I wanted to write about this story back in June when it first came out. I'm glad I waited.
El Salvador is a deadly place. Five gang murders occur a day, which is down from an average of twelve! Two gangs have been terrorizing the country for years - MS-13 and Barrio 18. These two gangs were formed in the United States in the early 80s and were imported to El Salvador as their members were deported from the U.S.
Drugs, money, and prostitution are the reason for the gangs. The members control huge swaths of land with violence and bribery. And apparently, they murder with impunity.
It's a different type of gang violence than we see in the United States. The gangs run the land in El Salvador. The police are even afraid to head into certain areas without a S.W.A.T. team for fear of not returning from them. In the U.S., the gangs are not as organized or bold. MS-13 and Barrio 18 are armed better and have more funding than the El Salvador government and therefore it is difficult to put a dent in their operations. U.S. gangs make huge money from drugs and prostitution, but it is much more difficult to keep those profits when arrests and prosecutions occur. Our government has money to make arrests and prosecute offenders. We are able to seize proceeds of crimes. We also have better weaponry than the gangs.
That is why everyone welcomed the news of a truce between the two gangs in the spring of this year. Leaders of the gangs met with a bishop and an elected official and negotiated a truce to stop killing and stop recruiting.
There is one similarity to the U.S. The gangs recruit young, impressionable boys and girls from impoverished neighborhoods. They promise money, power, community, respect, and the hope of a better life. All they have to do is carry a gun, sell some drugs, or rob someone.
In El Salvador though, it is join or die.
The truce begged two questions - could it last and was it true? How many peace accords have we seen between the Israelis and the Palestinians? India and Pakistan? Yet the violence and threat of violence continues. Tensions rise based on past slights. Gang violence is a cycle of retaliatory murders and assaults until the line is so long that no one can remember how it all started. All the members know is that they must hate and kill the rivals.
And so recruiting never stopped. The truce seems like just a way for jailed gang members to negotiate a better lifestyle while incarcerated. Maybe take a little heat off the gangs by the police and government for awhile. Peace talks and promises of a truce have worked in the past to allow one side to believe in it while the other builds up their forces for an assault (Germany before WWII?).
Reports indicate that gangs in neighboring Honduras, who has the same problems but with a higher murder rate, are seeking a similar compromise. But the discovery of those five bodies indicates that recruiting has not stopped.
What is the solution? Citizens are clearly terrified of defying these gangs. Children are conscripted into service. Huge numbers of people are killed in a long running feud. The government has to hope that the truce is in fact true, while at the same time continuing efforts to eradicate the gangs. "Speak softly and carry a big stick," as Theodore Roosevelt said.
At least in the U.S., failure to join a gang does not always lead to death. The key to stopping gang violence and membership here is a combined family training, community leadership, education, jobs, and criminal justice approach. In Central America, it seems like military strikes are required to destroy the foundations of the gangs and then the infrastructure must be rebuilt forcing the gangs out.
But I do understand, it's easy to say from 4,000 miles away. The threat of MS-13 and Barrio 18 in the U.S. is enormous and spreading daily. These gangs cross the country and import drugs and the gang culture with it. Dismantling them in their home will have an impact world-wide.