El Salvador Going from Bad to Worse


Carlos Martinez, the “dean” of gang journalists, wrote an interesting piece about the Salvadoran gangs for Elfaro.net back in September (when all eyes were on Guatemala). In the piece he quoted from interviews with two high-level leaders of the gangs each of which spoke on the condition of anonymity about the situation in their respective gangs. Although he communicated with them independently (neither is in prison), there were several points of alignment in what they had to say about the current gang setting in El Salvador. Among other points, they coincided in their assessments that:

– There is now very little “order” among the gang cells. While the Salvadoran gangs have traditionally been far more organized and hierarchical than their neighbors in the Guatemalan and Honduran gangs, since the breakdown of the truce, and the return of the top leaders to the maximum security Zacatraz, local gang leaders have been making their own decisions about where, when, and how often to allow violence. In most cases, this has meant a significant increase in homicides.

– Salvador is currently awash in a sea of weapons. This fact is not merely the impression of the gang leaders with whom Martinez spoke anonymously. It is also the distinct impression of the Salvadoran Armed Forces (who have confiscated almost three times as many weapons this year as last year) and the Guatemalan authorities who report that weapons are harder to come by in Guatemala because so many high-caliber weapons have been sold to Salvadorans, especially in the Eastern border regions of Guatemala. Martinez mentions that one gang leader last year was recorded in a phone tap as saying “without the [truce], there’s going to be lead flying in all directions.” It appears that the gangs began stockpiling weapons as the truce deteriorated, anticipating an all-out war with police that continues to the present. The war (with the police and between factions) has indeed materialized and the homicide rate is on track to surpass that of Honduras which, for the past several years, has distinguished itself as the most violent nation in the hemisphere.

– Gang recruiters are aiming at a much younger demographic. Children of 11, 12, and 14 years of age are joining the gang in large numbers due to recruiting efforts after the breakdown of the truce. Although the informants did not say say, one can easily surmise that this combination — younger, newer gang members and more, higher-caliber guns – can go a long way toward explaining the spike in violence in El Salvador.

Jimmy Morales: “Transition” or Continuity?

Jimmy Morales

Anita Isaacs, Professor of Political Science at Haverford, has written an excellent NYT op-ed (published 11/6/15) about the shaky electoral transition currently underway in Guatemala. She does a great job navigating the the tension between optimism (due to the success of the grassroots movement to oust corrupt politicians including the President and Vice President) and realism (due to the unwillingness of the Guatemalan Congress to pass substantial electoral and campaign finance reforms). Without systemic change, Guatemala is not really any better off with its newly-elected president in Jimmy Morales.

About Jimmy Morales: Morales is indeed a “political outsider.” He is also not well-connected among the Guatemalan elites. His roots are in the lower-middle class, as evidenced by his K-12 education at the Colegio America Latina, one of the older and more traditional evangelical schools that has attracted many lower-middle and working class Protestant families since its founding in the 1950s. We know little about his political philosophy. Some of his public statements seem to suggest a kind of political conservatism — or perhaps naivete — which is disconcerting but would fit well with the alliances he has made with some of the old guard from the army. Marcelo Colussi, columnist for Plaza Pública put it rather bluntly when describing who “won” the election: Ganó la anti-politica. We can only hope that the momentum behind the plaza protests of this year has not spent itself.

Pérez Molina Resigns

Hard to believe that Pérez Molina has resigned and will face a tribunal. Even as recently as last week I did not expect this to happen. But the pressure, first from the groundswell of anger manifested in weekly demonstrations in the Plaza Central, and then from Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture (among which there are some folks who no doubt hope that the investigations will stop after the President’s trial), left Molina without political cover. From the New York Times:

At the center of the events that led to Mr. Pérez Molina’s downfall is a persistent citizens movement that brought together vastly different groups for the first time. Guatemala City’s middle class, long reluctant to speak out after a brutal civil war demonstrated the costs of opposition, joined forces with peasant and indigenous groups.

Clearly, Molina seems to feel betrayed the most by CACIF. This from El Periodico:

Al arribar a la torre judicial enfatizó: “Vamos a llevar el debido proceso, ahora corresponde ir a los tribunales” y “he visto al CACIF haciendo señalamientos, queriendo liderar y salir de blanco, pero muchos aglutinados ahí, son parte de la corrupción”.

The real question remains, not who will win the upcoming elections but rather, will the social movement be strong enough to ensure that this Congress or the next passes the legislative package that includes campaign finance reform. This is something that the Guatemalan (Roman Catholic) Bishop´s Conference pointed out in its press conference last week calling on the President to resign. In fact, the Bishop´s Conference saved it´s harshest words for Congress, saying that:

“Never in the history of our democracy have we had a Congress like the present: inefficient, complacent with its own personal or party interests, with the majority of deputies playing absent. . . We ask that they put the paperwork in motion for impeachment and for reforms to the LEPP [Electoral Reform Law] proposed by the Electoral Supreme Court.

Good news from Guatemala?!

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans weathered a downpour in a rare and powerful demonstration of civic solidarity. Not satisfied with the resignation of the Vice President, many are asking that the President himself step down. Others carried signs demanding that congress pass stalled legislation aimed at tightening campaign finance rules and make government contracting processes more transparent.

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans weathered a downpour last Sunday in a powerful demonstration of civic solidarity. Not satisfied with the resignation of the Vice President, many are asking that the President himself step down. Others carried signs demanding that congress pass stalled legislation aimed at tightening campaign finance rules and make government contracting processes more transparent.

Positive political events in Guatemala? Who ever heard of such a thing? It has been a long time indeed. But recent events have unfolded in ways that almost no one could have predicted. As a result of solid investigative reporting from the national newspaper El Periodico and the intellectual/political blog Plaza Publica (founded and funded by the Jesuits’ Universidad Rafael Landivar) combined with widespread outrage expressed nonviolently in the central square each Sunday by Guatemalans from across the political spectrum, Guatemala is undergoing a kind of political consciousness-raising the likes of which only its very oldest citizens could recall. It’s too early to say what the full outcome of this series of national non-violent demonstrations will be, but already the effects have reverberated throughout the nation and within the halls of congress and the presidential palace. After a series of well-documented corruption scandals pointing directly to Vice President Roxanna Baldetti, the political tides turned sufficiently against her that she was forced to resign last week and is likely to stand trial for her connections to a contraband and tax-fraud network called La Linea. There is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that (former army general) President Perez Molina himself has connections to the network and, feeling the heat from crowds of tens of thousands of protesters amassing in the central square seeking his resignation, the President has attempted further “damage control” by rescinding several obviously corrupt government contracts he vehemently defended as legitimate only weeks ago. In the end, though, the most important potential outcome is neither the rescinded contracts nor his resignation, which may or may not come, but rather the “window of opportunity” suddenly open for the possibility of passage of a campaign finance reform bill that congress has studiously ignored for years. Congressional deputies have ignored it not only because the media has traditionally shown interest only in election-year horse races, but also because the deputies and political parties have for decades depended on loose or non-existent campaign rules in order to be able to raise money from political “investors” seeking the benefits of having friends in high places. Indeed, according to a detailed report by the International Crisis Group in 2011, Guatemala has one of the most expensive election cycles in the region precisely because, much like in the US after Citizens United, the political machinery is structured to be wide open for spending on political candidates. [The situation is even worse in Guatemala because there is very little transparency about who is doing the investing.] The fact that even CACIF, the enormously powerful chamber of commerce, is supporting this reform (albeit with fairly tepid enthusiasm) is profoundly surprising and exciting. Just as important, across the political spectrum, on Facebook pages and in everyday conversations, Guatemalans are talking politics — and not even mentioning candidates or parties. Instead they are talking about the need to put pressure on both the executive and the legislative branch to put a stop to the rampant corruption that, for so long, has become so commonplace as to be virtually expected of the political class. It seems that the experience of organizing for political protest — and seeing almost immediately palpable results — may be injecting a new and much-needed optimism into Guatemala’s politics. It’s about time.

[Update: The attempts at damage control continued yesterday with the announcement of several additional resignations including Michelle Martinez, the “Minister of the Environment” (a position she managed to achieve without even acquiring a college degree, much less a degree in science) and Gabriela Aparicio, Guatemalan Consul for Miami, who, prior to being named head of the Miami Consulate, held the distinguished title of personal make-up artist for the (now ex-) Vice President, Roxana Baldetti.]

It's difficult to imagine Ms. Aparicio as having the right combination of skills necessary for exercising the diplomatic role of consul for a major city.

It’s difficult to imagine Ms. Aparicio as having the right combination of skills necessary for exercising the diplomatic role of consul for a major city.

El Salvador: From Bad to Worse


Things are going very badly in El Salvador, as Hector Silva points out in his blogpost on the AULA blog today. Silva seems convinced that the truce created an environment in which the gangs could increase their power and reach, and he may be right, although it’s quite difficult to know this for sure since both gang membership (which can be fairly accurately estimated in E.S. since so many gang members there are in gang-specific prisons) as well as homicides were already on the rise long before the truce — which temporarily lowered the homicide rate. The homicide rate went from 40 homicides per 100,000 in 2003 up to 70/100,000 in 2011, right before the truce began. Now the rate is spiking again. Silva also points out that President Cerén’s political zigging and zagging from “peace and justice” rhetoric to hard line tactics involving “Gang Cleanup Battalions” are not helping matters. The gang truce has been abandoned but no coherent (much less proven) strategy has been introduced in its place. Cerén is opening the door wide for another round of popularly-supported “mano dura” nonsense — whether launched by himself or by his eventual replacement. The only question now is, after Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura, what will the next round of zero tolerance be christened? Perhaps, Hiper Mano Dura.

Homies and Hermanos: Where are they now?

I have been meaning to write a post that provides an update on some of the ex-gang members I first interviewed in 2007-8. Yesterday, Lucas Olson, a TA for an undergraduate class taught by Daniel Esser at American University asked if I would respond to some questions posed by the class after reading my book, so the exchange offered an opportunity to speak to provide this kind of update. With permission of Prof. Esser, I’m posting here a (slightly edited) version of the questions — which are excellent — and my responses to these questions.

1) Could you update us on the trajectories of individuals with whom you worked? 
I have been able to catch up with or otherwise collect *some* information as to the whereabouts of thirty of the original sixty-three ex-gang members interviewed for this project. Of these thirty, I have formally re-interviewed seventeen, all of them in Guatemala and Honduras. Let me say first that catching up with these folks hasn’t been easy and that has as much to do with finding the money and time to travel as it does with actually tracking them down. But the lower number of interviews is also due to a very high mortality rate. Of those thirty, eight are no longer living. Of these eight, six died from violence, and two more died of health issues related to violence during their gang years. There is no simple way to “summarize” the trajectories of the men and women I have caught up with or learned about. To put it briefly, some are doing well, others are struggling, and some have died. 
A few examples: “Pancho,” whose story starts chapter three, ended up getting locked up (a year or two after I interviewed him) for a crime he committed before he left the gang. According to my source (a Honduran sociologist who knew him well) Pancho, under pressure to show that he was a “provider” for his family, got involved in selling drugs during this later stint in prison.  Shortly after he was released from prison in 2012, he was killed, probably due to the nature of the business in which he had become involved though it’s impossible to know for sure. “Ricardo” another Honduran whose story of dramatic conversion starts the fifth chapter, is no longer pastoring a Pentecostal congregation due to a separation with his wife. After his congregation was taken away from him (by the denomination), the local mayor (of the more progressive “Liberal” party) recruited him for his people/organizing skills. When I interviewed him last year, he was doing relatively well financially but noticeably affected by the fact that he was separated from his wife and daughter. Finally, I have a short piece about “Angel” (the guy who told me about being told “The only way out is in your pine-box suit”) in the video made by AU prof Bill Gentile. He now works at a bank, is married, getting a business degree, and working with his wife as youth directors at a Pentecostal church. 

2) Has the contemporary pattern of violence in these individuals at all turned inwards or been redirected towards their family (wife, children,…)

It is totally possible that in some cases the violence that was formerly directed outward, has now turned “inward” toward the family. That’s a smart intuition of risk on your part. Of course, it would follow a demographic/age pattern that goes beyond gang members or ex-gang members. Young men/boys are more likely to want their violence to be “public” whereas older men, who are subject to stronger societal norms of adulthood, might confine their violence to the private sphere. (Randall Collins has some interesting observations about the difference between mafia violence and gang violence that might be applicable here.) I just don’t really have a good way of finding out about such a sensitive issue and I’m not really in a good position to ask that kind of question flat out so I couldn’t say if it’s happening or how much.

3) Could you give us a better sense of your skepticism of other authors who argue that churches shy away from addressing structural causes of violence?

I’m not skeptical that churches — Evangelical churches anyway — tend to shy away from addressing structural causes of violence. They do. In fact, I have tried to use the opportunities I’ve had when speaking to religious audiences in order to encourage them to “notice” the structural underpinnings of violence and attraction to the gangs (economic inequality for example). At the same time, I also realize that most barrio evangelicals don’t really have access to the levers of power that could effectively address long term structural injustice and violence. 
One of the points I try to make in the conclusion is that there is at least a possibility that a movement for social justice *could* emerge from within Pentecostal community. We shouldn’t confuse personal morality and religious enthusiasm with support for the political status quo even if those things have often gone hand-in-hand here in the U.S. They certainly have not gone together in Black churches in the U.S. In any case, while I think it’s important to be able to see and critique structures, I would hate to see these churches losing their resolve to make an impact on individual lives, “blooming where they’re planted” so to speak. 
4) Could you recommend one or two readings that highlight the role of women in these communities?
Ouch! You’re exposing my patriarchal perspective! The UCA university in El Salvador has published a book (in Spanish) about women gang members and women in prison. You can see a pdf here. Now that you mention it, there seems to be a dichotomy in Guatemala at least, maybe even the region as a whole, that research done on women is almost always done on rural (typically indigenous) women while research on men, at least recently, tends to address urban contexts/problems. If anyone ever feels so inclined, dissertation/books on the experience of urban ladina (mestiza) women would make a great topic. I’m sure there’s stuff out there but I’m blanking at the moment. And I have certainly discussed this lacuna before with my wife (who is an urban Guatemalan).

Analyzing CARSI and Its Impact (on gangs)

Nick Phillips, whose articles about Central American violence have appeared in places like the New York Times (see my post Religious NGO’s and Justice) and Global Post, has written a lengthy appraisal of the impact of Central American Regional Security Initiative on Guatemala called “CARSI in Guatemala: Progress, Failure, and Uncertainty.” What Phillips has to say about gangs in Guatemala is not really a surprise but it was nice to see someone else saying what a few of us have been arguing for some time now, namely:

1) Gang membership in Guatemala is probably much lower than most of the press has been citing.

2) That much of the criminality attributed to the gangs arises from non-gang groups who have adopted some of the strategies and techniques of the gang.

For example, in the two excerpt paragraphs below, Phillips notes that:

[A] 2011 United Nations report estimated Gua­temala’s gang population at 22,000 strong. [But] Edwin Ortega, director of the PNC’s anti-gang unit (called PANDA), believes it is much smaller than that, around 5,000. He said PANDA is currently conducting a national gang census to get a clearer pic­ture. It will not be easy: the gangs conceal their tattoos, tie their shoes in secret ways to show their allegiance, speak backwards on the phone to foil wiretaps, and smuggle notes written in coded handwriting in and out of prisons. The govern­ment reported in May 2014 that Guatemala was home to 40 clicas of Dieciocho and 30 of MS, with hundreds of their members already in prison. The MS is more selective in its recruitment, Ortega said, but press reports suggest that both maras recruit children as young as six years old to do their dirty work.

. . .

All of these gangs extort, but not all extortionists are gangsters. In fact, Ortega says that some 70 percent of extortionists are civilians who only pretend to be members of MS or Dieciocho in order to frighten victims into forking over cash. In some cases, these civilians have no connection to the maras and are making idle threats. But last January, a judge convicted ten people who had been extort­ing bus drivers while also paying quotas to three different gangs, suggesting that the gangs may have been charging for use of their “brand” in a sort of franchise arrangement.

I know personally of at least one concrete example in which family friends of mine from Mixco were being extorted by supposed gang members who used telephone calls through a cell phone in order to intimidate the family to the point that the family decided to pick up everything and abandon the family compound (the family is an extended family with about 15 adults and children) having scraped together enough resources to buy a smaller home in a gated community. The family learned later, from a very reliable source, that they had been extorted by adult (non-gang) members of a household on the same block as their old house. I tell this story not to argue that the gangs are not truly violent — of course they are. But their violence has been co-opted by a variety of individuals and groups who have found that the gang model provides both a “portable” technique as well as a smokescreen for throwing off investigators. Even when the gangs are involved, they are often receiving only a small portion of the profits, since their low social status requires them to pay most of the profits to individuals at higher rungs in the organizational ladder.

Phillips also spends some time trying to get the bottom of why the homicide rate has been falling in Guatemala for roughly a decade. He has interviewed some thoughtful, experienced Guatemalans (including my friend Carlos Mendoza) and offers an informed perspective that makes sense to my ear. If you are interested in Guatemala’s violence or in the violence of Northern Central America, reading this report is worth the time investment.