]The project was financed by the Spanish cooperation in Honduras, and according to Spanish diplomats it was “one of the most successful projects” they have financed. Crisis Group interview, Spanish ambassador to Honduras, Tegucigalpa, 3 April 2017. “Seguridad y Paz, un reto de país”, op. cit. “Informe de sistematización”, op. cit.Hide Footnote It is clear from interviews with judges and high-level magistrates that the distribution of judicial resources across the country is seriously imbalanced given the geographic clustering of criminal activity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, judges and CSJ magistrate, San Salvador, July-September 2017.Hide Footnote

The prosecutor’s office lacks the financial and human resources required to take on additional cases or swiftly process current ones. Ideally, it should receive more funding and revise its annual goals to ensure they are realistic. Alleged corruption scandals affecting the institution’s previous leadership also underline the need to reinforce transparent and open selection procedures for high-level officials.

Lessons from police reforms in countries such as Guatemala and Honduras indicate that specific innovations can prove more effective than efforts to reform the entire security system. Better coordination between the police, the prosecutor’s office and the courts stands out as one crucial area. The implementation of Guatemala’s 2010 law against organised crime – allowing prosecutors working with investigative police to ask judges for permission to use wire taps – is an example of successful inter-agency coordination. The establishment of innovative systems of case management in the homicide investigations unit, which worked directly with prosecutors, has been fundamental to Guatemala’s success in reducing murder rates in certain areas.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America and Caribbean Report N°43, Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities, 20 July 2012.Hide Footnote

At the same time, the strengthening of the police internal affairs unit through additional personnel and resources could enhance the institution’s transparency at a time of increasing concern over alleged abuses of power.

C. A State-led Rehabilitation Process

The most significant government effort in rehabilitating convicted criminals is the “I’m Changing” (Yo Cambio) program, which seeks to spur inmates into training each other in specific skills that fellow prisoners can offer.[fn]“Programa de Tratamiento Penitenciario Yo Cambio, Centro Penal de Apanteos, Santa Ana, El Salvador. Sistematización de la experiencia”, Interpeace report, 2010.Hide Footnote Despite a lack of resources, authorities argue it has had beneficial effects in jails such as Apanteo, Ilopango or San Vicente. At the same time, a handful of Salvadoran churches and business leaders are carrying out independent rehabilitation programs. The private sector’s initiatives depend on the leadership of specific individuals, such as the well-known case of former gang members working for the sportswear company American League. Such programs help former gang members overcome the social stigma that can make it so hard for them to find a job or carry on a normal life.[fn]American League is a Salvadoran company known for hiring and training former gang members in a unique and successful rehabilitation project. On the challenges faced by rehabilitated gang members in El Salvador, see “Raúl no quiere ser el Shadow”, El Faro, 7 August 2017. Crisis Group interviews, San Salvador, August-September 2017; Crisis Group Report, Mafia of the Poor, op. cit.
Hide Footnote

More rehabilitation opportunities should be provided. The Legislative Assembly could debate and approve a bill initially presented to the Legislative Assembly Security Committee in early 2017 that has been stuck in Congress since then. This could be amended to incorporate lessons from the “I’m Changing” program and other rehabilitation initiatives provided by churches, NGOs and the private sector, and thus help the government develop one of the more neglected pillars of the “Safe El Salvador” plan.[fn]A legal framework is needed to carry out reinsertion activities, as the current legislation does not clarify the limits on such programs, especially given that gang members are considered terrorists following a Supreme Court ruling in 2015.Hide Footnote Specific measures should include financing tattoo removal, and developing a methodology for rehabilitation that protects participants from prosecution or offers reduced sentences. Rehabilitation measures could help prepare officials for an eventual handover of arms by some gang members, should this ever happen. As one government official explained: “if they [gangs] one day decide to surrender, we are screwed”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ministerial adviser, San Salvador, 13 July 2017.Hide Footnote

The construction of several new prisons is an important step toward reducing overcrowding, but should be accompanied by more and better trained prison personnel. Providing human rights training for guards is especially important.

D. Coordinating Efforts to Protect El Salvador from U.S. Migration Policies

El Salvador’s security crisis, as well as its past vulnerability to U.S. migration policies, fully justifies continuing the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation that has allowed around 195,000 Salvadoran nationals to stay in the U.S. legally. While El Salvador was originally designated for this program after two earthquakes in 2001, the U.S. administration should also consider current circumstances, especially the humanitarian impact of criminal violence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, U.S. government official, Washington, 20 November 2017.Hide Footnote The Department of Homeland Security’s decision to end the program for Sudan, Nicaragua and Haiti suggests, however, that it will also choose to terminate TPS for El Salvador.[fn]Although the acting head of the DHS, Elaine Duke, seems flexible on the TPS issue, other U.S. decision-makers are known as immigration hardliners. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly reportedly called acting Secretary Elaine Duke 6 November 2017 to pressure her to expel some 57,000 Hondurans with TPS, on the day her office deferred a decision regarding their status. “White House chief of staff tried to pressure acting DHS secretary to expel thousands of Hondurans, officials say”, The Washington Post, 9 November 2017. Crisis Group interview, government official, Washington, 20 November 2017.
Hide Footnote

The high levels of violence in El Salvador make the country especially dangerous for returning migrants, especially for the 192,700 children of Salvadorans with TPS, many of whom are U.S. citizens.[fn]Warren, R. and Kerwin D., “A Statistical and Demographic Profile of the U.S. TPS Populations”, op. cit., p. 581.Hide Footnote To mitigate the impact of TPS termination, the U.S. government should confirm its decision on the issue as early as possible, and preferably provide a long extension before the cut-off date. This would help El Salvador prepare accordingly for the arrival of the first wave, and give its affected nationals some predictability as to their future. Coordination between San Salvador and different consulates in the U.S. will be key to offering potential returnees dignified employment opportunities in their home country. In the best-case scenario, this would allow the country to develop job placement schemes in coordination with the private sector. Spanish education for the children of returnees, many of whom will speak English as their first language, should also be funded by the U.S.

Regardless of the TPS outcome, Salvadoran authorities should work with the main political parties to create and implement a policy for returnees. By the end of 2018, state institutions will need a plan to address the reception of returnees and the humanitarian risks faced by those wishing to migrate back to the U.S. Both the assembly and the incoming government – to be elected in early 2019 – should continue these efforts by intensifying locally-targeted policies to promote development and entrepreneurship in the municipalities that receive more returnees. This mid-term policy should have a strong educational focus, as the most vulnerable groups will be children between fourteen and eighteen years old who are easy prey for potential gang recruitment.

The Salvadoran government also needs to acknowledge the reality of internal displacement – which affects all Northern Triangle countries – and start to work on a humanitarian response in coordination with international agencies. This should include the adoption of the Comprehensive Regional Framework for the Protection and Solution (MIRPS), signed on 26 October 2017 by Mexico and all Central American countries, except El Salvador.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UNCHR officers, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, 26 October 2017.Hide Footnote The priority should be to offer temporary shelter and support to victims who cannot go back to their communities, most of them vulnerable groups such as children and women. The government could work in coordination with NGOs already handling some cases, learn from their experience, and create a screening system based on information previously gathered by these organisations.

VII. Conclusion

El Salvador’s security crisis is a warning for Latin America and the world as to how the unexpected outcomes of a failed post-conflict transition can become more lethal than the war itself. A quarter of a century after the signing of its peace accords, El Salvador is often said to be suffering a “new war” between the state and gangs. However, this “war” is really a manifestation of social breakdown: the sides that are fighting one another are far from cohesive, gang violence has as yet no clear political objective, and the civilians most affected by insecurity, largely young people from low-income backgrounds, are both victims and perpetrators.

For the past fifteen years, the gangs have learned to shield themselves from different state security policies by transforming their operations and internal organisation. The current sophistication of these groups, as well as the repeated failure to address their socio-economic roots – roots which are themselves deepened and perpetuated by ongoing violence – is a sign that many of these policies, even including those aiming at prevention rather than repression, will need to be reformed and enhanced if they are to halt El Salvador’s bloodshed.

However, under the umbrella of the “Safe El Salvador” plan, the government now has the opportunity to launch concerted rehabilitation programs and take advantage of the seemingly high number of gang members willing to leave criminal life. Cross-party agreements will be crucial in designing mechanisms to strengthen the prosecutor’s office and the police, as well as for preparing integration mechanisms for mass deportations from the U.S. should Washington fail to redesignate the TPS program for resident Salvadorans. Minimising the risks of violence during the March 2018 local and legislative polls will likewise depend on the goodwill and cooperation of the two major parties.

The fact that the FMLN and ARENA have been peacefully alternating in power for the last 25 years after an exceptionally brutal civil war is a sign that Salvadorans have the capacity to overcome hard times. The Salvadoran public and countries in the hemisphere will continue to voice outrage over the gangs’ criminal deeds. But this violence is the latest manifestation, and probably not the last, of the country’s long and painful history of social divides. Security policy that ignores these causes will do little to halt the carnage, and could well extend it for another generation.

Guatemala City/Brussels, 19 December 2017

Appendix A: Map of El Salvador

Appendix B: Deportations, Crime and Migration: A Quantitative Analysis

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, followed in 2002 by the Homeland Security Act, sharply increased the number of criminal deportations from the U.S. to Central America. Leaders of large Salvadoran gangs that had developed in Los Angeles were sent back to El Salvador. Aside from the direct effects on security and violence of these gang members’ return, quantitative research shows that the arrival of individuals bringing criminal skills and connections generated important spillover effects across Salvadoran society, eventually leading to more unaccompanied minors emigrating to the U.S.

This study brings together data from multiple sources to examine the long-term effect of deportations on El Salvador. Data on deportations comes from the Immigration Statistics of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This data set includes annual information on the number of individuals deported from the U.S., showing a steady increase over the 1990s – with a critical increase from 1996 to 2003, featuring numerous deportations of gang members – followed by a steep rise from 2003 on.

Figure 6: Deportations to El Salvador by year (1996-2014). U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Beginning in 1993, the data on deportations can be divided into those with criminal and non-criminal status. Criminal status includes those cases in which the DHS has evidence of a conviction. Between 1993 and 2013, approximately 40 per cent of the deportations to El Salvador were criminal.

Data on educational outcomes comes from the 2007 El Salvador census, which includes information on total years of education completed by individuals who are born before 1989. These are individuals who turned eighteen by 2007, and have likely finished their education. The 1992 census also provides information on baseline characteristics of municipalities with gang presence. Data from Household Surveys (Encuesta de Hogares de Propósitos Múltiples), which have been conducted annually in El Salvador since 1995, includes information on demographic variables, educational enrolment and attainment, health, labour force participation, as well as income and consumption of Salvadoran individuals and their households. Each survey consists of a stratified sample of over 20,000 households, for a total sample size of over 85,000 individuals. Data on municipal-level homicides for the years 1995 and 1999 to 2010 was provided by the National Civil Police of El Salvador.

Confidential data on individuals who entered prison from 1980 to 2016 was used to examine whether children exposed to the arrival of gangs are more likely to engage in crime as adults by tracking cohorts across different municipalities. The data contain about 140,000 individuals incarcerated in El Salvador between the ages of eighteen and 60, and features information about their exact municipality and date of birth, whether they belong to a gang, their education and type of crime. Data on gang leaders was collected from a special investigation carried out by El Faro, a local news site, which provided the names of the main gang leaders. Most of these gang leaders grew up in the U.S. but were born in El Salvador. To obtain information on their place of birth, data was collected from criminal sentences in 2012 from the Ministry of Justice in El Salvador, the U.S. Department of Treasury, and media investigations.

Finally, administrative data on minors deported from the U.S. between 2012 and 2016 contain information on children’s place of birth, thereby helping to show the effect of gang violence on child migration.


An initial finding from analysis of this data is that the return to El Salvador of deported criminals significantly increased homicides and reduced primary school attendance. In particular, children age ten to twelve were affected. Individuals who were exposed to gang deportations during childhood have fewer years of schooling, and are less likely to complete primary education.

Two initial observations stand out for their significance. First, in periods when criminal deportations from the U.S. increase, homicides rate increase. Second, whereas homicides rates in 1995 are at similar levels in areas where the gangs were later active as where they were not, after 2002 areas of gang presence experience a far greater increase in homicide rates. Statistical analysis by coefficients also underlines the effect of criminal deportations on homicides rates. Estimates show that for an increase of 1,000 criminal deportees per municipality, homicide rates increase by four murders per 100,000.

Children of primary school age who have been affected by gang deportations are also more likely to be incarcerated for gang-related crimes when they are adults, suggesting that deported gang members recruit these children. This can be shown by dividing children by ages covering the four different cycles of primary and secondary education. After the arrival of gang leaders, school attendance declines. In particular, children aged ten to twelve years old suffer a 5 per cent reduction in school attendance.

To assess whether these effects are driven by violent crime or gang presence, it is important to consider the 2012 truce in which gang leaders committed to reduce homicides rates in exchange for moving to better prison facilities. While there is evidence that violent crime declined in gang areas by 50 per cent during the truce, schooling outcomes did not improve during that period. These results suggest that effects on schooling may be driven by other factors associated with gangs, and not only violent crime. Even though homicides declined during the truce, extortion practices continued and even increased.

One reason for this sustained impact on schooling could be gang recruitment of boys who are used to help in extortion practices and other low-level tasks. According to a recent report from El Faro based on statistics from the Ministry of Education, the percentage of dropouts due to delinquency has increased by 120 per cent over recent years. This has to do with insecurity resulting from threats by gangs and the perils of crossing gang boundaries. In addition, gangs often recruit children at schools. The ministry estimates that about 65 per cent of schools are affected by the presence of gangs, while in almost 30 per cent internal security is threatened. A school located in gang territory is generally considered property of the gang. Gangs threaten and extort principals, teachers and students and prevent students from attending school.

Lastly, the history of homicides in children’s municipality of births affects the decision of children to migrate. On average, an increase in ten homicides per month in a municipality translates into an increase of three children leaving per month. Figure 7 shows the spatial distribution of children from municipalities in El Salvador who have been deported from the U.S., as well as the homicide rates in each area. A larger share of deported children, though not all of them, comes from municipalities with higher rates of homicide.

Figure 7: Map of origins of deported children and average local homicide rates 2003-2016. International Organisation for Migration (IOM); El Salvador National Civil Police.

Overall, the results from this quantitative analysis show that the increase in U.S. criminal deportations led to an increase in homicide rates in places with gang presence. The results also show that, in these same places, an increase in criminal deportations and gang presence reduced educational outcomes and increased the future criminal behaviour of young cohorts who were presumably exposed to higher gang activity during their adolescence. In short, there is evidence of the indirect effect of gang leaders from the U.S. on Salvadoran children, and of how gang violence in El Salvador may push minors out of the country to the U.S., increasing the number of deported children.

This analysis was prepared by Crisis Group’s Economics of Conflict fellow.
A longer version is due to be published as a scholarly article.

Gang members imprisoned in Quezaltepeque prison, on the outskirts of San Salvador city in El Salvador, pose for a photograph, on 2 June 2012. REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez.

Mafia of the Poor: Gang Violence and Extortion in Central America

Central American gangs are responsible for brutal acts of violence, abuse of women and forced displacement of thousands. Governments must go beyond punitive measures and address the social and economic roots of gang culture, tackle extortion schemes and invest in communities.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

Born in the aftermath of civil war and boosted by mass deportations from the U.S., Central American gangs are responsible for brutal acts of violence, chronic abuse of women, and more recently, the forced displacement of children and families. Estimated to number 54,000 in the three Northern Triangle countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the gangs’ archetypal tattooed young men stand out among the region’s greatest sources of public anxiety. Although they are not the only groups dedicated to violent crime, the maras have helped drive Central American murder rates to highs unmatched in the world: when the gangs called a truce in El Salvador, homicides halved overnight. But it is extortion that forms the maras’ criminal lifeblood and their most widespread racket. By plaguing local businesses for protection payments, they reaffirm control over poor urban enclaves to fund misery wages for members. Reducing the impact of these schemes, replacing them with formal employment and restoring free movement across the Northern Triangle’s urban zones would greatly reduce the harm of gang activity.

Charting this route, however, requires a sharp switch in current policies. Ever since mara-related insecurity became visible in the early 2000s, the region’s governments have responded through punitive measures that reproduce the popular stigmas and prejudices of internal armed conflict. In programs such as Iron Fist in El Salvador, the Sweep-Up Plan in Guatemala or Zero Tolerance in Honduras, mass incarceration, harsher prison conditions and recourse to extrajudicial executions provided varieties of punishment. The cumulative effects, however, have fallen far short of expectations. Assorted crackdowns have not taken account of the deep social roots of the gangs, which provide identity, purpose and status for youths who are unaccommodated in their home societies and “born dead”. The responses have also failed to recognise the counterproductive effects of security measures that have given maras prisons in which to organise and confirmation of their identity as social outcasts.

Mass deportation from the U.S. back to these countries risks a repeated upsurge in gang crime.

The succession of unsuccessful punitive measures is now coming under closer scrutiny across the Northern Triangle. All three countries are experimenting with new forms of regional collaboration in law enforcement. Guatemala has introduced vanguard measures to combat extortion rackets, many of them run from within jails, and has proposed a range of alternatives to prison terms. Although the collapse of the truce with the maras in 2014 spurred unprecedented violence in El Salvador, murder rates appear to have fallen again, while parts of the maras have proposed fresh talks with an eye to their eventual dissolution – an offer shunned by the government. Mass deportation from the U.S. back to these countries risks a repeated upsurge in gang crime. However, U.S. concern with reducing the migrant flow from Central America has generated significant new funds for development in the region via the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity.

At the core of a new approach should stand an acknowledgement of the social and economic roots of gang culture, ineradicable in the short term, alongside a concerted state effort to minimise the violence of illicit gang activity. Focused and sophisticated criminal investigations should target the gangs responsible for the most egregious crimes, above all murder, rape and forced displacement. Extortion schemes that depend on coercive control over communities and businesses, and which have caused the murder of hundreds of transport workers and the exodus of thousands in the past decade, could be progressively transformed through a case-by-case approach. Ad hoc negotiations and transactions with gangs responsible for extortion are not uncommon in the Northern Triangle, and have generated insights into how the maras may be edged toward formal economic activity. Targeted and substantial economic investment in impoverished communities with significant gang presence could reduce the incentives for blackmail.

Despite the mistrust bequeathed by the truce as well as El Salvador’s and Honduras’ classification of maras as terrorist groups, new forms of communication with gangs could be established on the basis of confidence-building signals from both sides, potentially encouraged by religious leaders. Government and donor support for poor communities and for improved prison conditions would ideally be answered by a significant reduction in violence from the maras. A momentous step by the gangs, above all in El Salvador, would be to guarantee free movement of all citizens through gang-controlled territories, as well as a restoration of the veto on violence and recruitment in schools.

Rounding up all gang members, or inviting gangs to an open-ended negotiation, represent a pair of extremes that have both proven fruitless in the Northern Triangle. Gangs are both embedded in society and predatory upon it, and both victims and perpetrators. Policies toward them need to recognise their social resilience and find ways to reduce the harm they undeniably cause without branding them enemies of the people.


To reduce the harm caused by gangs’ violence, restore the rule of law and address the socio-economic bases of gang recruitment and extortion

To the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras:

  1. Acknowledge that the Northern Triangle is facing a serious security and forced displacement crisis, and call for international support to tackle the humanitarian fallout by collaborating with local organisations in offering temporary shelter and assistance to those displaced by violence.
  2.  Engage transparently in confidence-building measures with the maras without necessarily engaging in direct dialogue; and prepare to support improved prison conditions in exchange for peaceful signals from gangs.
  3. Promote a responsible approach to integral investment and business support in areas and communities showing signs of pacification but still affected by entrenched gang-run criminal rackets, especially extortion.
  4. In Honduras, repeal categorisation of gangs as terrorist groups; and respect rule of law by promoting accountability efforts via the Office of the Attorney General and the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).
  5. In El Salvador, acquit all facilitators of the gang truce accused of illegal association as a trust-building action; reverse the decision to renew the “extraordinary measures” against the gangs; and approve the stalled rehabilitation law.
  6. Prioritise tri-national collaboration between prosecution services as a means to identify the most effective harm reduction approaches to gang crime; and promptly target certain mara crimes, above all murder, rape and forced displacement.

To the government of the U.S.:

  1. Continue providing Central American governments with financial support to carry out violence prevention initiatives and community development under the aegis of the Alliance for Prosperity, albeit with greater emphasis on long-term development projects involving grassroots organisations.
  2. Refrain from instigating mass deportations or harsher anti-migration measures against Northern Triangle countries without prior guarantees of investment in returnees’ communities, proper attention to returnees’ employment and vocational needs, and close monitoring of security effects; and strictly respect human rights of migrants and deportees.
  3. Drop the designation of the MS-13 gang as a significant transnational criminal organisation.

To the UN:

  1. Extend the mandate of the UN special envoy in El Salvador for a further six months and design long-term goals in the areas of education and economy; and create a working group on peacebuilding and invite all parties, including local churches, to explore the possibility of inclusive dialogue.

To the Mara Salvatrucha and Eighteenth Street gangs:

  1. Initiate efforts at pacification and spur future dialogue by declaring freedom of movement through gang-run territories; assure that schools and hospitals are violence-free zones; and renounce violence as a means of mass public intimidation.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 6 April 2017

Mafia of the Poor: Gang Violence and Extortion in Central America

This video from Crisis Groups explores the social and economic roots of gang culture and discusses new approaches to minimise the violence of illicit gang activity. International Crisis Group.

I. Introduction

Street gangs or maras, as they are known in the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), comprising El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, have mutated from youth groups defending their neighbourhoods’ turf in the 1980s to highly organised, hierarchical organisations that coerce, threaten and kill to produce a menial subsistence for their members in the 21st century.[fn]Mara, short for marabunta, a kind of swarming ant, is an informal way to refer to a large group of people in the NTCA countries. Exactly when and where the street gangs took up the name is unclear. Unless otherwise specified, this report will use the terms maras and gangs to refer to the two main groups, MS-13 and B-18.Hide Footnote  The maras are not typical profit-seeking criminal organisations, but the product of mass deportation, social stresses, family breakdown and institutional weaknesses in countries that fail to distribute adequately the wealth they produce among their citizens.

The maras are both victims of extreme social inequity and the perpetrators of brutal acts of violence.

The maras are both victims of extreme social inequity and the perpetrators of brutal acts of violence. Many of the murders in El Salvador and Honduras, which suffer among the world’s highest rates of homicide, can be ascribed to confrontations with the police, rivalries, score-settling or intimidation carried out by the two outstanding mara organisations: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13); and the Barrio 18, or Eighteenth Street gang (B-18).[fn]There is disagreement over the precise share of violence that can be attributed to the maras. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “while undeniably violent, the share of national homicides attributable to MS-13 varies between countries, and remains controversial”. “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean, a threat assessment”, UNODC, 2012. Flaws in the quality of data hamper the possibility of establishing clear proportions of homicidal violence produced by maras in the NTCA as compared to other criminal groups. “Maras y Violencia, Estado del Arte de las Maras y Pandillas en Honduras”, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, April 2016, p. 11, analyses data published by the Honduran National University and suggests that gangs were responsible for 6.2 per cent of the homicides carried out by organised crime from 2007 to 2014. The dramatic drop in homicides observed in El Salvador during the 28-month truce, however, provides strong evidence of the impact of maras on murder rates: an average of 218.9 monthly murders occurred as compared to an average of 352.5 in the 28 previous months (almost a 38 per cent drop) and 486.2 in the 26 months after the gangs lifted their restrictions on killing. Homicide data from the National Civilian Police and the Legal Medicine Institute in Roberto Valencia, “La tendencia a la baja en los homicidios se ratificó en junio”, El Faro, 2 July 2016.Hide Footnote The cross-border links between these gangs in the three Northern Triangle countries, as well as reported connections between them and drug, arms and human trafficking organisations operating in the region, have spurred fears that these groups pose international security threats. But the emblematic crime of the maras is inherently micro-territorial. Both the gangs’ main source of revenues and the crime that reaffirms their hold over territorial enclaves in the urban outskirts are protection rackets via deadly threats.

Extortion sustains thousands of mara members, while also perpetuating the worst violence meted out by the gangs, such as killings of transport workers, the criminal control exerted over prison systems and the forced displacement of families from their homes.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°57, Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American migration, 28 July 2016.Hide Footnote So extreme is extortion in Honduras that the Chamber of Commerce no longer publishes a registry of its members. In Guatemala, an estimated 80 per cent of extortions are commanded from prison. El Salvador’s gang-run extortions have been described as a “system of terror that subjects community dwellers to see, hear and remain silent”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chamber of Commerce officer, Tegucigalpa, November 2016; Aura Teresa Colindres, Director Criminal Analysis Directorate, attorney general’s office, Guatemala City, 18 October 2016; and Roberto Valencia, El Faro journalist, San Salvador, 23 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Repressive and militarised policies toward the gangs have proved not merely ineffective, but counterproductive. Efforts to negotiate a truce with the gangs have likewise come unstuck, leading to a spike in murders in El Salvador after talks fell apart. However, examples of new economic, policing, judicial and mediation-based approaches to the gang phenomenon can be found across the region. At a time when the prospect of mass deportations from the U.S. risks exacerbating social anomie and criminal activity in the Northern Triangle, establishing ways to defuse extreme violence and minimise the harms of mara activity, while recognising that gangs provide meaning, identity and subsistence to thousands of young and poor Central Americans, is essential.

This report is based on dozens of interviews with officials and experts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, including with security agents, prosecutors, donors, academics, activists and community dwellers in marginal neighbourhoods of San Salvador, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

Tegucigalpa. The neighborhood (Villa Cristiana) is controlled by the Mara 13. The armed group does not allow access to the school of children living in the contiguous neighbourhood, as a measure of control. ECHO/A.Aragon 2016

II. Violent Aftermath of Conflict

Rapid urbanisation, flawed democratic development, the transnational drug market and state-led repression are some of the outstanding causes of the Northern Triangle’s current extremes of violence, and are rooted in the long and destructive civil wars of the second half of the twentieth century.[fn]Crime and Violence in Central America, a development challenge”, World Bank, 2011; “Citizen Security with a Human Face: Evidence and proposals for Latin America”, UNDP, 2013.Hide Footnote

A. Historical Background

With disparities in the distribution of land, the contested results of the 1972 election in El Salvador fuelled revolutionary movements. Under a military-civilian junta, army-backed right-wing death squads killed tens of thousands, and by the end of 1980, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) had consolidated into a guerrilla force fighting a civil war that left more than 75,000 dead.[fn]On the chronology and patterns of violence, see “From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador”, UN-backed Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, 1993.Hide Footnote Peace Accords were signed in 1992, but not before hundreds of thousands had left to neighbouring countries and the U.S. Damage to national infrastructure was estimated at $1.5 to $2 billion, close to 30 per cent of the GDP for 1990. Real per capita income declined by 25 per cent during the 1980s, 56 per cent fell below the poverty line and yearly inflation reached 25 per cent by the end of the decade.[fn]Graciana del Castillo, Rebuilding War-Torn States: The Challenges of Post-Conflict Economic Reconstruction (Oxford, 2008), p. 106.Hide Footnote

In Guatemala, rebels took up arms against the military regimes that followed the U.S.-backed coup in 1954 against democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, scorched-earth policies produced genocidal levels of violence in predominantly indigenous rural areas, while repression assailed urban civil society. By the signing of Peace Accords in 1996, the conflict had left 200,000 dead and displaced 40,000 beyond the country’s borders, mainly into Mexico, accompanied by a growing flow of economic migrants to the U.S.[fn]Guatemala: Memory of Silence”, UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification, 1999.Hide Footnote

In Honduras, following a military coup against the democratically elected president, Ramón Villeda, in 1963, military regimes prevailed until the approval of a new constitution in 1982. The country was used as a base for U.S. support to contras fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in the 1980s, while the government cracked down internally on left-wing activists. During the early 1990s, economic adjustment policies raised poverty, spurring migrant flows north.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Adelina Vásquez, Director, Centre for Human Development, Tegucigalpa, 1 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The socio-economic aftermath of conflict has been bleak. In Latin America, only Haiti has consistently performed worse than the NTCA in the Human Development Index.[fn]Data from the UNDP Human Development Reports can be found at The Human Development Index is a combined statistic of life expectancy, education and per capita income indicators.Hide Footnote In 2014, 11.3 per cent of the population in El Salvador, 24.1 in Guatemala, and 31.2 in Honduras fell under the poverty line as measured by the World Bank. The prevalence of malnutrition in 2015 was 12 per cent in El Salvador, 16 per cent in Guatemala, and 12 per cent in Honduras.[fn]Data on poverty and undernourishment retrieved from the World Bank web site, Footnote

In El Salvador, critical elements of the peace agreement were only partially implemented. As foreign aid dried up, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) governments prioritised macroeconomic stability through fiscal discipline over social development and poverty alleviation. The strategy of transforming former combatants into productive farmers proved difficult.[fn]Rebuilding War-Torn States …, op. cit., pp. 110-136.Hide Footnote  Many headed to the cities, though without any stable source of income once there.

Urban gang violence, organised crime, state corruption and institutional weaknesses drove a doubling of homicide rates in the decade from 1999.

A constant drift of the rural population to urban peripheries and major setbacks in police and judicial reform also undermined Guatemala’s transition. Urban gang violence, organised crime, state corruption and institutional weaknesses drove a doubling of homicide rates in the decade from 1999. The country seemed a “good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it”.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°43, Police Reform in Guatemala: Obstacles and Opportunities, 20 July 2012. “Civil and Political Rights, Including the Questions of Disappearances and Summary Executions”, A/HRC/4/20/Add.2, 19 February 2007.Hide Footnote

The Honduran democratic transition that began in the 1980s was likewise affected by grave flaws in the new security forces, and was eventually interrupted by a military coup in 2009 against President Manuel Zelaya. Military influence over the security apparatus subsequently strengthened and democratic controls waned. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, territorially based crime groups have grown in prominence in Honduras since the coup, and there is evidence of increasing gang involvement in narcotics trafficking.[fn]Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean, a threat assessment”, UNODC, 2012, p. 23. A recent study of gangs in Honduras states that “given the power vacuum […] after the capture and extradition of many of the country’s top drug traffickers, there is a possibility that the MS-13 is poised to take advantage” by engaging in wholesale transactions beyond its more usual participation in distribution of illegal narcotics. “Gangs in Honduras”, InSight Crime and the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa, 21 April 2016, pp. 33-34, 39.Hide Footnote

The NTCA now comprises some of the world’s most violent societies. Rates of violent death in El Salvador have lately been higher than all countries suffering armed conflict except for Syria, with a murder rate of 103 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 and 81 in 2016.[fn]Data from the Legal Medicine Institute and the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador. See also, “Interactive Maps and Charts of Armed Violence Indicators”, Global Burden of Armed Violence, Small Arms Survey 2015.
Hide Footnote
Guatemala’s rate has decreased from 46 in 2009 to 27 in 2016, coming close to the Latin American average of 23, although regional discrepancies are high. Honduras’ rate of 59 in 2016 is an improvement on the 2012 peak of 86.[fn]Data from the National Civilian Police and the National Institute of Statistics of Guatemala, and from the Department of Statistics of Honduras.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, economic difficulties and social stasis have made large swathes of NTCA societies dependent on migrants’ remittances, which in 2015 made up 17 per cent of El Salvador’s GDP, 10.3 in Guatemala and 18.6 in Honduras.[fn]Preliminary Overview of the Economies of Latin America and the Caribbean 2016” and “Statistical Yearbook for Latin America and the Caribbean”, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), December 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Mass Deportation and Mara Formation

The armed conflicts and socio-economic debacle of the 1970s and 1980s forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands, most of them peasants or poor urban dwellers with limited schooling. The U.S. was a coveted destination but the Reagan administration approved less than 3 per cent of Salvadorans’ and Guatemalans’ asylum applications. The Central American immigrant population in the U.S. went from 354,000 in 1980 to 1.1 million in 1990, and an estimated 2 million by 2000.[fn]Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Surveys and other sources published in “Central American Immigrants in the United States”, Migration Policy Institute (MPI), 2 September 2015.Hide Footnote Most of them depended on low-wage jobs, and 21 per cent lived below the poverty line.[fn]National Policies and the Rise of Transnational Gangs”, MPI, 1 April 2006.Hide Footnote

Many children and teenagers arrived in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods, prominently in Los Angeles, where street gangs operated under the aegis of prison-based criminal organisations. These youth, mainly Salvadorans, banded together to protect themselves. Some joined the few chicano gangs that allowed the integration of Latin Americans, such as the longstanding Eighteenth Street gang (B-18).[fn]Chicano is the term used for the descendants of people of Mexican origin in the U.S. Tony Rafael, The Mexican Mafia (New York, 2007).Hide Footnote Others created the Mara Salvatrucha, which was later to be known as the MS-13.[fn]The number 13 is allegedly to state its allegiance to the Mexican Mafia, also called the “eme” or m letter, 13th in the alphabet. Salvatrucha composes “Salva” which refers to El Salvador, and “trucha”, slang term for “clever” or “sharp”. “MS13”, InSight Crime, last updated 12 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Several of these early gang members had witnessed, suffered or participated in brutal acts in their countries of origin. They rapidly took up the subcultural features used by the maras to identify their members, including tattooing, clothing, language, hand signals and musical tastes, and engaged in turf wars, petty drug trafficking, and other criminal activities that called for the use of, sometimes homicidal, violence. It is unclear why the B-18 and the MS-13 eventually fell out.[fn]Some point to a contest between male gang members over a girlfriend, others to an accidental shooting and unmet economic compensation. “I. El origen del odio”, El Faro, 6 August 2012.Hide Footnote

In the wake of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, at least 1,000 Salvadorans were deported.[fn]John A. Booth et al., Understanding Central America: Global forces, Rebellion, and Change (Boulder, 2014), p. 304.Hide Footnote The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 changed U.S. immigration laws by making minor offences such as shoplifting and unlawful overstaying in the country causes for deportation. Interinstitutional Violent Gang Task Forces were established and included the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service; from 1993 to 1999, 60,450 NTCA nationals were removed from the U.S., of whom 32.9 per cent were classified as “criminal”. Although Salvadorans comprised 35.7 per cent of the total removals, they made up 47.5 per cent of the “criminal” deportees.[fn]1999 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service”, U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service, March 2002, table 63, pp. 221 and 225. Data for 1993 comes from the 1997 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Most of those who fall into the “criminal deportee” category had been convicted of non-violent crimes that made them eligible for deportation.Hide Footnote

Once back in their countries of origin, young mareros were stigmatised by their host communities and authorities. Faced with scant access to school, limited social services and a sclerotic job market, they soon banded together and expanded.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Steven Vigil, former co-chair of the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES), Guatemala City, 5 July 2016.Hide Footnote At the time of the arrival of the Californian deportees, a local gang member said that the MS-13 “… are our enemies because they want to rule, they want to give us orders, take our neighbourhood and ‘jump us in’ against our will”.[fn]El Fenómeno de las Pandillas en El Salvador, UNICEF/FLACSO, 1998, p. 36. The term “jump in” (brincar in Spanish) refers to being initiated into a gang.Hide Footnote The maras that emerged were better organised, engaged in more violent crimes, used heavier weapons and proved more alluring than the many smaller pre-existing street gangs, or pandillas. The latter were mostly reintegrated either into the B-18 or MS-13.[fn]The distinction between pandillas understood as pre-existing street gangs and maras as the organisations that emerged from the migratory patterns described is discussed in Denis Rodgers, Robert Muggah and Chris Stevenson, “Gangs of Central America: Causes, Costs, and Interventions”, Small Arms Survey Occasional Paper 23, Geneva, 2009. Sonja Wolf, “Street Gangs of El Salvador”, in Thomas Bruneau, Lucía Dammert and Elizabeth Skinner (eds.), Maras. Gang Violence and Security in Central America (Austin, 2011), pp. 54-80.Hide Footnote

C. Mano Dura: Imprisonment, Repression and Mara Growth

During the first decade of the 21st century, the gangs established control over slum areas in big cities across the NTCA, but also in middle-class neighbourhoods and rural areas in El Salvador. Public transportation operators, shop keepers, and distribution firms started being compelled to pay for the right to operate there. Acts of extreme violence spread the fear of the maras. Seventeen people were killed and fifteen wounded in Mejicanos, El Salvador, on 20 June 2010, when a mini-bus was burned; passengers trying to escape were shot at.[fn]66 años de cárcel para autor de masacre en Mejicanos”, La Prensa Gráfica, 27 September 2013.Hide Footnote That same year, Guatemalan MS-13 members kidnapped and decapitated four random victims and left their heads on the street (one of them in front of the National Congress) with the aim of coercing authorities to repeal measures against imprisoned gang members.[fn]“‘El Diabólico’ y ‘Sleepy’ son condenados a 168 t 48 años de prisión por ordenar cuatro crímenes“, El Periódico, 24 November 2016. On the use of sexual violence by gangs, see Mauricio Rubio, “Elite membership and sexualized violence among Central American Gangs”, in Maras. Gang Violence …, op. cit., pp. 159-179.Hide Footnote

Following decades of armed conflict and the stereotyping of perceived internal enemies, governments, security authorities, as well as the media and the public, were not inclined to regard these acts of violence as at least partially the effects of social breakdown and impoverishment.[fn]Tani Adams, “Chronic Violence and its Reproduction: Perverse Trends in Social Relations, Citizenship, and Democracy in Latin America”, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, September 2011.Hide Footnote Instead, they looked upon the gangs solely as a security issue requiring ever more draconian responses.

The three NTCA states implemented repressive approaches based on mass imprisonment and round-ups in poor neighbourhoods. Suspects were identified on the basis of flimsy evidence, such as tattoos.[fn]For the maras expelled from California in the 1990s, tattoos served as a mechanism of identification and a way to tell their own stories, including the number of killings a gang member had carried out. Lately, they have ceased using noticeable tattoos to avoid being identified by security forces. “Las maras centroamericanas, una identidad que ha dejado de tatuarse: posibles lecciones para las pandillas mexicanas”, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, 2006; and “Why the deadliest gang in the world might be rethinking face tattoos”, The Daily Caller, 15 May 2016.Hide Footnote The policies in El Salvador in 2003 and 2004 were described as mano dura (Iron Fist). Honduras enacted similar approaches under the Cero Tolerancia (Zero Tolerance) program, and Guatemala under the Plan Escoba (Sweep up Plan), which was not formalised into law.

Mareros were sent to prisons reserved for each gang, where they were able to strengthen their leadership system, organise criminal operations and recruit new members.

Part of the public and most of the media celebrated mano dura policies, whereas human rights organisations generally decried the crackdowns.[fn]Presentan en Honduras los informes ‘Justicia juvenil y derechos humanos en las Américas’ y ‘Seguridad ciudadana y derechos humanos’”, UNICEF, 23 July 2012.Hide Footnote But the measures were unable to sustain any long-term violence reduction as most suspects were released due to a lack of evidence, or underwent repeated short-term detention.[fn]Gangs in Central America”, Congressional Research Service, 26 November 2012, p. 9. The Institute for Comparative Studies in the Penal Sciences examined more than 5,000 detentions in Guatemala during April and May 2004 and deemed only 1.1 per cent to have had legal grounds. Eline Cecilie Ranum, “Street Gangs of Guatemala”, in Maras. Gang Violence …, op. cit., p. 79.Hide Footnote More importantly, these measures transformed maras into more sophisticated criminal organisations.[fn]Oliver Jütersonke, Robert Muggah and Dennis Rodgers, “Gangs, urban violence, and security interventions in Central America”, Security Dialogue, vol. 40, no. 4-5 (2009), pp. 373-397. “Transnational Youth Gangs in Central America, Mexico and the United States: Executive Summary”, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, 2006, p. 9. The film director Cristian Poveda, who had just released his documentary about mara life in El Salvador, La Vida Loca, was shot dead by mareros in 2009 on suspicion that he was a police informer, showing the growing wariness of the maras. “Killers of filmmaker Christian Poveda jailed”, The Guardian, 11 March 2011.Hide Footnote Mareros were sent to prisons reserved for each gang, where they were able to strengthen their leadership system, organise criminal operations and recruit new members.[fn]In 2004, El Salvador distributed the Apanteos, Sonsonate, Quezaltepeque and Ciudad Barrios jails to the MS-13. B-18 had already received exclusivity in the Cojutepeque prison. Footnote Extortion rackets began to operate from within prisons, which became “incubators” of crime.[fn]The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime”, InSight Crime, 19 January 2017.Hide Footnote Salvadoran prisons are among the most overcrowded in the world, with occupancy standing at 310.4 per cent of capacity in 2016, and 567 Salvadorans out of every 100,000 are imprisoned.[fn]The most recent occupancy levels and imprisonment rates were 296 and 115 in Guatemala, and 195.7 and 196 in Honduras. Data from the World Prison Brief, Footnote

Politics in the region has gravitated increasingly around proposals to get tough on crime, also known as “penal populism”.[fn]Sonja Wolf, Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador (Austin, 2017), p. 51.Hide Footnote Antonio Saca in El Salvador (2004) and Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala (2011), for example, were elected presidents after promising mano dura approaches to gangs and crime. The appeal for gang suppression has endured, especially in El Salvador, but success in violence reduction and rehabilitation of offenders has yet to be seen.[fn]Sonja Wolf, “The Enduring Appeal of Gang Suppression in El Salvador”, 16 January 2017.Hide Footnote

San Pedro Sula (Chamelecón - sector) Homicide near by the primary school. ECHO/A.Aragon 2016

D. Truce in El Salvador 2012-2014

In March 2012, digital newspaper El Faro reported the initiation of a truce between El Salvador’s two main gangs, the MS-13 and B-18 (including its two factions, the Revolutionaries and the Southerners), and their negotiations with the government.[fn]Gobierno negoció con pandillas reducción de homicidios”, 14 March 2012.Hide Footnote Leaders had agreed to abstain from killing members of other gangs in exchange for better jail conditions. Thirty leaders held in the high security prison at Zacatecoluca (aka “Zacatraz”) were transferred to less restrictive facilities. Within a week, homicidal violence dropped from fourteen to six murders a day. Smaller gangs later joined the process, which held up for several months. April 2013 was the least violent month in more than a decade, with fewer than five homicides per day.[fn]La tendencia a la baja en los homicidios se ratificó en junio”, El Faro, 2 July 2016.Hide Footnote

The truce was facilitated by military chaplain Fabio Colindres and former congressman and guerrilla commander Raúl Mijango. But David Munguía Payés, a military strategist who had negotiated with the guerrillas during the civil war and was then security minister, is widely cited as the official who decided to embark on dialogue after prosecutions and tough security measures proved ineffective.[fn]In May 2016, the attorney general’s office named the current defence minister as the “creator, ideologue, promoter and main defender of the truce”. “Fiscalía: Munguía Payés es creador e ideólogo de tregua”,, 11 May 2016. He had denied having initiated dialogue with the gangs when the process was exposed, but six months later acknowledged his participation. “La nueva verdad sobre la tregua entre pandillas”, El Faro, 11 September 2012. He has subsequently tried to distance himself from the process, and especially from the benefits gang members allegedly received in jail, which have come under investigation by the attorney general, see “Munguía Payés se quiere alejar de la tregua”,, 9 May 2016.Hide Footnote Former President Mauricio Funes, head of the first FMLN government, still denies formal government participation in the process.[fn]No es cierto que tuve conocimiento de la tregua. Si el general dijo eso, que lo explique él”, El Faro, 8 February 2016.Hide Footnote Once it became public, he asked for some leeway for the facilitators to continue working, a highly controversial decision given the ban on collaboration with the maras established in a 2010 law.[fn]Ley 458, “ley de proscripción de maras, pandillas, agrupaciones, asociaciones y organizaciones de naturaleza criminal”, Asamblea Legislativa de El Salvador, 1 September 2010.Hide Footnote

During the truce, the gangs produced 30 communiqués. The first one stated they were not seeking to be acquitted of the charges against them, asked to be treated humanely, and requested support for their reintegration in civilian life through jobs and opportunities to study. The imprisoned gang members later called for a reduction in attacks against citizens, declared schools to be “peace zones”, prohibited forced recruitment, asked for weapons to be handed over to the authorities and requested to be allowed to contribute to a new program of “municipalities free of violence”.[fn]Las pandillas dan un paso más: todos los centros escolares son ahora ‘zonas de paz’”, El Faro, 2 May 2012. The Organization of American States supported the “municipalities free of violence” initiative that started in San Salvador and spread to neighbouring municipalities. “El Salvador: anuncian municipios sin violencia de pandillas”, La Opinión, 18 January 2013. An analysis carried out by the National Civilian Police in 2012 and 2013, but not published until 2016, deemed 80 per cent of the weapons turned in by maras during the truce to be in good condition. “El 80% de las armas que las pandillas entregaron durante la tregua estaban en buen estado”, El Faro, 13 March 2016. By 2013, though, the initiatives were running into problems due to lack of financial and political support, and reports of increases in extortions. “Alcaldes de las zonas de paz de El Salvador dicen que la tregua está fracasando”, InSight Crime, 1 November 2013.
Hide Footnote
State authorities continued to remove inmates from Zacatraz, ousted the military from the jails, and scaled back round-ups in gang-controlled neighbourhoods. Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza met with gang leaders in the Mariona prison in July 2012, offered the OAS as a guarantor of the process and upheld the government’s assertion that the truce was a pact between gangs facilitated by religious leaders.

However, the government’s failure to acknowledge its participation and the secrecy of the process were main reasons for the truce’s eventual breakdown. Permeated by adversaries of the truce, the media regularly published reports, often unfounded, of increased disappearances and a rise in deaths of “honest” people.[fn]Obituario de la Tregua”, El Faro, 13 April 2015. Extortions and threats did not vary as significantly as homicides during the truce, and doubled afterwards. “Extorsiones y amenazas se duplicaron en 2014”, La Prensa Gráfica, 4 May 2015. On the impact of crimes other than extortion, José Miguel Cruz, “The political workings of the Funes administration’s gang truce in El Salvador”, from the conference “Improving Citizen Security in Central America: Options for Responding to Youth Violence”, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 18 October 2012, Washington DC.Hide Footnote

With the 2014 elections looming and languishing public support for the truce, a resumption of penal populism increasingly seemed a better strategy to attract votes. Staunch opponent of the truce Ricardo Perdomo replaced Payés as security minister, implemented changes in the security apparatus, and sought to remove Colindres and Mijango from their roles.[fn]Lack of government support for the El Salvador truce process is noted as a crucial reason for its failure. José Miguel Cruz and Angelica Durán Martínez, “Hiding violence to deal with the state, criminal pacts in El Salvador and Medellín”, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 53, no. 2 (2016).Hide Footnote At-large gang members, facing a revival of Iron Fist measures and not benefiting from the privileges provided to their jailed peers, began to break with the agreements. Homicide levels started to escalate to pre-truce levels, reaching an unprecedented high in 2015. Mediator Mijango complained in 2014 that “[the Salvadoran government] has been incoherent and fearful … it has wanted to exploit the benefits of the process, but won’t face the costs of supporting a process that is rejected by a sector of society”.[fn]“Raúl Mijango: ‘La tregua sigue, pero la paciencia de las pandillas tiene un límite’”, El País, 11 March 2014.Hide Footnote

[The Salvadoran maras] asked for development programs for the communities, and the reduction of abuse from the police.

The Salvadoran maras were able to enforce the truce due to their vertical leadership, the effectiveness of their punishment system, and their internal consensus around a number of demands. “They were not asking for anything senseless. In some places there is no water, or they were asking for respect for their minimal human rights, for them not to be affected by fungal infections, or that a man who is defecating through a tube be taken to hospital. They asked for development programs for the communities, and the reduction of abuse from the police”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Luis Enrique Amaya, citizen security expert, San Salvador, 21 November 2016. Amaya has interviewed scores of active and former gang members and was part of the research team for the report “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador”, Florida International University and Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo, 2017.Hide Footnote

The aftermath of the truce has been disheartening. Attorney General Douglas Meléndez became the main instigator of the reaction against the former negotiators. Mijango was detained for almost a month, and seventeen others accused of crimes such as illicit association and trafficking of prohibited objects within prisons.[fn]En libertad mediador de polémica tregua entre pandillas en El Salvador”, EFE, 31 May 2016.Hide Footnote A Spanish priest was convicted to two and a half years in jail, and freed on parole, on charges of bringing items illegally into prison.

In 2015, the government started redistributing gang members across the prison system, and no longer respected the designation of special prisons for each organisation.[fn]Gobierno reubica en cárceles a 1,827 pandilleros en un día”, El Faro, 22 April 2015.Hide Footnote The video of an especially shocking massacre allegedly perpetrated by members of the B-18 Revolutionaries in March 2016 prompted the National Assembly to support President Salvador Sánchéz’s set of “extraordinary measures”.[fn]Opico, la massacre que conmocionó a El Salvador”, El País, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote They entailed “almost medieval, inhuman isolation of gang members imprisoned in seven prisons” (via complete denial of any time outside cells), heightened restrictions on visits and strengthened efforts to cut off cell telephone communication to and from jails, and led to the firing of prison guards, among other measures.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Luis Enrique Amaya, op. cit. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) described conditions in jails as “atrocious”. Crisis Group interview, San Salvador, March 2017. Official document listing the “extraordinary measures” at: Footnote

The truce has nevertheless bequeathed a significant legacy. This failed attempt at peace has had the unplanned consequence of establishing the maras as political actors with the capacity to negotiate and enforce agreements. In particular, mara leaders were surreptitiously sought out by both main parties for support during the 2014 campaigns as the political establishment competed for their captive votes.[fn]El Faro published separate videos of FMLN and ARENA authorities negotiating with mara leaders in 2014. Former Santa Tecla mayor and current Vice President Óscar Ortiz’s participation in the municipalities free of violence initiative, and his current opposition to any dialogue, exemplify fickle political attitudes to the truce. According to a leading analyst of gang violence, this is because it was not “based on an institutional strategy to rebuild the rule of law, but on a desperate quest for political legitimacy”. “Dimensión política de la tregua”, El Faro, 19 June 2013.
Hide Footnote
“We have learned how to make the government pay, and that is in elections”.[fn]B-18 Southerner faction spokespersons in “Pandillas caminan hacia un frente común ante medidas extraordinarias”, El Faro, 5 July 2016.Hide Footnote

III. Gangs and Extortion

Weak investigative bodies, criminal secrecy, gang schisms and fast-changing activities make it hard to know the exact number of mara members today. The U.S. military Southern Command’s estimate of 70,000 in Central America continues to be cited, even though it dates from a decade ago.[fn]Gangs in Central America”, Congressional Research Service, 10 May 2005; and “Honduras: Triángulo Norte instala este martes Fuerza Trinacional”, El Heraldo, 14 November 2016.Hide Footnote More recent and specialised studies assert there are 70,000 members in El Salvador alone, while the UN Office on Drugs and Crime provides more modest estimates of 20,000 in El Salvador, 22,000 in Guatemala, and 12,000 in Honduras.[fn]Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean, a threat assessment”, UNODC 2012, p. 78.Hide Footnote  Family and community networks that provide assistance to the maras and rely on the income they generate are estimated to number far higher, reaching 400,000 in El Salvador.[fn]Isabel Aguilar, Ana Glenda Tager and Bernardo Arévalo, “El Salvador: Negotiating with gangs”, Accord, issue 25, 2014; Crisis Group interview, adviser to the Transnational Anti-Gang Centre, San Salvador, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Though imprecise, these figures underline the magnitude of the challenge posed by the gangs. Rooted in the sense of exclusion and need for belonging of young people in urban peripheries across the Northern Triangle, the maras have evolved into violent and complex criminal organisations. Their two facets – as social support networks, and as apparatuses of coercion and predation – are not mutually exclusive, and the status of both victim and perpetrator are integral to the self-perception of the region’s most important gangs and their ongoing allure.[fn]“Every young person is looking to have a role. Mark your space, your territory, become famous. It’s normal. And sometimes you do it negatively since the state does not provide you with education, or sometimes it doesn’t give you a job, or sometimes it doesn’t give you health care and then like the old-fashioned method, you look for violence”. Interview with young Honduran in Isabel Aguilar, “Victimarios y víctimas de la violencia”, in Markus Gottsbacher and John De Boer (eds.), Vulnerabilidad y violencia en América Latina y el Caribe (Mexico City, 2016).Hide Footnote

Extortion is the economic engine behind [the maras], and represents the largest share of gang income.

The emblematic crime of the maras, meanwhile, largely accounts for their growth and longevity. Extortion is the economic engine behind them, and represents the largest share of gang income – with an estimated direct cost to businesses of $756 million a year in El Salvador alone.[fn]Figures from El Salvador’s Central Bank for 2014. See José Salguero, “¿Extorsión o apalancamiento operativo? Aproximación a la Economía Pandilleril en El Salvador”, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, October 2016. However, according to investigations by Salvadoran judicial authorities, annual revenue for the MS-13 in that country is $31.2 million, most of which comes from extortion. “Killers on a shoestring: Inside the gangs of El Salvador”, The New York Times, 20 November 2016.Hide Footnote It is one of the leading causes of forced displacement in gang-controlled communities through the threat it poses to powerless civilians, especially women and children. This collective crime guarantees a menial wage for thousands of members, reaffirming in the process mareros’ group identity and covering their subsistence needs. Curbing extortion and reducing the harms it causes would go far toward eradicating the security threat posed by Central America’s gangs, yet to do so requires a clearer understanding of the purposes it serves and the alternatives that could take its place.

A. Identity, Territory and Organisation

The transformation of maras from immigrant support networks in big U.S. cities to national security threats in Central America hinged on the ways gangs adapted to their new homes. Emotional satisfaction – gaining status, respect and a strong sense of collective identity – has always been integral to the attractions of gang life, and has played a far more important role in the rise and resilience of gangs than the illicit accumulation of wealth. Gangs in effect provide a psychological crutch and a social life, especially for bored young men from broken families.[fn]A gang survey from 2006 in Guatemala found that 40 per cent joined gangs because of family problems and 33.8 per cent for the attractions of gang life. Elin Ranum, “Street Gangs of Guatemala”, in Maras. Gang Violence …, op. cit., p. 78.Hide Footnote  Maras “generate the illusion of belonging to a family, since their own don’t function, and to be fighting for an important cause”, said an anthropologist. “The maras are important when you have nothing, when you are born dead”.[fn]Salvadoran anthropologist Juan José Martínez D’Aubuisson, who lived for a year in mara-controlled communities, has argued that maras “get money, and increasingly so; however, it would be wrong to say that gangs are small mafias that want to get rich”. “Las maras son importantes cuando no tienes nada, cuando ya naciste muerto”, Diagonal, 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote

Maras’ crimes are carried out in groups, and members spend most of their lives in the close company of fellow mareros.[fn]This sociability is a traditional aspect of all gang life. Scott Decker and Barrik Van Winkle, Life in the Gang. Family, Friends and Violence (Cambridge, 1996), p. 177.Hide Footnote Accounts of the gangs in the U.S., and the forerunners of the MS-13 and B-18 in Central America, indicate that neither were strikingly violent, and that in Honduras, the gangs of the early 1990s were primarily involved in vandalism, knife attacks and spray-painting graffiti.[fn]Joanna Mateo, “Street Gangs of Honduras”, in Maras. Gang Violence …, op. cit., p. 94.Hide Footnote

Once rooted in the Northern Triangle countries, however, these gangs adapted to the conditions of marginal urban communities characterised by negligible public services, limited economic opportunities, and a population recently displaced by civil war, deportation and impoverishment.[fn]According to Alias Santiago, member of a gang that took part in the truce process, “because the government, the state has forsaken these territories, we have taken control of that which they have abandoned …. We come from disintegrated families, extreme poverty, and the only living and alive force that exists in our communities are the gangs”. “Pandillas de El Salvador”, video, Youtube, September 2016. Although Honduras did not suffer a civil war, urban poverty rates increased there by 18 per cent from 1989 to 1993, according to the World Bank. The Bank has argued this is partly due to a statistical anomaly. Maras. Gang Violence …, op. cit, p. 92.Hide Footnote The need to subsist encouraged illicit activity, while the absence of the state enabled them to exert their own control over entire territories, often after brutal fighting with the rival mara to establish an undisputed turf boss.[fn]Comparing gang presence in poor neighbourhoods in Costa Rica and El Salvador, a recent study contrasts the prevalence of small-scale drug trafficking as a means to make money in Costa Rica with the wholescale takeover of communities in El Salvador, where drug sales form a small part of gang’s territorial interests. Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz (ed.), Exclusión social y violencia en territorios urbanos centroamericanos (San José, 2015), pp. 53-54.Hide Footnote This tendency was most marked in El Salvador, where the civil war of the 1980s had familiarised the general public with sub-national areas run by the guerrilla.

Estimates in Guatemala suggest that 80 per cent of extortions are coordinated from prisons.

The close-knit solidarity of the emerging mara gangs and the consolidation of control over urban territories propitiated the spread of protection rackets, which generated revenues for the group as a whole and served as a means to maintain territorial control and demarcate a gang’s borders. In the wake of the mass detention of gang members across the Northern Triangle, the hub of these extortion rackets shifted to prisons, where maras established in effect new territorial enclaves as a result of the extremely weak official control over jails. Estimates in Guatemala suggest that 80 per cent of extortions are coordinated from prisons, while an official in the attorney general’s Anti-Extortion Unit reports that a phone belonging to a prisoner was used 400 times in one day to make blackmail calls.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Guatemala City, 8 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Furthermore, the harsh sentences handed down during the early 2000s meant the old ranfleros, or first and second generation leaders, needed more resources to provide for families outside jail and to improve their own prison conditions, or to pay lawyers and bribe guards. In the Fraijanes I jail on the outskirts of Guatemala City, for example, extortion income has been used to upgrade the facility’s electric circuits and pay for new beds for mara members.[fn]Crisis Group interview, November 2016.Hide Footnote

These new arrangements led to the emergence of more complex structures linking jailed gang leaders with the “homies” at large. Forced recruitment has become common, and entrance into the maras often involves initiation by killing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, San Salvador, February 2017. For more on the initiation ritual, see Óscar Martínez and Juan Martínez, “La espina de la Mara Salvatrucha”, from Crónicas Negras (San Salvador, 2014). For a detailed explanation of the different gang terms, see “Maras y pandillas, comunidad y policía en Centroamérica”, Demoscopía, 2007, p. 15.Hide Footnote At the neighbourhood level, clicas (cliques, or cells) control the local turf under the supervision of a leader, known as ranflero or primera palabra (first word). A programa (program) for its part joins together members of various clicas in specific money-making crimes, while those in charge of killings are known as sicarios (hit-men) or gatilleros (trigger-pullers). At the lowest rungs of the ladder, so-called paros or banderas (flags) act as auxiliaries, collectors of extortion money, gun-runners, spies and recruitment officers. But the MS-13 and the B-18 have assumed slightly different characteristics across the three Northern Triangle countries. Whereas the former has grown more organised, business-oriented and disciplined, adopting a system of internal punishment for breaking gang rules, the latter is described by a high-level Guatemalan official as a volatile “pack of alpha males”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Guatemala City, 8 February 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Criminal Activities and Presence

The mara gangs that emerged in the late 1990s responded in distinct ways to the social, geographic and institutional conditions of each Northern Triangle country.[fn]Otto Argueta, “Transformaciones de las pandillas en El Salvador, Guatemala y Honduras”, in “Re-conceptualización de la violencia en el Triángulo Norte”, Heinrich Böll Stiftung, June 2016.Hide Footnote The environment and illicit opportunities of the territory the maras took over and the traits of the communities living there were at the heart of this adaptive flexibility. In combination, these determined whether territorial control could be established and what kind of criminal livelihoods could be pursued.

Maras veered toward either extortion, as in Guatemala and El Salvador, or small-scale drug trafficking, like the MS-13 in Honduras, where it has reportedly been involved in money laundering via the purchase of small businesses.[fn]Crisis Group interview, community leader in Belén, Comayagua, 23 November 2016. See also “Maras y pandillas en Honduras”, InSight Crime, 2015.Hide Footnote In response, the Honduran B-18 has sought to seize control of the booming extortion business, leading to violent competition with smaller gangs or mara offshoots such as Los Benjis or Los Chirizos. Some of them have been supported by small business owners seeking to defend themselves from predatory attacks by the larger maras.[fn]Crisis Group interview, adviser to Human Rights, Justice, Internal Affairs and Decentralisation Secretariat in Honduras, Tegucigalpa, 25 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Drug trafficking in Guatemala has been a marginal business for the gangs, due to the control over trade of existing local criminal organisations with strong links to the state and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°52, Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border, 4 June 2014.Hide Footnote These organisations have turned to gang members on an occasional basis for street narcotic sales and targeted violence or intimidation.[fn]Jeanette Aguilar, “Las maras o pandillas juveniles en el triángulo norte de Centroamérica. Mitos y realidades sobre las pandillas y sus vínculos con el crimen”, Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, 2007, pp. 27-29.Hide Footnote In territories controlled by drug traffickers, including border regions and urban areas used for storage and transhipment, maras can operate as watchmen, security enforcers, transporters or hitmen.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Marco Antonio Castillo, director of CEIBA, an education-based secondary prevention foundation that works with former gang members in Guatemala and Honduras, Guatemala City, 1 September 2016.Hide Footnote In poor areas of Guatemala City, gang members have displaced families and drug traffickers have temporarily used their homes as warehouses.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Some cliques in the west coastal areas of El Salvador are reportedly becoming engaged in the trafficking of drugs north, while Salvadoran gang members have been seen buying weapons from Guatemalan drug dealers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, adviser to the Transnational Anti-Gang Center, San Salvador, November 2016.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, drug consumption (mostly marijuana) by maras across the Northern Triangle is extremely common. Thousands of suspected gang members were arrested for minor drug possession in 2003-2004 in Guatemala.[fn]“Street Gangs of Guatemala”, op. cit., pp. 79-80.Hide Footnote

The geographical spread of criminal violence and gang presence in Guatemala illustrates the conditions that either enable the proliferation of maras or inhibit their growth. Most extortion crimes take place in large urban centres, whereas regions dominated by drug trafficking cartels, such as Zacapa, Baja Verapaz and Chiquimula, as well as departments with large indigenous populations and strong informal justice systems, such as Quiché and Sololá, report by far the fewest.[fn]Informe sobre el delito de extorsión”, Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, 2015, p. 6.Hide Footnote Neither El Salvador nor Honduras initially featured rival criminal structures or vibrant community networks with the same strength as Guatemala. Furthermore, El Salvador’s population density – the highest in the Americas – has made the country particularly vulnerable to urban overcrowding, spatial segregation and easy criminal access to small businesses that depend on cash turnover.[fn]Ana Glenda Tager, “Parte del problema, parte de la solución: Actores ilegales y reducción de la violencia en El Salvador”, in Vulnerabilidad y violencia en América Latina y el Caribe, op. cit.Hide Footnote

C. The Extortion Business

As the most important crime and revenue-raising business of the maras, extortion is fundamental to understanding their resilience as well as the fear they have spread in their host societies. Extortion has proved the maras’ most reliable crime because of the way it has fitted their resources, above all their control over territorial enclaves, easy access to firearms, and a very limited state or security presence. In El Salvador, local transport businesses inducted the emerging neighbourhood gangs of the early 1990s into extortion rackets, paying them to intimidate rival firms or carry out targeted killings.[fn]Crisis Group interview, El Salvador justice and public security ministry former official, San Salvador, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Across the Northern Triangle, small business owners, transport workers, self-employed people and even households are subjected to gang-led protection rackets.[fn]Households in poor areas of Guatemala City have reportedly been increasingly targeted after numerous small businesses closed down because of extortion. Crisis Group interview, expert in community security, 8 March 2017.Hide Footnote Some 79 per cent of registered small businesses in Honduras and 80 per cent of the country’s informal traders report they are extorted; the Honduran Chamber of Commerce has stopped publishing a register of its members.[fn]Surveys cited in “Other Situations of Violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America”, Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), 2014, p. 26. Crisis Group interview, Chamber of Commerce spokesperson, Tegucigalpa, November 2016.Hide Footnote A recent survey in El Salvador has found that extortion is on the rise and now affects 22 per cent of firms, although only 15 per cent of all incidents are reported, reflecting the lack of confidence in the response capacities of the local police and judiciary. In a reported 76 per cent of cases, gangs were behind the extortion.[fn]Extorsiones a la pequeña y micro empresa en El Salvador”, Fundación Salvadoreña para el Desarrollo Económica y Social (FUSADES), 2016. Two to three businesses are estimated to close down each month as a result of extortions. Crisis Group interview, Chamber of Commerce, San Salvador, 8 December 2016.Hide Footnote

In a context of competitive violence between rival maras and a flawed or absent state – with police lacking equipment, human and other resources to provide sufficient protection, or often being in league with the racketeers themselves – the “service” provided by protection rackets is sometimes tolerated and even reluctantly welcomed by businesses.[fn]Crisis Group interview, manager and chief of transportation of a large food distribution firm, Guatemala City, November 2016. In a 2007 survey of mareros in the Northern Triangle, 77 per cent of respondents said payments were made by the gangs to the police. On police collusion with maras, see “Maras y Pandillas, comunidad y policía en Centroamérica”, op. cit., p. 91.
Hide Footnote
Firms in the Guatemala City municipal market have established regular payment systems to gangs to protect themselves from more predatory rivals.[fn]Crisis Group interview, business owner in Guatemala City municipal market, 11 November 2016.Hide Footnote During the El Salvador gang truce, some local businesses reached their own informal agreements with the maras. A manufacturing company and a transport firm offered gang members jobs in exchange for halting their rackets. A food distribution firm enlisted gangs to transport goods in exchange for lower extortion rates. Residents in a housing estate employed gang members to supervise access routes to their properties.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former justice and public security ministry official, Ilopango, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote

In other cases, businesses seek to shield themselves by working with local distributors linked to the gangs, often family members of the mareros. These negotiated arrangements reportedly resulted in a more discriminating use of violence. “When we missed a payment of the extortion in a certain place, they called me politely to ask that I should pay back”, said a security expert and extortion negotiator for a large distribution firm. “Previously, our driver would have been shot”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Guatemala City, October 2016.Hide Footnote

A total of 692 transportation workers were killed between 2011 and 2016 in El Salvador.

However, these cases of accommodation with extortion rackets do not erase the extremes of violence in protection economies. Transport firms and their workers in particular have become targets of systematic intimidation and assassination, forced to pay up for crossing gang-controlled territory. A total of 692 transportation workers were killed between 2011 and 2016 in El Salvador, where the maras brought public transport to a standstill in 2012 and again in 2015. It also periodically affects mobility in Guatemala, where 498 bus drivers, 158 ticket inspectors and 191 passengers were killed between 2009 and 2011, causing many bus routes to stop services in gang-run areas.[fn]Killers on a shoestring: Inside the gangs of El Salvador”, op. cit.; Informe Anual Circunstanciado, Guatemala Office of Human Rights, 2011, p. 103.Hide Footnote Taxi drivers in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, are favoured extortion targets, and are forced to pay the gangs who control the areas where their pick-up stations are located: 84 were killed in 2012.[fn]“Muerte de taxistas” in Informe anual 2012, Honduras National Commission of Human Rights.
Hide Footnote

The role of extortion in driving forced displacement is harder to pinpoint due to a lack of reliable statistics, as well as the difficulty in identifying a single cause behind emigration.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Easy Prey …, op. cit., p. 9.Hide Footnote But the central role played by protection rackets in expressing and maintaining the maras’ coercive control over territories and communities strongly suggests that it is closely related to the violence and fear driving an increasing exodus from the Northern Triangle, and above all El Salvador and Honduras.[fn]The UNHCR makes a direct link between forced displacement and coercive territorial control, sexual abuse, killing and extortion. “In numerous occasions, threats include killings of family members (the killing of up to six members of the same family has been recorded) for not agreeing to the payment of extortions, or for refusing to take part and support organized criminal activities”. “Desplazamiento Forzado y Necesidades de Protección, generados por nuevas formas de Violencia y Criminalidad en Centroamérica”, 2012, p. 14. In 2012, the eastern Salvadoran municipality of San Miguel had the country’s highest rates of both extortion and homicide.[fn]San Miguel, el municipio con más homicidios y extorsiones”, La Prensa Gráfica, 14 April 2012.Hide Footnote A recent study found that threats and murders were the two main factors driving forced internal displacement in that country, with women making up the largest share of victims. Gangs were reportedly behind 86 per cent of the displacements.[fn]Informe sobre situación de desplazamiento forzado por violencia generalizada en El Salvador”, Mesa de Sociedad Civil contra Desplazamiento Forzado 2016, p. 24.

The gangs themselves, meanwhile, have become dependent on extortion incomes to improve prison conditions for incarcerated leaders and sustain their members, albeit on poverty-level incomes. “Once a gang member is sentenced, he creates a mental list of ten people whom he can extort to maintain himself and his family”, said former truce mediator Mijango.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Raúl Mijango, San Salvador, February 2017.Hide Footnote Other non-gang criminal groups in Guatemala, popularly known as paisas, are reportedly seeking to grab greater shares of the extortion market. However, recent crackdowns and mass arrests targeting the maras’ extortion and finance networks in both El Salvador and Guatemala have failed to show the gangs run highly lucrative criminal operations.[fn]“Guatemala es Nuestra” in Guatemala and “Operación Jaque” in El Salvador.Hide Footnote Over 50 people detained in Guatemala City in 2016 were found to be living in insalubrious housing in poor neighbourhoods. Extortion incomes were divided between so many members that those communicating with victims received less than $5 a week.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former gang member, Guatemala City, 10 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Similar findings emerged in El Salvador from a study by The New York Times and El Faro on the protection rackets exposed in Operation Check in July 2016, when police investigators arrested over 70 people for allegedly running businesses serving as front for laundering the maras’ illicit revenues.[fn]Killers on a shoestring: Inside the gangs of El Salvador”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Assuming estimated total revenues from extortion are divided equally between all MS-13 members – which is inaccurate given the need to pay lawyers and improve prison conditions – each would receive $15 a week, equivalent to half the minimum wage of a rural worker. Most members languish in illicit subsistence livelihoods.

Although operations may be becoming more technical and efficient, there is no evidence of maras becoming higher level criminal organisations in the league of other transnational cartels. From their victims’ point of view, however, this offers little solace. “It seems more dangerous to me … people willing to kill you for a $15 debt. If they’ve established a daily payment of $1 and you miss two weeks, they may kill you for it. It is no relief that it is a poor man’s mafia”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Roberto Valencia, op. cit.Hide Footnote

D. Women as Victims and Allies

Women are central to gang operations across the Northern Triangle. An estimated 20 to 40 per cent of mara members are women.[fn]This average figure for the three countries is derived from a survey of gang members carried out in 2007. See “Maras y Pandillas”, Demoscopía, op. cit., p. 36.Hide Footnote The essential but menial tasks they carry out include conveying messages from jailed gang leaders and collecting extortion payments.[fn]Crisis Group interview, attorney general’s office against extortion, 8 November 2016.Hide Footnote A number of women active in the maras have reported they formed teenage relationships with gang members to escape a life of domestic drudgery, poverty and violence, including sexual abuse. Others followed the steps of a relative who was already in the gang in order to get a stable job and maintain their family.[fn]Violentas y violentadas. Relaciones de género en las maras y pandillas del triángulo norte de Centroamérica”, Interpeace, 2017.Hide Footnote

Numerous testimonies point to the prevalence of gang rape of female members, with up to 30 men involved in one reported case, as well as forced sexual relations with gang leaders as a prelude to teenage girls’ recruitment.

However, upon entering the gangs many of them are exposed to violence and submission. Male control over female bodies, and determination of female activities within the group, are integral to gang culture. “It is unbelievable how violent they can get … how they treat their wives and their mothers. They don’t even need to carry a weapon to behave as brutally as they do”, said a former B-18 female gang member.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ciudad Arce, El Salvador, February 2017.Hide Footnote Numerous testimonies point to the prevalence of gang rape of female members, with up to 30 men involved in one reported case, as well as forced sexual relations with gang leaders as a prelude to teenage girls’ recruitment.[fn]Así viven y mueren las mujeres pandilleras en El Salvador”, Revista Factum, 11 March 2016.Hide Footnote These cases are reportedly responsible for an increase in the migration northward of Central American girls, as well as the very high rates of Salvadoran girls changing or quitting school.[fn]A reported 66,000 girls changed or quit school in El Salvador in 2014 and 2015, according to the education ministry. “‘It’s a crime to be young and pretty’: girls flee predatory Central America gangs”, The Guardian, 23 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Central American societies suffer high levels of domestic violence, and parts of the public harbour admiration for male virility and power, making it sometimes difficult for girls exposed to gang violence to recognise the crimes they are enduring. A recent survey of violence against teenagers in the Northern Triangle showed that “there are issues that remain silenced, ignored, made invisible, and are not being addressed. Girls, boys, teenagers and young people are abused by their brothers and their fathers and they regard it as normal”.[fn]“Victimarios y víctimas de la violencia”, op. cit., pp. 84-85.Hide Footnote

The broader sexual violence in society and the particular abuses within gangs do not appear to have deterred girls from joining the maras. Some observers speculate young women in the gangs at least have the choice as to whether to submit themselves to the male members’ desires. Furthermore, certain female gang members who connect other girls to human trafficking and sexual exploitation networks are reported by social workers to derive comfort from the perpetuation of abuses they themselves suffered.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote While the precise motives and freedom of choice of female gang members vary, women’s presence in the gangs and their role in collecting protection payments do not seem to be diminishing. A recent report on Honduras indicates a rising female presence, with a number of them in leadership positions.[fn]Mujeres en pandillas, un fenómeno social en incremento en Honduras”, El Heraldo, 16 April 2015.Hide Footnote

IV. Public and Policy Responses

Public responses to mara crimes have understandably been dominated by fear. Some civil society organisations and private enterprises have tried to boost economic opportunities for gang members, but in general maras continue to be viewed as public enemies. A 2016 poll reports 54 per cent of Salvadorans agree that the police should be allowed to act beyond the law sporadically to capture suspects. In 2015, the same poll found 59.1 per cent opposed dialogue with the gangs.[fn]The University Institute for Public Opinion (IUDOP) of the Central American University produces periodical surveys. Results of the poll taken at the end of 2015 and 2016 can be found here and here Footnote

A. Official Responses

The NTCA countries were largely oblivious to the rising presence of gangs in urban neighbourhoods until media reports directed public attention to the violence and crime associated with them at the turn of the century. But the initial consensus on behalf of a security crackdown has evolved into far more diverse approaches.

Having abandoned the truce in 2014, El Salvador has reverted to the default criminalisation of the maras.[fn]Maras had already been outlawed in El Salvador in 2010. In 2015, the Salvadoran Supreme Court reclassified MS-13 and B-18 as terrorist organisations, thereby criminalising any collaboration with them. “El Salvador Supreme Court labels street gangs as terrorist groups”, InSight Crime, 26 August 2015. New legislation passed in Honduras in February 2017 also makes it easier to accuse maras of terrorism. “CIDH y ONU advierten que reformas penales en Honduras pueden minar DD HH”, La Tribuna, 25 February 2017. During the truce, the U.S. Treasury designated the MS-13 a significant transnational criminal organisation. “Treasury sanctions Latin American criminal organization”, U.S. Department of Treasury press release, 10 November 2012.Hide Footnote The continued failure to provide basic services to El Salvador’s marginalised neighbourhoods combined with alleged illegalities, including the formation of “social-cleansing” death squads to eliminate gang members, and complicity by security agents in extortions and drug trafficking, has fostered impunity, hostility and incentives to crime.[fn]José Miguel Cruz, “State and criminal violence in Latin America”, Crime, Law and Social Change, pp. 1-22, 2016.Hide Footnote The government claims “extraordinary measures”, including tougher terms of incarceration, are behind the decline in the homicide rate from 103 in 2015 to 81 in 2016, but the maras, who declared a unilateral ceasefire in May 2016, have taken credit for the descent.[fn]Specialised analysts consider both the governmental crackdown and the maras’ instructions to halt killings as contributing factors in recent declines in the murder rate. “Homicides down in El Salvador, but government measures not the only reason”, InSight Crime, 3 March 2017.Hide Footnote Critics in the media and a number of academics have branded the government’s approach a “new war” and a “kind of scorched-earth policy moving through gang-dominated neighbourhoods”.[fn]La Nueva Guerra”, Revista Factum, 22 November 2016. Analysis published by El Faro provides empirical support for these accusations. By August 2016, the number of people killed in confrontations between police and street gangs had already surpassed the figure for all of 2015. The lethality index, which divides the number of dead by the number of those injured in confrontations between police and gangs stood at 2.3 in El Salvador in 2015. For every policeman or soldier the gangs killed, they had injured 7.6 in 2016; but for every injured gang member, three had been killed. In 2016, the number of gang members killed was nearly twice the number captured. “Los datos apuntan a la presencia de ejecuciones sumarias”, El Faro, 3 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Even civil society organisations willing to cooperate with the government are critical of the failure to address social inequalities as a source of crime.

Following Honduran anti-gang legislation enacted in the early 2000s, massive round-ups bloated prison populations and a growing militarisation of the security system has since represented the main official response to extremely high rates of murder and extortion. The national police has purged its ranks, which were rife with corruption. A new temporary military police was established, and has since become a major force in internal security affairs under the president’s close supervision.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tegucigalpa, 28 November-1 December 2016.Hide Footnote Even civil society organisations willing to cooperate with the government are critical of the failure to address social inequalities as a source of crime.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Jaime Varela, Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa, Tegucigalpa, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote

A distinct approach to gang violence is being attempted in Guatemala, where the attorney general’s office said it is committed to ending law enforcement strategies based on destruction of the enemy. It created in April 2015 a specialised office to combat extortions with separate units dedicated to the MS-13 and the B-18. A hotline to report extortions is permanently available and provides support to victims, while a smartphone app is freely downloadable to prevent extortions. The app uses and updates the attorney general office’s database of phone numbers detected as belonging to extortion racketeers, and can record calls and save the numbers for later criminal investigations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Emma Patricia Flores, Raúl Figueroa and Claudia Palencia, attorneys in charge of the Anti-Extortion Unit, Guatemala City, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote Three big hits against extortion rackets were carried out in Guatemala in 2016, producing 225 captures in total. The joint police and judicial operations “Rescue of the South”, “Rescuing Guatemala”, and “Guatemala is Ours” were based on investigations carried out over several months.

Institutional flaws in the security and justice systems are evident in all three countries. Experts in El Salvador point to a profusion of documents, bodies and officials, as well as a tendency to use these organisations to employ political loyalists.[fn]“Street Gangs of El Salvador”, op. cit., p. 61.Hide Footnote According to a security expert, the state’s failures are not “a matter of lack of will, nor of obscure interests, nor of perverse and subterranean conspiracies. I see a profound incapacity to govern, to lead strategically, coordinate and operationalise”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Luis Enrique Amaya, op. cit.Hide Footnote Vice President Óscar Ortiz and his adviser, Benito Lara, previously justice minister, hold sway over part of the state’s efforts in this area. Hato Hasbún, an experienced politician, coordinates the National Council for Citizen Security and Coexistence, in charge of the so-called “Safe El Salvador Plan”.[fn]The National Council for Citizen Security presented President Sánchez with the Safe El Salvador Plan in January 2015. It includes five work lines dealing with people’s life conditions, criminal investigation and justice, prison reform, victim protection, and institutional strengthening. The international community has praised the holistic nature of the plan, but warned against its complexity and the difficulties of implementing it. Crisis Group interviews, offices of the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme, San Salvador, November 2016.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, the justice and security minister, the security cabinet and the sub-cabinet for violence prevention seek to implement different parts of various public policies. Consensus is hard to reach, decisions are stalled and implementation is weak.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, national experts, San Salvador, 21-25 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Throughout the NTCA, violence prevention efforts have been largely ineffective, and evidence of any lasting achievements is scarce.[fn]Gangs, urban violence, and security interventions in Central America”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Even so, some signs point to a strengthening of prevention. A new Vice Ministry for Social Prevention was created in April 2016 in El Salvador, and will be in charge of coordinating all government institutions on prevention issues as part of the Safe El Salvador Plan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Edgar Amaya, adviser, Vice Ministry for Social Prevention, San Salvador, 22 November 2016.Hide Footnote The Vice Ministry of Violence and Crime Prevention in Guatemala is bringing government institutions and civil society organisations together to design and implement a national prevention strategy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Axel Romero, vice minister for violence prevention, Guatemala City, 6 July 2016 and 27 January 2017.Hide Footnote Honduras’ efforts include various official bodies that meet within a government “prevention cabinet”, but lack a joint plan or strong coordination mechanisms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Carol Martínez, National Prevention Program, Tegucigalpa, 29 November 2016; Gustavo Bardales, Director, Safer Municipalities Program, Under-Secretariat for Prevention, Tegucigalpa, 1 December 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Public Attitudes

According to a recent poll, 42.4 per cent of Salvadorans, 20.6 per cent of Guatemalans, and 29.3 per cent of Hondurans identify crime and public insecurity as the main social problem in their respective countries. In El Salvador, 19.7 per cent of the population says the gangs are the main problem facing the country, compared to 8.0 per cent in Guatemala and 2.6 per cent in Honduras.[fn]In other findings, only 17.2 per cent of Salvadorans, 16 per cent of Guatemalans, and 14.7 per cent of Hondurans think other people can be trusted. 70.7 per cent of Salvadorans, 73.7 per cent of Guatemalans, and 62.4 per cent of Hondurans admit having little or no trust in the police. Notably, 71.1 per cent of Salvadorans, 84.4 per cent of Guatemalans and 84.2 per cent of Hondurans say they trust either the Catholic or Evangelical churches. See databases in Latinobarómetro poll, 2015.Hide Footnote

Depending on the level of gang organisation that they encounter, residents in affected communities feel threatened and imprisoned. The security they may enjoy inside their community can involve restrictions on their freedom of movement, or constraints on access to the community. “People living in gang-controlled communities have to deal with invisible borders with checkpoints to enter their neighbourhoods … breaking the protocol can be lethal”, said a grassroots NGO worker in El Salvador.[fn]Crisis Group interview, San Salvador, March 2017. El Diario de Hoy produced a series of articles in 2015 mapping out the presence of different cliques in San Salvador. The project was initiated by shock upon the killing of a street peddler affiliated with a certain gang who inadvertently trespassed into the territory of another. See, the map can be found at: Footnote

Schools and families can become sources of violence. Young people’s main coping strategy is to lock themselves up in their homes, avoiding contact with maras and trying to stay out of trouble.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Luis Mario Martínez, researcher at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, Guatemala City, 8 June 2016.Hide Footnote The “shut-in youth” form a majority of the population in Guatemala City’s shanty towns, according to an anthropologist. “They seek refuge in television, internet, radio, and cell phones. They practically do not socialize in person with their peers, nor do they belong”.[fn]Denis Roberto Martínez, “Youth under the Gun: Violence, Fear, and Resistance in Urban Guatemala”, PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, December 2014.Hide Footnote Outside their communities they face social exclusion and stigmatisation, as employers tend to deny jobs to applicants with home addresses in gang-controlled communities.

In the post-conflict contexts of the NTCA, where the public discourse has been dominated by the portrayal of maras as public enemies, support for the repression or even elimination of gang members is high. This symbolic and real war against the maras prevents discussion of the complex problems generated by profoundly inequitable societies.[fn]Maras y su vinculación con los poderes paralelos”, Instituto de Análisis de Problemas Nacionales de la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, October 2014.Hide Footnote Close observers point to class differences in NTCA societies as an important factor in the failure to deal with the gang problem in a more integral way. Those with a monthly family income of more than $500 can extricate themselves from the worst violence by paying for private schools, health services and neighbourhood security patrols. “This sector does not consider itself as part of the problem or the solution”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Roberto Valencia, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Because of the relatively high levels of trust that religious organisations enjoy, they are often called on to search for spaces for dialogue with the gangs. Catholic and protestant local religious leaders have facilitated the truce in El Salvador, and tried to do the same in Honduras, while the Office for Human Rights of the Guatemalan Archbishop (ODHAG) has explored similar dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ronald Solís, ODHAG, Guatemala City, 28 October 2016.Hide Footnote Evangelical churches, meanwhile, provide those wishing to abandon the gangs with a rare outlet that is respected by the maras, and could be used as safe spaces for vocational and educational training to former gang members. According to a recent survey, over 58 per cent of imprisoned mareros believe churches would be the best organisations to lead rehabilitation programs.[fn]“The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador”, op. cit., p. 63.Hide Footnote

C. International Cooperation

The presence of gangs claiming affiliation to a common identity in different countries has fostered concerns that maras are becoming transnational criminal organisations, or “third generation gangs that have evolved political aims” comparable in some ways to radical jihadists.[fn]Gary I. Wilson and John P. Sullivan, “On Gangs, Crime, and Terrorism”, Defense and the National Interest, 28 February 2007, p. 9.Hide Footnote The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s designation of the MS-13 as a significant transnational criminal organisation has spurred lively discussion by experts on this question, though clear evidence of the need to combat them as such has been hard to find.[fn]Central America’s gangs are all grown up”, Foreign Policy, 19 January 2016; “International terror and the gangs of Douglas Farah”, InSight Crime, 26 February 2016; and “The nature of the maras: Douglas Farah – a rebuttal”, InSight Crime, 1 March 2016. “The MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats?”, Congressional Research Service, updated 2008, 2010.Hide Footnote

International aid institutions have been reluctant to engage in prevention strategies directly involving perpetrators and their victims after programs to extract young people from the gangs backfired in the early 2000s, with a number of gang members seeking to leave the groups killed. Although consideration has been given to renewing these efforts under the aegis of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), violence prevention attempts deal mainly with affected communities and not gang members themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international officials, November 2016. CARSI is a multi-million dollar initiative assisting law enforcement and security forces to confront regional security threats.Hide Footnote

Some observers have hailed the creation of outreach centres in high-risk communities in Honduras [...] as relatively successful examples of violence prevention initiatives funded by the U.S.

Funding for large-scale violence prevention or citizen security projects targeted at these areas has trebled in the past year to reach hundreds of millions of dollars. Some observers have hailed the creation of outreach centres in high-risk communities in Honduras, for instance, as relatively successful examples of violence prevention initiatives funded by the U.S.[fn]There is little consensus, however, as to the effect of internationally supported violence prevention programs in the Northern Triangle, notably by USAID. “Are U.S. anti-crime programs in Central America working?”, InSight Crime, 6 March 2017; and “How the most dangerous place on earth got safer”, The New York Times, 11 August 2016.Hide Footnote There are at least three active U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) calls for similar projects in each of the NTCA countries, with an average funding of $40 million each. Additional funding is available from the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity, an initiative launched in 2014 with the aim of stemming migration to the north by addressing security and development concerns. Despite representing a major increase in U.S. funding to the region, the plan has been criticised by parts of civil society for its emphasis on foreign direct investment for infrastructure projects over social investment, for its support for security policies that include the military, and for the lack of transparency mechanisms with which to monitor the use of resources.[fn]The U.S. Congress approved $750 million in fiscal year 2016, with a similar request presented for FY 2017. Although the Plan implicitly acknowledges the structural nature of the region’s social and security problems, implementation is slow and there is a lack of clarity as to how resources will be spent. Crisis Group interviews, NGO representatives, Guatemala City, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Continued U.S. support for these activities in the coming years appears unlikely given the Trump administration’s embrace of hard border security and migration control, including the prospective mass deportation of undocumented migrants. Implementation of such policies would exacerbate economic strains in the Northern Triangle and spur increased gang recruitment of marginalised young people, especially if efforts are not made to provide returnees with assistance, security and economic opportunities. However, during the first months of 2017, high-ranking U.S. officers visited the region to express support for ongoing institutional reform and the fight against corruption.[fn]U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly visited Guatemala on 22 February 2017, and Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield did so on 6 March.
Hide Footnote
These gestures may signal the willingness of parts of the new administration to continue established U.S. policies, notably the Central American Strategy that aims at “the evolution of an economically integrated Central America that is fully democratic, provides economic opportunities to its people … and ensures a safe environment for its citizens”.[fn]Our Central American Strategy”, the White House, 16 March 2015.Hide Footnote

In a similar vein, the Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Luis Videgaray called for a meeting including Mexico, the U.S., the Northern Triangle countries and other neighbours to establish the terms for a “shared regional responsibility for the development of Central America in the understanding that it is through development and stability that the causes of migration can really be tackled”.[fn]The proposal was made during the February 2017 visit to Mexico of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. “Mensaje a medios del Canciller Luis Videgaray Caso con los secretarios de estado y seguridad interior de EUA”, Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, 23 February 2017.Hide Footnote

For the time being, the three countries of the Northern Triangle appear to be moving toward closer collaboration in their effort to combat gangs, albeit within a largely military framework. El Salvador and Guatemala established a High-Level Security Group in August 2016 to improve information exchange and implement joint programs in their fight against transnational organised crime.[fn]Guatemala y El Salvador crean Grupo de Alto Nivel en Seguridad”, Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de El Salvador, 13 August 2016.Hide Footnote Honduras joined the regional effort by proposing a tri-national task force against organised crime that was launched in November 2016 in Nueva Ocotepeque, a Honduran town near the tripartite border. The force has been set up to coordinate the fight against transnational crime, explicitly including gangs, narcotics and human trafficking, as well as smuggling, and is set to involve joint operations by the police, army and tax agencies from each country. Although they initially were left out of this task force, attorney generals’ offices from the three countries also have established coordination mechanisms, including the creation of a common data base, joint training processes and an effort to harmonise criminal procedures.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior officials in attorney general’s office, Guatemala City, 9 September 2016.Hide Footnote

V. New Policy Approaches

The Northern Triangle countries, above all El Salvador and Honduras, continue to suffer levels of insecurity that forcibly displace many. Recognition of this crisis, as Honduras has done, and willingness to embrace international humanitarian support by collaborating with local organisations in offering temporary shelter and assistance to those displaced by violence, are imperatives for the region. In the longer term, defusing gang violence will depend on implementation of various overlapping policy innovations, several of which are suggested below.

A. Communication without Negotiation

The unsuccessful truce process in El Salvador has stigmatised the notion of “negotiation” with gangs. But governments need not enter into direct dialogue with maras for a process of pacification to get underway, both through clear messages from governments as to their willingness to address the causes behind the gang phenomenon and through moves by the maras to reduce levels of violence.

The MS-13 and one of the B-18 factions have recently expressed willingness to enter into talks with the Salvadoran government, which so far has refused to entertain the idea.[fn]Secretary-General Appoints Benito Andión of Mexico Special Envoy to Facilitate Dialogue in El Salvador”, UN press release, 16 January 2017. Crisis Group interview, UN staff, San Salvador, February 2017. “MS-13 pide diálogo al gobierno y pone sobre la mesa su propia desarticulación”, El Faro, 9 January 2017; and “Pandillas no serán incluidas en ‘segundos acuerdos de paz’”, El Faro, 15 February 2017.Hide Footnote The maras have mentioned the possibility of their own dissolution, an end to extortion schemes and revealing the sites of clandestine cemeteries. Similar, albeit smaller scale initiatives could be explored in Honduras and Guatemala, while the U.S. could play an important role in supporting this process by ending its designation of the MS-13 as a transnational criminal organisation in response to clear signals that the maras are willing to scale back violence. Likewise, the governments of Honduras and El Salvador could consider repealing their classification of gang crimes as terrorist activity in order to build confidence with the maras. Faith-based organisations are well-positioned to assist as they enjoy public trust, while religious conversion has become an accepted reason for gang members to calmarsemara lexicon for ceasing gang activities.

In January 2017, a six-month mediation mission of the UN Department of Political Affairs, led by Mexican diplomat Benito Andión, was unveiled, with the aim of finding common ground between El Salvador’s two main political parties on an unspecified range of issues. The government hurriedly announced that the maras would not be part of any future dialogue, and the mission has not yet addressed the issue of violence prevention nor dialogue with the gangs. However, if the mission extends its mandate and is able to mediate successfully between the two parties, a working group on peacebuilding initiatives including local churches could explore the possibility of more inclusive dialogue. Even if it explicitly excludes the maras, the government of El Salvador could focus its ongoing efforts to strengthen the presence and responsiveness of state institutions, within the Safe El Salvador Plan for example, on territories which saw significant violence reduction during the truce.

B. Spaces for Free and Safe Movement

Gangs should adopt goodwill measures that could be recognised as such by the wider public, and which could precede or follow signals that Northern Triangle governments intend to deal honestly with the maras’ grievances. During the truce, Salvadoran gangs declared schools as safe zones and participated in local initiatives to build peace. Such measures could be emulated by gangs in Guatemala and Honduras. These should also include pledges to end forced recruitment, particularly of girls, and public assurances that neighbours and citizens are free to move through gang-affected territories without incurring the risk of violence.

That said, such calls inadvertently could provide the maras with additional political and social clout once their power to guarantee full freedom of movement has been demonstrated. The resulting risk of transforming them into major political actors must be carefully gauged by authorities and groups engaged in peacebuilding processes. Crimes are not to be disregarded, and punishment for them is to be expected. The fact that in the Salvadoran truce the maras never requested exemptions from their criminal responsibilities offers a precedent on which to build.

C. Targeted Community and Business Investment

Older gang members often have expressed their willingness to reduce levels of violence. As a former gang member explained: “I’ve seen how tough this life is, and I don’t want my children to go through this at all”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former B-18 gang member, San Salvador, February 2017.
Hide Footnote
Genuine livelihood alternatives are essential for the maras to desist from violent crime, but development aid in the context of gang-run communities poses huge challenges. A number of NGO efforts in Honduras to finance small business opportunities in gang-run communities have been abandoned due to pressures from violent extortion rackets.[fn]New Humanitarian Frontiers: Addressing Criminal Violence in Mexico and Central America”, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, October 2015, pp. 10-11.
Hide Footnote
Substantial investment in affected communities and the creation of more spaces for safe public use, of the sort undertaken in the Colombian city of Medellín, is another option, but would depend on available finance and effective cooperation across state agencies.[fn]How to make Latin America’s most violent cities safer”, The Guardian, 13 June 2016.Hide Footnote<