The country is now more violent than many war zones
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
El Salvador isn’t technically at war, but more than 280,000 people fled for their lives last year. If you live there, you have to reckon with one of the highest homicide rates in the world — at more than 60 per 100,000 people and rising.
Gunmen break into homes at night to rob, kidnap or terrorize families. The government has deployed thousands of soldiers into the streets — and is preparing to send hundreds more to battle the country’s two largest and most militarized gangs.
Officials talks darkly of an alliance between the gangs. Extra-judicial military and police killings of criminals — real or suspected — is common. But the soldiers, targets for assassination themselves, can’t expect the gangs to show them any mercy.
In recent months, the country has erupted into what observers call a “low-intensity conflict.” But it’d be hard to call what’s happening in El Salvador something other than war.
El Salvador wasn’t always this violent. In 2012, the country’s then-Pres. Mauricio Funes helped orchestrate a truce — led by the Catholic Church — between the government, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.
These two gangs are El Salvador’s largest.
The truce derived from a theory that El Salvador’s gangs were too powerful for a mano duro — or strong hand — approach to work at reducing violence. On the contrary, sending the police and military to battle the gangs risked making the violence worse.
These gangs arose decades ago in the country’s most impoverished and marginalized municipalities, so sending the army wasn’t going to solve the underlying problem. Besides, one of the main issues was that the gangs were fighting each other, conscripting children into their wars and trapping innocent people in the middle.
In theory, if the government negotiated a truce, the fighting would slow down, the killings would fall and it’d give the government the space to expand social services.
Local governments, religious institutions and non-governmental organizations would play a part. It worked … for awhile.
Murders fell by 40 percent nation-wide in 2013 and stayed down in 2013. In some areas, the violence is still down. But this number is misleading. In some rural and interior areas, the truce never took root and violence increased.
In 2014, El Salvador elected a new president who was highly critical of the truce. Pres. Salvador Sanchez Ceren — of the same center-left Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front — also attempted to cut-off the gangs from their leaders by concentrating the bosses in maximum security prisons.
This “was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered,” Hector Silva, an El Salvador crime expert at the American University wrote in a blog post.
“Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.”
The killings erupted. Today, El Salvador is in a worse situation than before the truce.
The wave of violence last year contributed directly to thousands of children fleeing to the United States — which provoked a major political debate about immigration.
The Salvadorian government has deployed 7,000 soldiers to fight the gangs. In May, it announced the creation of three additional “gang cleanup” battalions, which should boost the number of troops by another 1,000.
“The murder rate in recent months is as bad or worse than at any point since the civil war ended,” James Bosworth, a Latin America security specialist with Southern Pulse, noted at his blog. “Additionally, the criminal violence is targeted, with police and military being killed.”
“Rumors of a coordinated strategy between the two big gangs [MS-13 and Barrio 18] are likely overblown, but there is certainly a new effort by criminals to hit the government where it hurts, not just target each other.”
What’s happening in El Salvador isn’t exclusive to that country, but reflects a hardening of counter-gang and counter-drug strategies in the region. Damn the truces and community policing — send in the troops. That goes for both left-wing and right-wing governments in Central America and Mexico.
Neighboring Honduras — the most violent country in the world outside of Syria — has also seen its military take on a greater role in policing. In Mexico, Pres. Enrique Pena Nieto campaigned on a promise of reducing violence instead of going directly after drug cartel leaders.
Instead, the opposite happened. The military-heavy strategy continued, and several major cartel leaders wound up dead or imprisoned. But Mexico arguably isn’t any safer. Earlier in May, clashes between the government and drug cartels in Jalisco resulted in the shoot-down of a military helicopter.
It’s a near-consensus among Latin American observers and analysts that military-heavy strategies don’t work very well. Governments have tried them before — in many countries — without it doing much to end the hemisphere’s conflicts.
The best argument for using the military is that it’s the only choice when other strategies fail. In El Salvador, the government “kicked the can down the road, focusing short term anti-gang tactics rather than long term solutions in the run up to the recent legislative and municipal elections,” Bosworth added.
The country exploded — and now everyone has to deal with it.