The relationship between Salvadoran gangs and the United States

Trump has declared a war on Central American gangs only by deporting them, being nothing different from his predecessors. But this strategy has proven to be unsuccessful, both for the countries of origin of the gang members and for the United States. By deporting gang members to their countries of origin, they are given freedom. By deporting them, people in the Central American countries are given more reasons to migrate.


By now, the Salvadoran gangs are famous around the world. The biggest and most famous are the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18. They are also estimated to cause most of the homicides in El Salvador, which is the second most violent country (without war) in the world, only behind Honduras. But the United States has had a very important role in the way these criminal gangs were born and how they became what they are now.

El Salvador is the smallest country in Latin America, with 21,000km2. However, the country is one of the Latin American countries that most migrants send to the United States. For this small country, approximately one out of five citizens has migrated, and most of them to the United States. This trend increased considerably because of the Civil War that lasted twelve years, from 1980 to 1992. After this, most of the Salvadorans that have migrated have done so due to other reasons, such as unemployment, the lack of opportunities in the country, and the excruciating crime and violence. When compared with other Central American countries, it can be seen (in Table 1) that El Salvador is the Central American country that most migrants have in the United States, as of 2015. It is also the second country that most remittances receives, as a share of its GDP, being this the 16.57%, only behind Honduras.

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Source: World Development Indicators, UNDP HDI, Leblang et al (2014).

Salvadoran gangs appeared in the mid-1980s in the United States, in Los Angeles, which is one of the cities that have more Salvadoran migrants and which has a tradition of gang formation, according to studies that have dated the formation of gangs in that city since the XIX century. Gangs are common in the least privileged suburbs, where young (usually) men group in the corners and many times commit small crimes in order to protect their territories. In the United States, the formation of gangs is mostly seen in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The government of the United States began to criminalize similar groups and strengthening laws towards them, as well as towards immigration, due to the increasing threat of such groups for their national security. These strengthened laws culminated in the deportation of thousands of gang members to their countries of origin. By this time, these gangs were already big, well-organized and well-connected. For the United States, deporting these criminals was the easiest way to get rid of the problem, instead of offering more options to the young people lacking a proper education and job opportunities, given that the members of these gangs were not only immigrants. However, even though for the United States deporting these criminals was the solution to the problem, this was also the start of the internationalization of these criminal gangs, as they began their operations in several countries, including Honduras, the United States and El Salvador. Probably, a more effective solution would have been to convict these people in American soil, instead of helping them expand their networks, allowing them to grow even more.

By now, these are not street gangs anymore. They are very well organized international criminal organizations, with operations in many countries around the world. In El Salvador, these groups are so powerful that even the government is unable to effectively fight them as they control very important parts of the territory. They have presence in 247 out of the 262 municipalities of the country and extort about 70% of businesses. Their crimes range from extortion to drug and people trafficking. The judicial system is compromised as gangsters threaten the lives of the judges and their families and they are successfully infiltrated in the national police and even in political parties. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that gang members range from 60,000 to 95,000 only in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). It has been reported by the Central Bank of El Salvador that the violence coming from gangs costs about $4 billion a year to a country that is already poor and vulnerable. This also makes national and international investment to flee away, and it makes citizens to get out of the country seeking refuge and security for their families.

As the Central American region has a long tradition of migrating towards the United States, gangs are also taking advantage of this situation and highly profiting from it. They are involved in the human-smuggling, human-trafficking and forced prostitution business. These gangs also harass migrants, especially those who travel alone without a coyote or a smuggler, kidnapping them and asking for ransom or payment. And even at this point, when caught in the United States, they face nothing more than deportation to their country of origin.

Gang members in the prison. Source: Vice News

Gang members in the prison. Source: Vice News

This would not be much of a problem if these Central American countries had a strong judicial system, but they do not. This is not claiming that the United States should solve the problems of the Central American countries. However, if in the past the United States has had the courage and the money to interfere in Central American internal political affairs, they could now contribute for good. For example, in the Salvadoran Civil War, the United States invested about $1 million a day… for 12 years! Besides providing the military with training and weapons and interfering in national elections. Given that violence and crime is now one of the main reasons for Central Americans to migrate to the United States, a decrease in violence would also decrease migration.

Various Salvadoran governments have already tried diverse strategies to get rid of these gangs. When they saw this was almost impossible, they decided to make a truce in 2012. The deal was to stop killings in exchange of a better treatment for the gang leaders that were inside the maximum security prisons. It is worth noting that in El Salvador, the members of these two gangs that have been convicted have been separated in different prisons, given the fact that the two major gangs are also rivals and being together would cause chaos. Nevertheless, this only makes these prison to be more like schools for those imprisoned gangsters, given than there are several of their friends inside who teach them new strategies for crime. The gang-government truce was momentarily successful, as the killings decreased 60% almost immediately. However, this truce was very unpopular among the population, fearing that the government had given too much power of negotiation to the leaders of the gangs. The truce ended in 2014.

Since then, the government and the gangs have been in a war where dozens of police officers, gang members and even civilians have died. In June, 39 gang members were caught in Long Island. They were offered nothing more than deportation. Trump has declared a war on Central American gangs only by deporting them, being nothing different from his predecessors. But this strategy has proven to be unsuccessful, both for the countries of origin of the gang members and for the United States. By deporting gang members to their countries of origin, they are being given freedom. By deporting them, people in the Central American countries are given more reasons to migrate.

Dott.ssa Ana Figueroa

 

 

 

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