Even El Salvador’s Gangs Remain “Mafias of the Poor”


The note above, an extortion note turned over to the police by a bus driver, illustrates the level of “sophistication” utilized by the gangs in order to extort thousands of Salvadorans every week. Extortion is pretty easy to carry out.

Although my book, which relies on data I collected in 2007-8, treats the gangs of northern Central America as relatively comparable across all three nations, I have recently started to emphasize the diverging pathways that the gang situation has taken in each country of the Northern Triangle in the last several years. Whatever the case in the mid-2000s, it is no longer possible to argue that the gangs have similar levels of adherence and control in all three countries. The case of El Salvador is especially sad both for the way successive governments have been mishandling the phenomenon (trying to incarcerate their way out of the problem) and for the way the gangs have utilized mass incarceration to strengthen  their structures and grow their numbers across much of the nation.

For anyone interested in understanding the gang situation in El Salvador, I highly recommend taking about 15 minutes to read an excellent article called Killers on a Shoestring: Inside the Gangs of El Salvador published yesterday (11/20) in the Sunday edition of the Times. The authors are a team of investigative journalists including Oscar and Carlos Martinez from the excellent digital newspaper Elfaro.net. These guys have proven their investigative chops with one article after another of tough-minded investigative reporting and interviews with top gang leaders, as well as pastors, priests, and politicians. In this piece they do an excellent job of digging for hard data on what the Salvadoran government has actually seized in assets compared with what we know (and what has been claimed) about the gangs. The result is an argument that pokes serious holes in the sensationalism surrounding the Salvadoran gangs and their supposedly lucrative international extortion ring. True, gangs like the MS-13 conduct extortion within most of Salvadoran municipalities and they continue to maintain international networks, but in a globally-connected world (in which many Salvadoran families can be said to have “international ties”) that’s not actually saying much. And when you start doing the numbers, even with a claim such as the Salvadoran police finding that in a typical month the MS-13 brings in about $600K in revenues (mostly from extortion and petty drug dealing), if you have 40K members throughout the country, such money doesn’t go very far. Think about it. If the money were divided up evenly — and if the gang had no overhead — it would amount to $15 per member. But of course it’s not divided evenly and the gang has considerable overhead costs relating to weapons acquisition and legal fees. There’s a little left over for family members of incarcerated gang members — but not much. Among other evidence presented by the authors, when the “CEO” of the country’s largest gang is living in a small cinder-block house in a tough neighborhood and has two beat-up cars to his name at the time of his arrest, it tends to cast doubt on the government’s claims regarding gangs’ supposedly million-dollar profit-making machine. Nor are the gangs able to benefit handsomely from the lucrative international drug trade. They are petty dealers with whom the cartels themselves want little if any direct involvement.

Let me hasten to add that none of this refutes or diminishes the actual violence and heartache wreaked by the gangs. They continue to contribute vast amounts of death and even more fear, especially in certain geographic sectors and professions. But this capacity for violence is not made possible by a vast, powerful, and well-funded organizational apparatus — it is possible rather because gang violence, including murder, is actually quite easy to carry out. This is the case because 1) the legal system is already overwhelmed with violent crime cases and stretched very thin as a result, and 2) there exists in El Salvador a great deal of anger, resentment, and a deep thirst for respect and belonging among the vast impoverished communities of the nation. As the authors wisely point out, many of the thousands of “soldiers” in the ES gang are willing to take huge risks on behalf of the gang (and commit murder if necessary) for little or no monetary gain. They are angry, alienated and want some respect. And a great deal of El Salvador’s anti-gang policies over the years have simply deepened this alienation and anger.

Here’s hoping that policymakers in both Washington and San Salvador are reading the work of this journalistic team rather than the many sensationalist accounts produced every month by many other media outlets. If so, they might be able to craft truly effective policies that, little by little, reduce the tension between the government and the gang communities and provide other, far safer pathways to respect for the tens of thousands of impoverished Salvadoran children who will come of age over the next several years. Will the gang be able to continue to make the case that the police have targeted their communities and their families in a continuing war on the poor?


Watching the US Election from Guatemala

Since I arrived with my family in Guatemala in August, I found myself, on more than one occasion, answering one version or another of the question, “And what will you do if the US elects Donald Trump?” My answer to this question was always the same: “Don’t worry. Donald Trump is not going to win the election.” I often suspected that the Guatemalans who asked me these questions were either wanting to give me a hard time in the good-natured way of “chapin” humor or simply wanting me to own up to some of the ugliness of my country’s own electorate. Fair enough. My friends and in-laws were in their rights when asking such a question, but I still thought to myself, “I don’t think they understand how far off such a possibility truly is.” How simple and utterly naive of me.

As we would learn on Tuesday night, I couldn’t have been more wrong. You might even say that my Guatemalan friends understood the American electorate and the so-called “whitelash” that fueled Trump’s upset, better than I did. Their repeated experiences with electoral dismay and the fear and racial distrust that can drive it, have taught them to be ready for anything. On the night of the election, our family happened to have a friend from Colombia visiting us for dinner. Her experience (and utter dismay and disappointment) with the rejection of the peace accords by a narrow margin in the popular vote was still fresh in her mind and she reminded us — even as we watched aghast as the results continued to pour in — that the polls conducted prior to an election regarding highly “sensitive” issues about race and politics can give a distorted view of things. Just as many Colombians were, apparently, hiding their disdain for the peace accords by answering survey-takers by saying they would vote “Yes” when in fact they were going to vote against the accords, so it seems very possible that at least a portion of white US voters were not willing to own up to being Trump supporters when speaking to survey administrators who might likely disprove of their views.

Fortunately for me, my Guatemalan friends have been gracious enough not to confront me about the elections and I suppose I have avoided bringing up the topic in most cases. It is, I must say, a shock and a disappointment to me that a candidate whose candidacy was clearly kickstarted by 1) a lie (birtherism), and 2) hate speech (Mexico is sending us its rapists and criminals) and who continued to traffic in obviously baseless conspiracy theories (the Russians hacked Hillary’s e-mail account), is rewarded by the electorate with the presidency. At the same time, it is also worth remembering that even if Hillary had squeaked out a win, we would still be citizens of a country in which a very significant portion of the population is angry with immigrants and Muslims. It is even more unsettling to realize that this population will now have a leader in the Oval Office, but either way, we would still have a LOT of work to do to try to counteract and calm such fear and anger in our own communities. At least now, we cannot deny that such hatred and distrust is alive and well and that we must learn to be MUCH better at counteracting it.

In the meantime, I have been trying to tell myself that my work must continue. (Of course it must.) On Wednesday,the day after the election, I finished writing an expert affidavit on behalf of a young Honduran who is seeking asylum protection from deportation due to a credible threat of gang violence aimed at her should she be deported. (Two of her relatives have already been killed.) Sending the affidavit was, I hope, my own little way of pushing back against “Wall-ism” and the scapegoating of undocumented (and Muslim) immigrants that proved so popular in the Trump campaign. Perhaps there is still time for us a nation to learn hospitality and to find the joy in learning to know our newest neighbors. Perhaps.