Even El Salvador’s Gangs Remain “Mafias of the Poor”

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The note above, an extortion note turned over to the police by a bus driver, illustrates the level of “sophistication” utilized by the gangs in order to extort thousands of Salvadorans every week. Extortion is pretty easy to carry out.

Although my book, which relies on data I collected in 2007-8, treats the gangs of northern Central America as relatively comparable across all three nations, I have recently started to emphasize the diverging pathways that the gang situation has taken in each country of the Northern Triangle in the last several years. Whatever the case in the mid-2000s, it is no longer possible to argue that the gangs have similar levels of adherence and control in all three countries. The case of El Salvador is especially sad both for the way successive governments have been mishandling the phenomenon (trying to incarcerate their way out of the problem) and for the way the gangs have utilized mass incarceration to strengthen  their structures and grow their numbers across much of the nation.

For anyone interested in understanding the gang situation in El Salvador, I highly recommend taking about 15 minutes to read an excellent article called Killers on a Shoestring: Inside the Gangs of El Salvador published yesterday (11/20) in the Sunday edition of the Times. The authors are a team of investigative journalists including Oscar and Carlos Martinez from the excellent digital newspaper Elfaro.net. These guys have proven their investigative chops with one article after another of tough-minded investigative reporting and interviews with top gang leaders, as well as pastors, priests, and politicians. In this piece they do an excellent job of digging for hard data on what the Salvadoran government has actually seized in assets compared with what we know (and what has been claimed) about the gangs. The result is an argument that pokes serious holes in the sensationalism surrounding the Salvadoran gangs and their supposedly lucrative international extortion ring. True, gangs like the MS-13 conduct extortion within most of Salvadoran municipalities and they continue to maintain international networks, but in a globally-connected world (in which many Salvadoran families can be said to have “international ties”) that’s not actually saying much. And when you start doing the numbers, even with a claim such as the Salvadoran police finding that in a typical month the MS-13 brings in about $600K in revenues (mostly from extortion and petty drug dealing), if you have 40K members throughout the country, such money doesn’t go very far. Think about it. If the money were divided up evenly — and if the gang had no overhead — it would amount to $15 per member. But of course it’s not divided evenly and the gang has considerable overhead costs relating to weapons acquisition and legal fees. There’s a little left over for family members of incarcerated gang members — but not much. Among other evidence presented by the authors, when the “CEO” of the country’s largest gang is living in a small cinder-block house in a tough neighborhood and has two beat-up cars to his name at the time of his arrest, it tends to cast doubt on the government’s claims regarding gangs’ supposedly million-dollar profit-making machine. Nor are the gangs able to benefit handsomely from the lucrative international drug trade. They are petty dealers with whom the cartels themselves want little if any direct involvement.

Let me hasten to add that none of this refutes or diminishes the actual violence and heartache wreaked by the gangs. They continue to contribute vast amounts of death and even more fear, especially in certain geographic sectors and professions. But this capacity for violence is not made possible by a vast, powerful, and well-funded organizational apparatus — it is possible rather because gang violence, including murder, is actually quite easy to carry out. This is the case because 1) the legal system is already overwhelmed with violent crime cases and stretched very thin as a result, and 2) there exists in El Salvador a great deal of anger, resentment, and a deep thirst for respect and belonging among the vast impoverished communities of the nation. As the authors wisely point out, many of the thousands of “soldiers” in the ES gang are willing to take huge risks on behalf of the gang (and commit murder if necessary) for little or no monetary gain. They are angry, alienated and want some respect. And a great deal of El Salvador’s anti-gang policies over the years have simply deepened this alienation and anger.

Here’s hoping that policymakers in both Washington and San Salvador are reading the work of this journalistic team rather than the many sensationalist accounts produced every month by many other media outlets. If so, they might be able to craft truly effective policies that, little by little, reduce the tension between the government and the gang communities and provide other, far safer pathways to respect for the tens of thousands of impoverished Salvadoran children who will come of age over the next several years. Will the gang be able to continue to make the case that the police have targeted their communities and their families in a continuing war on the poor?

 

Watching the US Election from Guatemala

Since I arrived with my family in Guatemala in August, I found myself, on more than one occasion, answering one version or another of the question, “And what will you do if the US elects Donald Trump?” My answer to this question was always the same: “Don’t worry. Donald Trump is not going to win the election.” I often suspected that the Guatemalans who asked me these questions were either wanting to give me a hard time in the good-natured way of “chapin” humor or simply wanting me to own up to some of the ugliness of my country’s own electorate. Fair enough. My friends and in-laws were in their rights when asking such a question, but I still thought to myself, “I don’t think they understand how far off such a possibility truly is.” How simple and utterly naive of me.

As we would learn on Tuesday night, I couldn’t have been more wrong. You might even say that my Guatemalan friends understood the American electorate and the so-called “whitelash” that fueled Trump’s upset, better than I did. Their repeated experiences with electoral dismay and the fear and racial distrust that can drive it, have taught them to be ready for anything. On the night of the election, our family happened to have a friend from Colombia visiting us for dinner. Her experience (and utter dismay and disappointment) with the rejection of the peace accords by a narrow margin in the popular vote was still fresh in her mind and she reminded us — even as we watched aghast as the results continued to pour in — that the polls conducted prior to an election regarding highly “sensitive” issues about race and politics can give a distorted view of things. Just as many Colombians were, apparently, hiding their disdain for the peace accords by answering survey-takers by saying they would vote “Yes” when in fact they were going to vote against the accords, so it seems very possible that at least a portion of white US voters were not willing to own up to being Trump supporters when speaking to survey administrators who might likely disprove of their views.

Fortunately for me, my Guatemalan friends have been gracious enough not to confront me about the elections and I suppose I have avoided bringing up the topic in most cases. It is, I must say, a shock and a disappointment to me that a candidate whose candidacy was clearly kickstarted by 1) a lie (birtherism), and 2) hate speech (Mexico is sending us its rapists and criminals) and who continued to traffic in obviously baseless conspiracy theories (the Russians hacked Hillary’s e-mail account), is rewarded by the electorate with the presidency. At the same time, it is also worth remembering that even if Hillary had squeaked out a win, we would still be citizens of a country in which a very significant portion of the population is angry with immigrants and Muslims. It is even more unsettling to realize that this population will now have a leader in the Oval Office, but either way, we would still have a LOT of work to do to try to counteract and calm such fear and anger in our own communities. At least now, we cannot deny that such hatred and distrust is alive and well and that we must learn to be MUCH better at counteracting it.

In the meantime, I have been trying to tell myself that my work must continue. (Of course it must.) On Wednesday,the day after the election, I finished writing an expert affidavit on behalf of a young Honduran who is seeking asylum protection from deportation due to a credible threat of gang violence aimed at her should she be deported. (Two of her relatives have already been killed.) Sending the affidavit was, I hope, my own little way of pushing back against “Wall-ism” and the scapegoating of undocumented (and Muslim) immigrants that proved so popular in the Trump campaign. Perhaps there is still time for us a nation to learn hospitality and to find the joy in learning to know our newest neighbors. Perhaps.

Francis: A Pope for Gang Members?

 

Dear Pope Francis,
I think you are a humble man.
When you read this letter you will have washed the feet of other kids like me.
I am writing this letter because you give me hope.
I know one day with people like you us kids
won’t be given sentences that will keep us in prison
for the rest of our lives.
I pray for you. Don’t forget us.

“Don’t forget us.” These are the words of a young Los Angeles gang member writing from Juvenile Hall of Los Angeles County. According to Vatican Radio, Francis has received many such letters, some of them coming from youth involved in the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative run by Father Mike Kennedy. Interestingly, the Pontiff recently wrote back to one of the youths, providing a personal response to a young many named Carlos Adrian Vazquez Jr.

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El Salvador Going from Bad to Worse

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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.