SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — El Salvador is not a tourist destination. In 2015, it was given the title of most dangerous country in the world outside of a war zone. It is notoriously plagued with violent gangs, the two most prevalent of which are the La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18th Street gang). But are the gangs solely responsible for the violent climate in El Salvador? It is easy to condemn the trope of the tattooed, gun-wielding gang members as nothing more than purveyors of senseless evil. But the reality of their existence and their struggles goes back decades.
In 1980, a massive civil war broke out in El Salvador between leftist guerrilla forces and a United States-funded right-wing military group. The war lasted nearly 12 years, and in its wake, the country did not find peace. In fact, its aftermath was almost as bloody and vicious as the war itself.
Four years after the truce, in 1992, in the midst of political unrest, the U.S. government passed the Immigration Reform and Illegal Immigrant Responsibility Act. This effectively deported 550,000 Salvadorans from the U.S. back into a country with limited resources to help them. Some were from Los Angeles street gangs, and brought with them a gang mentality that El Salvador was wholly unequipped to handle.
The new gangs of El Salvador brought with them further violence, so for many, the solution was simple: get rid of the gang members. This was implemented in 2003 through a crackdown policy called ‘Iron Fist‘, which gave police the authority to arrest anyone as young as 12 on the grounds of suspected gang activity.
Rather than quelling the problem, this made gangs more organized. It allowed gangs to strengthen and reorganize with other gang members who they would not otherwise have met. ‘Iron Fist’ justified human rights grievences among and against gang members and suspected gang members. Non-state ‘social cleansing’ groups, or ‘death squads’, emerged from this environment.
These solutions proved not to be solutions at all. Rather, they exacerbated the problem by ignoring the systemic injustices that led to gang formations in the first place. Rather than wiping out the gangs, these reactions pushed gang members even further into the fringes of a society that had already failed them.
For many, joining a gang was not an aspiration but a means of survival within their community. Political unrest and rampant poverty created a breeding ground for violence. Without opportunity in a society that knew violence so intimately, gangs became an attractive alternative to poverty.
Currently, there are more than 20 homicides a day in this country of 6.1 million people. El Salvador’s climate of violence contributes to a loss of education, income, and productivity, which perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty of opportunity. Unsafe schooling environments led to less-educated children and less-successful adults. This keeps children running to gangs for protection and for opportunity. This, in turn, keeps El Salvador from prosperity.
While many may feel helpless when faced with the problems in El Salvador, there are still a gamut of ways to help. Nonprofits worldwide have turned to El Salvador to extend aid to the country, particularly its children. Many believe that with proper resources, the next generation of Salvadorans can be saved from gang initiation, which starts at as young as eight years old. Uplifting this generation is a great source of hope for the country.
By supporting programs like the U.S. Education for All Act, which proposes funding for impoverished children in at-risk areas globally, greater opportunities can be afforded to the children of El Salvador. However, while prevention is important, funding rehabilitation is also crucial.
What is most important to remember is that the people of El Salvador — the gang members, the victims of violence and the children too frightened to walk to school — are victims of something larger than just gang violence. They are victims of poverty, and this is something we can fight.
– Kayla Provencher