BEYOND MURDER STATISTICS: UNDERSTANDING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GANGS, DRUG TRADE AND VIOLENCE IN EL SALVADOR

Posted: February 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:54 am

Author: Nazia Hussain, PhD Candidate, George Mason University, School of Public Policy

‘The system rejects us. They just want to lock the gang members up. But we are just people. We do God’s will.’  (an 18-year-old gang member in San Salvador)

El Salvador is a nation of just 6 million people. However, it has one of the highest murder rates in the world (roughly 12 per day).  According to officials, street gangs including the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street, some of them descendants of gangsters deported from Los Angeles in the 1990s, are responsible for as much as 60% of homicides.

(Map courtesy World Atlas)

Gang violence is not a new phenomenon is El Salvador. After the civil war (1980- 1992) between the military-led government and left-wing guerilla groups, the post war Salvadoran society was fertile for gangs: weapons were easily available; unemployment was high; and opportunity was low, especially for youths. In addition, war and the migration of more than one million Salvadorans left broken families and absence of role models. It also created fertile ground for international criminal activity including drugs trade, money laundering, and human trafficking.

At present, even though Mexico grabs headlines, El Salvador claims one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Mexican gangs also call it El Caminito’ or the little pathway, as it offers a trafficking route for the drug trade from Mexico onwards to the rest of the world.

Thus, El Salvador now finds itself drawn into an expanding drug trade. In part, some Mexican gangs have infiltrated the country, helped by ruthless street gangs with roots in Los Angeles, secretive networks left over from the country’s civil war, and presence of the U.S. funded highway that provides an overland route for shipping cocaine north. Additionally, with its use of U.S. dollar as its official currency, the country provides avenues for money laundering. However, cartels such as the Texis Cartel are free agents, offering their smuggling routes for whoever is willing to pay for them. An El Salvadoran newspaper reported that Texis Cartel-a drug cartel, had turned itself into one of the key players for anyone seeking to smuggle drugs through the country, by working in collaboration with a network of corrupt policemen, soldiers, judges and federal congressmen.

One indicator of the illicit activities is the high homicide rate in the country, which is generally attributed to gangs, but some argue that it is easy to pin the blame on gangs for the violence. One of El Salvador’s leading human rights organizations, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, that has analyzed homicides every year since 2004, has concluded that hundreds of murders were committed by rogue police officers, private security guards and people hired to carry out social cleansing’– elimination of undesirables through extrajudicial executions.

Human Rights Groups and experts have noted that the death squads that operated in the past did not disappear, but continue to target suspected criminals or gang members, and even homeless children. On the other hand, street-gang culture is generally held responsible for the high homicide rate in the country. What remains indisputable is that the youth are disproportionately affected by violence. According to National Civil Police, people 18 to 30 years of age committed half of homicides in 2009, and 70% of victims were aged between 15 and 39 years. Reports from the country document the despair, loathing and anger against a corrupt political system increasingly viewed as hostile to the youth, which views joining gangs as the only solution.

It is understandable that there has been a focus on violence in El Salvador. Recently more attention has been given to the related activities. While dealing with the high murder rate of El Salvador is very important, focusing on violence alone does not account for the complexity of gang activity and its links to the drug trade and therefore policy priorities of the US Government. For one, El Salvador is the trafficking route for Mexican cartels, and hence, is important for the United States. The Mexican drug trade poses an existential threat to Mexico as well as to the United States, as has been widely documented. Second, not understanding the interrelationship of violence, drug trade, corruption and money laundering could lead to inappropriate policy solutions that may only touch one part of the complex problem that results from the nexus of crime, corruption, and terrorism (in the form of the successors to the death squads that operated in El Salvador for many years.)

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu