The US Government’s Complicated Relationship with MS-13


Members of the [US Funded] Jaguars waiting to deploy on an operation in San Vicente. Credit: Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

By now, most educated US citizens are aware of the fact that the MS-13 got its start not in Central America, but in Los Angeles, among an earlier wave of Salvadoran immigrants fleeing violence. Then as well as now, the US was intimately involved in El Salvador’s violence — trying hard and spending a lot in order to “help” but not always succeeding (to put it charitably). Indeed, on the day I arrived to San Salvador to start interviewing former gang members, the US announced that it was opening an FBI office in San Salvador to investigate the MS-13. That was in 2007! Yesterday’s article in the New York Times titled A Conflicted War: MS-13, Trump and America’s Stake in El Salvador’s Security, offers a helpful look into what the State Department has been doing recently. In a nutshell, we are training Salvadorans to play “good cop, bad cop” both literally and figuratively. We are, on the one hand, promoting “community policing” and on the other, preparing “elite” crime-fighting units charged with investigating high-level crimes and suspects. For a variety of reasons, as I have argued elsewhere, our well-funded efforts in El Salvador have had mixed results at best. In Guatemala, US expenditures on behalf of justice have  been aimed more at improving the accountability and functional capacity of the courts than at training police (although there have been some efforts here as well). And there are indications that this strategy has yielded better results. There are many signs, starting with Guatemala’s significant, continuing reduction in the homicide rate, especially in the capital city, that Guatemala has been able to do far more to provide public safety than El Salvador even though it has fewer police per capita and a lower incarceration rate. Recent setbacks under President Jimmy Morales are worrisome, but we should beware of the tendency to think that if a country has a public security problem, the answer is always more police and better crime labs.

Private Security Project Update (español)


I am wrapping up my one-year sabbatical in Guatemala where I have been researching the private security industry since August 2016. Today, LaHora (a Guatemalan daily that’s been around forever) published an interview with me conducted by Mariela Castañon, the tireless security-crime writer for that journal. If you read Spanish, you can get an idea of what I’ve been up to lately.

Estoy a punto de terminar mi sabático en Guatemala donde he pasado el último año investigando el tema de la seguridad privada en Guatemala. Hoy LaHora publicó una entrevista que da un poco de idea sobre mi nuevo proyecto. Está en español.

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.

Jimmy Morales: “Transition” or Continuity?

Jimmy Morales

Anita Isaacs, Professor of Political Science at Haverford, has written an excellent NYT op-ed (published 11/6/15) about the shaky electoral transition currently underway in Guatemala. She does a great job navigating the the tension between optimism (due to the success of the grassroots movement to oust corrupt politicians including the President and Vice President) and realism (due to the unwillingness of the Guatemalan Congress to pass substantial electoral and campaign finance reforms). Without systemic change, Guatemala is not really any better off with its newly-elected president in Jimmy Morales.

About Jimmy Morales: Morales is indeed a “political outsider.” He is also not well-connected among the Guatemalan elites. His roots are in the lower-middle class, as evidenced by his K-12 education at the Colegio America Latina, one of the older and more traditional evangelical schools that has attracted many lower-middle and working class Protestant families since its founding in the 1950s. We know little about his political philosophy. Some of his public statements seem to suggest a kind of political conservatism — or perhaps naivete — which is disconcerting but would fit well with the alliances he has made with some of the old guard from the army. Marcelo Colussi, columnist for Plaza Pública put it rather bluntly when describing who “won” the election: Ganó la anti-politica. We can only hope that the momentum behind the plaza protests of this year has not spent itself.