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The Cycle of Violence in El Salvador

Street gangs have turned El Salvador into one of the most violent countries in the world. With a murder rate so high, can the government act in the best interest of the population?

I recently returned from a week-long trip to El Salvador. Based on the gruesome headlines, the casual observer could easily believe that this tiny country is nothing but a warzone. And it is true that this beautiful place suffers from a staggering level of violence, largely the result of ubiquitous gangs that have spread throughout the country. The government’s response to this epidemic will be critical to the future of the state. Though it was my first time to El Salvador, my master’s thesis examined the impact of violence by criminal groups on state stability. My research focused on Colombia and Mexico, but the lessons are comparable given a similar rise in violence in El Salvador today.

There are several key indicators of state stability. The first is public security and rule of law: the ability of the police to protect the public and the ability of the judicial system to effectively address grievances and prosecute criminals. The second is state legitimacy, measured by the ability of public to engage in the democratic process and by the public’s belief that the government is acting in the best interest of the people. In both Colombia, in the 1980s, and Mexico, in the mid-2000s, a dramatic rise in violence by criminal groups degraded the ability of the government to provide security and rule of law. Furthermore, political figures were too threatened and cowed by the groups to implement the reforms demanded by the public. Ultimately, violence in Colombia and Mexico deeply undermined state stability—and El Salvador seems to be following the same pattern.

The current violence in El Salvador is largely attributed to two main gangs: Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18, which formed in the United States and then spread throughout El Salvador and other Central American countries as gang members were deported. Though El Salvador managed to negotiate a truce between the gangs in 2012 and slow the blood flow to a relatively low 41 homicides per 100,000 residents, this truce broke down around March 2014. A surge in murders followed, with the 2015 homicide rate expected to exceed 90 homicides per 100,000 residents—extraordinarily high, especially when compared with the United States, which averages four to five homicides per 100,000 residents. In August alone, the murder rate reached a level not seen since the end of El Salvador’s decade long civil war in 1992.

With regard to public security and the rule of law, the violence in El Salvador is certainly straining the country’s ability to protect the population and provide justice. Similar to the cases of Colombia and Mexico, Salvadorian gangs have specifically ordered members to target police and judicial officials, which pushes police out of neighborhoods. This then leaves these populations under the complete rule of the gangs. It also makes it easy for the gangs to run their extensive extortion operations, which are the main funding mechanisms for both MS-13 and Barrio 18. In one prominent case, the government was unable to prevent a massive transportation shutdown in capitol San Salvador when the gangs threatened to attack bus routes, demonstrating a complete breakdown in the government’s ability to protect basic public services from gang violence. Additionally, recent corruption cases highlight the ongoing problem of prosecuting criminals and maintaining rule of law, with judges freeing murderers for profit. And, even when gang members are imprisoned, they continue to run operations and order murders from inside. All of these deficiencies show that the power of the gangs in El Salvador is so great that it is limiting the government’s ability to protect the population, maintain rule of law, and provide justice.

El Salvador’s violence also threatens to isolate the government from the public, undermining the legitimacy of the state, the second indicator of state stability. While the 2012 truce reduced the homicide rate, the public has always been overwhelmingly opposed to the government negotiating with the gangs. Even with this opposition, the gangs’ capacity for violence is so great that they have forced even presidential candidates to meet with the groups, suggesting that their violence is buying political access and forcing the candidates to act against the wishes the of public. Furthermore, there are indications that gangs are attempting to influence the outcomes of elections by coercing residents to vote in the manner they see fit.  With this power, the gangs destroy citizens’ ability to effectively engage in the democratic process, dividing the population from those that should represent them.

The decreasing stability in El Salvador threatens to push the country into a vicious cycle. Without a public that can hold elected officials accountable, the government will not implement reforms necessary to stem the social and economic inequities that drive gang participation. As gangs grow stronger, the state’s inability to properly protect the population and provide justice leads individuals and groups to take matters into their own hands. It already appears that death squads, possibly run by members of the security services, are going outside of the law to eliminate gang members. This only further undermines rule of law, and increases the level of violence and the strain on government resources. These same dynamics occurred in both Colombia and Mexico as each struggled to address its own issues with gang violence.

How does a country combat this cycle of violence and state decline? The problem is extraordinarily difficult to solve, but understanding the situation in Colombia and Mexico offers some insight into the case of El Salvador. One of the key takeaways from my research is that countries need to ensure that police maintain a presence in public spaces to act as a preventive measure to public violence and allow for a faster response when crimes are committed. To its credit, El Salvador has made an effort to institute a community policing program to address this suggestion and, in contrast to the low marks for the national police, the program appears popular with the public. A second takeaway is that specific attention must be put toward protecting judicial and law enforcement officials, as threats to their safety is a key method used by criminals to distort the judicial process.

The future of El Salvador is heavily dependent on whether the government can quell the violence. It will require tremendous political will, as politicians must risk angering violent gangs and implement reforms that can sometimes take years to show visible achievements.  But this political will must be found. Allowing the violence to continue will only destroy the lives of El Salvador’s citizens and limit their ability to build a better future.

Michael is a staff writer for Charged Affairs. He works in the Washington, DC area and graduated with an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in Political Science from the University of Washington. He can be connected with via Twitter @mikedworman.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.


Michael Dworman

Michael is an international affairs/national security professional working in Washington, D.C. He focuses on international conflict, terrorism, and crime, along with a regional focus on Russian affairs, where he has spent time living and working. Michael graduated with an MA in Security Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a BA in Political Science from the University of Washington. You can connect with him on Twitter @mikedworman.
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