Magazine article New Internationalist

El Salvador

Magazine article New Internationalist

El Salvador

Article excerpt

El Salvador is still associated in many people's minds with the 12-yearlong civil war between rightwing government forces (backed by the US) and leftwing FMLN guerrillas, which ended in 1992 but left70,000 people dead. The relative calm since - and the election as president of former FMLN rebel Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who took office in June 2014 - is somewhat misleading, however.

With an average of nearly 30 homicides per day, El Salvador could soon overtake Honduras as the most violent country in the world (excluding warzones such as Syria). Since a 2012 truce between the country's two main gangs (MS-13 and Barrio 18) began to fall apart in 2014, El Salvador has experienced its highest number of murders since the civil war.

The truce, secured by the Catholic Church with the tacit approval of thenpresident Mauricio Funes, had managed to halve the country's murder rate and had raised hopes that El Salvador could overcome its history of violence.

Imprisoned gang leaders were transferred from high-security jails to regular prison facilities and the Red Cross established a special mission to monitor human rights in prison. In exchange, the gangs agreed to end the forced recruitment of children and young people, respect schools and buses as zones of peace, reduce attacks on security forces and surrender limited amounts of weapons.

This effort to reduce violence by negotiating with criminal groups and focusing on the reintegration of gang members into society rather than on punitive measures was unique to the region and a far cry from the 'iron-fist' approach of previous administrations.

However, as details began to emerge of what this fragile truce actually entailed, public opinion became increasingly polarized, with conservatives and the media raising questions about criminal organizations being legitimized as well as pointing out that extortion and other violent crimes had not diminished.

When the truce entered a more complex phase it began to flounder as the government failed to deliver money for prevention and rehabilitation programmes. Then the newly elected President Sánchez Cerén withdrew support for the truce. Gang leaders were returned to maximum-security prisons and violence soared once again.

Although the truce ultimately collapsed, it highlighted the inequality and lack of opportunities that allow gangs to recruit vulnerable young people - the huge disparity between El Salvador's small, wealthy elite and the overwhelming majority of the population was at the root of the civil war but is still all too visible today.

There has been a massive exodus of Salvadorans to the US over the past three decades, fleeing unemployment, the civil war, natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and earthquakes in 2001. As a result, one in three Salvadorans currently lives in the US and remittances sent by them are now El Salvador's main source of income, totalling $4.2 billion in 2014.

Some of those who fled to the US during the war joined dangerous Latino street gangs there for protection and livelihood. In the mid-1990s, the US authorities began a mass deportation of gang members, who took with them the culture of violence and territorial disputes that now characterizes El Salvador's gangland.

Although the Salvadoran authorities unequivocally blame the violence on gangs, a number of recent massacres bear the signs of drug-cartel involvement. The country's weak institutions and rampant corruption have made it all too easy for drug cartels to infiltrate the police and other institutions, transforming El Salvador into an important trans-shipment point for drugs heading north to the US market. …

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