In January this year the Ilopango area of San Salvador was declared the first ‘gang-free’ district in the El Salvadorian capital. But despite official statistics and declarations of peace by the mainstream press, has anything really changed?

Providing a short history of this problemed Central American state is perhaps necessary, as it receives a relatively small amount of media attention despite the on going troubles there. The people of El Salvador have suffered from exploitation ever since the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century and as time has gone on, US influence has increased along with the domination of the national elite, who have used their military power to both create fear and widen the gap between themselves and the chronically impoverished peasant population. As a result there have been countless protests by the peasant community, the first – led by Farabundi Marti in 1932, was crushed by government forces and ended in the massacre of 30,000 ‘campesinos’.

From then on, Marti was regarded as a national hero, the first of many revolutionaries to die on behalf of the guerilla resistance in Salvador. Thus in 1980 the Frente Fabarundi Marti para la Liberation Nacional came into being, then later in 1992 became an officially recognized political party. After years of resistance, the FMLN finally gained power in 2009 under the leadership of former journalist Mauricio Funes.

On official statistics alone, things have improved for El Salvador since the formation of the FMLN back in 1980. Its overall Human Development Index (HDI) has gone from 0.471 to 0.68 in 2012 and its Gross National Income (GNI) has reached $5,915 per capita when it previously stood at $4,273. Most importantly, however, the murder rate has slowly decreased.

But how much can these stats really tell us? Official figures might be encouraging, but has life for the average El Salvadorian really improved?

Undoubtedly the bloody the civil war of 1979, which spanned over a decade, continues to haunt any potential progress for this troubled nation. After the end of the official conflict, those involved in the fighting found themselves with nothing to do. With guns readily available and next to no other prospects, these young men turned to a life of violent gang crime yet despite a want for change and a left-wing revolution, these underprivileged gang members have no money and their families mouths to feed. As a result of such desperate circumstances, what could have been a breakthrough national socialist movement has turned into a reign of terror led by Salvador’s two main street gangs.

The Mavra Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Calle 18 gangs have been deadly enemies since their inception and yet at the beginning of this year, Ilopango – one of the most dangerous municipalities in the entire country, saw a truce between the two gangs. The leaders have promised to stop any killings on the condition that prison conditions improve and that social programs increase to aid their incarcerated members’ re-integration back into society.

Since this ceasefire, officials have claimed a reduction in the level of killings; there were 117 murders in this area alone in 2011, which has gone down to 62 in 2012. Furthermore in the past there were around 14 murders a day nationwide, a figure that is now said to be down to just 5 or 6.

All of a sudden they’ve started asking for rice, beans, whatever they feel like. If I don’t give it to them, they will kill me.

Carlos Tevez
Shopkeeper

We can’t deny that this can only be a positive step but it appears to be merely that: one small step in the long journey to peace in El Salvador – perhaps the number of murders is falling but fear undoubtedly remains. Shopkeepers and business owners alike are still finding themselves at the constant mercy of the gangs – for example Carlos Tevez, the owner of a shop in Ilopango’s main square, has explained to the Associated Press that he is forced to pay a weekly ‘tax’ in order to ensure the safety of his business and his family.

On the other hand members of both gangs will readily admit that extortion is a huge problem and that it has to be put to a stop, although they are insistent that it’s the only way they can earn any real money, thus the vicious circle continues.

President Funes has recently invested $33.3 million in social and prevention programs to encourage the employment mobility of current and ex gang members. Undeniably this is a step in the right direction. It seems that the only way gang violence is going to dissipate is by giving their members the choice to earn money, provide for their families and lead a better life, but this is easier said than done to say the very least. The problems of gang violence, extortion and death squad killings are chronic across central and the rest of Latin America.

The problem of violence here is decades old and there is no magic formula, no manual, no perfect solution…

President Funes
President of El Salvador

With the unhelpful addition of a constant demand for illegal drugs from the US and beyond, it seems that a life of crime continues to be the easiest option for many in Salvador and its neighboring Central American states. And as a result, despite promises of a ceasefire, this remains to be a seemingly insurmountable obstacle before any kind of state of peace can be achieved.

 

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  • Jack
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    The alleged ceasefire will undoubtedly be largely impotent in curtailing the violence in the capital, let alone the rest of the country. Contrary to your assertion that genesis of violent criminal gangs within El Salvador manifested almost from boredom, MS-13 was in fact established on the streets of Los Angeles, and comprised of poor immigrants, former guerrillas, and fatherless children. Over the past decade the US authorities have deported thousands of gang members back to El Salvador, provoking the returning men to establish cliques within their native country – inevitably bringing the virus of gang war with them – and providing them with an opportunity to cement transnational links, particularly with the Sinaloa Cartel who recruited them in the battle against Los Zetas (the Cartel wars in Mexico have caused the deaths of over 80,000). The currency of the Cartels, as well as MS-13 and other Salvadorian gangs, is drugs. A recent report by the Organisation of American States recognises the failings of the war on drugs; Latin American leaders complain that Western leaders, whose citizens consume the drugs, fail to appreciate the inherent violence of trade, and the report proposes that South American countries should no longer deploy law enforcement against the gangs, thus effectively legalising and potentially regulating the trade. To end the belligerent monopoly of Salvatrucha Inc. and other criminal gangs over society by starving their income appears the only viable solution.

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