El Salvador’s gang members number around 60,000, mostly youth, which is staggering by any measure but an extremely serious problem for a country of 6.5 million people. El Salvador has more gang members, especially in MS-13, than do Honduras or Guatemala writes Danielle Mackey for World Politics Review. Most of the gangs’ criminal targets are workers in transportation companies, and the small business and working-class sector; indeed, the higher-class sector enjoys the protection of a strong security force, private and/or funded by the government, to shelter them from any of the gangs’ incursions. The Salvadoran government, with its backing of the powerful economic and social elite has opted for doing as little as possible in order to maintain the status quo, as long as the violent eruptions are contained within the working-class population and away from the elite. What are the options and why doesn’t the government take full control of the street gang violence? There are many questions surrounding the country’s decisions on gang control, starting with the Mano Duro Gang policy.
The Mano Duro Gang Policy
According to Sonja Wolf in her 2017 book, Mano Duro: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, in July 2003, then Salvadoran President Francisco Flores launched the highly lauded “Mano Duro” gang policy in response to the dominant elite alliances’ dependence on authoritarianism to maintain order and defend their elite privileges. The powerful elite and the dominant right-wing media cleverly portrayed the challenges to the status quo as a communist ploy that could destroy the institutions that have continuously contributed to the country’s prosperity. It was the perfect social and political climate that created an overwhelming acceptance of the “iron-fist,” the Mano Duro approach that included the “anti-gang” law allowing officials to arrest anyone based on their pre-conceived profile of what a gang member looks like. The militarized police force, originally created as the PNC (Policia Nacional Civil), a professional, apolitical and respectful of human rights, was ordered to protect the powerful ruling class at the expense of the ordinary citizen. The PNC was installed as part of the 1992 Peace Accords, but as soon as the international monitoring strategies were lifted, the Salvadoran government reverted back to their familiar ways of “owning” the police force. As a result, human rights abuses are on the upswing and the homicide rates among gang members have increased, and to a much lesser extent, among police officers.
The Mano Duro policy was created to bolster the conservative forces united behind the ARENA party prior and leading to the 2004 presidential elections. The right-wing media, clearly aligned with the powerful elite, worked hand-in-hand with the ARENA party in spreading unsubstantiated fear over the gangs and their threat to Salvadoran society. According to Wolf, due to its ineffectiveness, the Mano Duro policy “may have contributed to a greater threat to society than the gangs themselves.”
Efforts to Address the Street Gang Problem
In her book, Sonja Wolf elaborates on her research that studied the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their efforts to eradicate the problems associated with gang activity. Her data revealed the inexorable links between the gangs and society, claiming that “NGOs’ efforts were inadequate given the magnitude of the problem.” Also, the political system itself “needs to become the object of reform.” Even so, several key players have worked on alternative gang control strategies and comprehensive plans, although the results have yet to prove unequivocally the ones that have been successful and sustainable.
One of the NGO that worked intensively to create alternative forms of gang control was the Foundation for Applied Legal Studies (la Fundación de estudios para la aplicación del derecho), or FESPAD. Founded in 1988 for the purpose of defending human rights and the rule of law, FESPAD and to a great extent, the Center for Criminal Studies of El Salvador (Centro de estudios penales de El Salvador) or CEPES, worked toward an alternative gang control other than Mano Duro. Law students from the university studied the legal and constitutional rights that were applicable to gang control with Professor Alberto M. Binder, an Argentinean lawyer and expert in Criminal Procedural Law. In turn, the students worked with FESPAD to develop an alternative to gang control, train community leaders, and promote the access to justice by affected communities. The book on the Salvadoran constitution, “La constitución explicada,” sold over 50,000 copies. The NGO focused its work on providing legal aid to victims, investigating and documenting human rights violations, and in assessing relevant policies in regard to how they are administered within a legal and political perspective.
The 2012 Gang Truce. Under the FMNL government of President Mauricio Funes, and in response to escalation of gang violence and its effects on Salvadoran life and society, a truce was brokered between gangs, primarily MS-13 and Calle Dieciocho. The government called on the street gangs to reduce the murders, curtail violence against women, eliminate the school-based street gang activity, and stop targeting the youth for forced recruitment. The gangs also had their demands: an end to police abuse, the repeal of the anti-gang law (where anyone “looking” like a gang member can be arrested), improvements in prison life, and educational and job opportunities. But, after a couple of years, the truce demands were totally lost and it was considered a failure. In fact, it appears that the entire effort was fruitless, and worst, it produced even graver consequences. The murders declined from a daily average of 14 to five. But in a closer scrutiny, the discovery of clandestine graves revealed that the gangs didn’t follow the demands, and neither had the police authorities. The gangs maintained their control over their “territories,” continuing their operations as usual with forced displacements, extortions, etc. Sonja Wolf’s research reveals that the truce served to highlight the political power in the hands of the gang leadership and that the government is unable to control gang violence. Other critics pointed out that the truce’s failure could have been avoided if factors of governmental support had been a part of it, such as sustainable social and economic opportunities.
Instead, the murder rate peaked in 2015, and manodurismo continued in full force. The government took action by transferring and isolating gang members to quash their social networks and in deploying army elite battalions to battle with gangs, and as expected, soldiers were directly engaged in extrajudicial killings of gang members.
Alternative gang control proposals have been developed and presented but due to their lack of acceptance and support by the powerful elite, they have not gained the necessary popularity among the greater Salvadoran society. Current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, initiated an open dialog with different groups, and thus, certain organizations emerged, such as the National Council of Citizen Security and Coexistence (Consejo Nacional de seguridad ciudadano y convivencia). According to Sonja Wolf, the Plan El Salvador Seguro, (PESS), or the Plan for a Safe Salvador, proposes that the government make assertive efforts to do the following: to recover public spaces, to strengthen municipalities’ efforts to prevent crime and violence, create gun-free zones, promote youth employment, and expand community policing. Additionally, lawmakers passed a law that is meant to facilitate the integration of ex-gang members into mainstream society. The law called, Special Law of the Reinsertion of Gang Members and the Prevention of Individuals at Risk, offers scholarships, jobs, drug treatments, and housing credits. However, the presence of specific issues prevents the measures and strategies to become successful. In the case of the Plan for a Safe Salvador, the lack of funds restricts the implementation of what seem to be excellent ideas. And, for gang members to be recipients of the Special Law, they are required to leave their gang life, and risk being “pesetas,” or traitors, and being killed by the gang members.
The need for gang prevention and rehabilitation strategies have been considered, and programs such as Polígono, directed by Father Moratalla, a Spanish Salisian priest, are perceived as highly important for gang control. Sonja Wolf includes discussion about the residential, prevention and rehabilitation efforts by Polígono, based on the preventive system of Don Bosco whose premises include reason, religion, and loving-kindness. But, again, lack of support and funding have blocked the long-term success of these programs.
Law enforcement has been under fire to change their tactics from an authoritative and suppressive force bent on human rights abuses to a policing organization that uses intelligence such as relevant data that target security problems in a hierarchy from the most serious to less, and to emphasizing crime prevention.
A moderate approach to solving the gang control problem includes strategies that encompass aspects from the various possibilities: a policing strategy that respects the human rights of gang members and uses to a great extent intelligence in their investigations, prevention and rehabilitation programs, and community education and participation. But, there is also wide agreement over the need for the Salvadoran government to take a greater responsibility for the gang control, and along with that, transparency and accountability.
The fact that efforts to gang control by the government have resulted in mild to complete failure leads critics to consider the real reason why the problems persist, that the powerful elite and its pernicious right-wing media prefer the Mano Duro approach which they perceive as easier and less costly. In essence, there are sufficient proposals and plans to address the gang control problem, but Salvadorans in power lack the political will to make the needed changes.
Operation Check. In a recent article (2018), “Killers on a Shoestring: Inside the Gangs of El Salvador” authors Oscar Martínez, Efren Lemus, Carlos Martínez, and Deborah Sontag (see El Faro,) write about the latest strategy of dealing with gang control. Their focus is on collecting information about the gangs’ dealings for the purpose of eventually capturing the “the big fish” of the gang organizations and then, publicizing their crimes, which they expect will reveal how they have enriched themselves while their “soldiers” recover only a pittance of what they bring back to their jefe. But, the gangs have rules and one of them is that the gang leaders will not overly enrich themselves, and they’re responsible to distribute their proceeds in dutiful ways such as to their family members and for special gifts to the “homies” in jail cells. So, needless to say their efforts have yielded little rewards, while the public learns about their embarrassing results as they report the small amount of illicit funds that they have recovered from their “Operation Check.” Their attempts to shed a negative light on gangs as if they are powerful narco-traffickers like the notorious Zetas, and then, win favor from the Mano Duro proponents were baseless from the outset.