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.

Five Myths about the Migration Surge

Oxford University Press recently published this blogpost which I was asked to write about the surge in migrating Central American youth. It was a very difficult piece to write — at times it felt like walking through a mine field. There is a lot more I could say about the issue but the short story is that I believe 1) we need to be careful about making the dubious argument that all of the youth coming northward are escaping imminent violence, from the gang or otherwise, and 2) we need to use the opportunity to take a hard look at why economic inequality has persisted and what simple steps (like promoting progressive taxation) might be done to diminish it.

Incidentally, this post picked up a little steam when the HNN and the London School of Economics political blog about the US decided to run it. A day later later, Andrew Sullivan ran the last two paragraphs of my post in The Dish.

Strategies for Reducing Gang Violence

On Wednesday 5/21, I will be presenting as a panelist at the annual conference on peace building co-sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace / Alliance for Peacebuilding. The topic of our panel will be “Urban Violence and Cross-border Criminal Activity: New Challenges for Peacebuilding.” Below is the (simple) handout I will use for the conference:

USIP handout

A Statistical Argument for Judicial Reform

In an earlier post I lamented the decision of Guatemala’s Attorney General selection committee not to renew the term of the highly successful Paz y Paz and her team. Take a look at the two graphics below, borrowed from the recent blogpost by my good friend, the meticulous political scientist Carlos Mendoza:

homicidios Guate 2001-2013

The homicide rate for Guatemala as a nation (green), for the department of Guatemala (red), and the municipality of Guatemala (blue).

Above: The conviction rate for homicides in Guatemala from 2009-2012.

Above: The conviction rate for homicides in Guatemala from 2009-2012.

Notice that the homicide rate in Guatemala was halved at the same time as the conviction rate for homicide in the country as a whole (but with a strong focus on Guatemala City homicides) was more than doubled. Obviously, there is more to reducing violence than successfully convicting those who participate in it, but it would be difficult to find a stronger argument for investing in judicial reform and professionalization of prosecution (including the protection of witnesses) than that represented in these two graphics. Guatemala still has a long way to go with regard to stemming the tide of criminal violence, but that it has made progress — and that some of the credit lies with observable improvements in the justice system — should not be doubted.

The (former) Attorney General Named “Peace”


Above: Former Attorney General of Guatemala (and 2013 Nobel Peace Prize nominee) Claudia Paz y Paz meets then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz was officially eliminated from the shortlist of candidates for appointment to the position of Attorney General of Guatemala. That means that she will no longer lead Guatemala’s Ministerio Publico, which is essentially the backbone of Guatemala’s legal justice system. The Public Ministry, akin to a federal prosecutor’s office but local and national in scope, is in charge of seeking justice by turning criminal cases into convictions through careful investigation, evidence-gathering, and legal argument. Why does the elimination of Paz y Paz as a candidate matter? Because no one has been more effective at solving high-level crimes and getting convictions on everything from femicides to drug trafficking than Paz y Paz and her team (see new post above for statistical evidence).


But first a story. In 2013 while I was conducting follow-up interviews with ex-gang members I first met in 2007, I asked *Diego, a local gatekeeper and small business owner from Ciudad Quetzal about the gang situation in that community. Ciudad Quetzal is a satellite town on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Residents of Guatemala City regard Ciudad Quetzal as a dangerous hotspot of gang activity. Extortion of homeowners, small businesses, and buses has been rampant in Ciudad Quetzal for years. Does the extortion continue? I wondered aloud. Diego, a well-educated pharmacist who lives and works in the community told me, “Yes, it continues. But it isn’t really the gangs who are behind it any more.” He explained that although the local youth gangs had developed the practice of extorting their neighbors for the so-called “war tax,” in recent years the extortion has been taken over by outsiders. Specifically, an organized criminal gang with ties to the military now oversees the extortion racket in Ciudad Quetzal, collecting the proceeds from the safety of Chimaltenango, about forty-five minutes away. To be sure, a former gang member is involved in the operation. In fact, this former leader of the local gang cell continues to collect the extortion fees. But, Diego informed me, it is an open secret that the former gang leader works for the shady Chimaltenango outfit. The local youth gangs have been effectively maneuvered out of an “enterprise” they themselves invented and established.

Of course I cannot confirm or otherwise “prove” the validity of my informant’s account, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of such a situation. In Guatemala and Honduras especially, there are numerous accounts of organized criminals carrying out major crimes in the guise of the gangs. In the case of extortion in particular I have heard multiple accounts of Guatemalans believing themselves to be extorted by gangs, only to find out later that those behind the extortion were not gang members at all, but members of local or regional units that extort under the guise of the gang. In one case in particular, a close friend told me how her entire family had had to leave their home abruptly and permanently after receiving multiple telephone calls from “la Mara Salvatrucha” asking for thousands of dollars in cash and providing intimate details about all family members and their daily routines. Not until more than a year later – after the family had pooled all of its resources to take out a mortgage on a small home in another part of the city – did the family learn from a very reliable source that the individuals who had tried to extort them were actually neighbors living just a few doors down the same street. Specifically, a mother and her adult son who possessed ties to organized crime had married into a local family that owned a neighborhood tienda (store). The newcomers had used their position at the store as well as their participation in a local prayer group in order to gain intimate details about the residents of that neighborhood. Their extortion calls always led with “Somos la maratrucha” when in fact, they had no connection at all to the gangs. Eventually, my friend told me, the newcomers had encountered problems with enemies from outside the community and had left the community for good – that is when my friend learned about the source of the extortion.

The point here is not that gangs are unfairly maligned, nor am I suggesting that gangs do not continue to engage in extortion. They do. But even when they are involved directly, they rarely if ever act without the help of outsiders whose social position can provide protection from arrest and prosecution. Thus, addressing gang violence effectively requires a lot more than hiring more police or making more arrests of gang members. These strategies will make little if any impact on gang violence. Instead, the legal system will need to invest considerable energy and resources into ferreting out connections between gang members and their local sponsor-protectors, and building cases that put an end to the cooperation that feeds and protects local extortion rackets, gang-led or otherwise. A well-funded and capable Ministerio Publico is absolutely essential to this task.

Guatemala’s Ministerio Public is far from perfect. But it would be difficult to imagine a more impressive track record than that amassed under the leadership of Attorney General Paz y Paz. In a country that has long struggled to carry criminal cases – including the most serious – to conviction, Paz y Paz and her team have managed to increase the conviction numbers from 2,884 in 2008 to 6,188 in 2013 (Paz y Paz took the helm in 2010). Some of her team’s most impressive accomplishments include arresting hitherto “untouchable” drug traffickers such as Horst Walther Overdick (los Zetas) and Juan Alberto López Ortíz (Cartel Sinaloa). Paz y Paz has also gained international acclaim for taking femicide – a serious problem in Guatemala – seriously by creating a join task force for crimes against women and by introducing a single office where abused women can get access to a prosecutor, a forensic specialist, a social worker and a psychologist all in one place. Perhaps the most widely discussed case though, was the trial of former president and military general Efraín Ríos Montt and one of his former associates, for “acts of genocide.” The case, which ended with a conviction of Ríos Montt but not his chief of intelligence, won widespread acclaim from human rights organizations and furious protest from Guatemala’s elite business sector (many of whom had supported the dirty war of Ríos Montt). Several days later, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the case on the basis of a procedural technicality.

Personally, I do not believe that the Ríos Montt case is the crown jewel of the Paz y Paz MP administration. It was impressive indeed, and even historic, that a former head of state would be compelled to stand trial within his own country for atrocious crimes, including massacres of whole villages, that took place under his watch and likely with his assent. But there were some weaknesses in the trial and in the design of the case brought by the Public Ministry in its prosecution that, I think, could have been avoided.

And yet, if a robust, evidence-based approach to solving major crimes is essential to developing public trust in the justice system, one can only lament the early dismissal of Paz y Paz and the refusal by the Postulation Commission to reappoint her on the basis of her acclaimed record as a litigator and an administrator. Indeed, according to Stephen Dudley, in his recently-released report Guatemala: The War of Paz y Paz the Attorney General has succeeded largely by creating systems within the Public Ministry that collaborate on the collection and organization of forensic evidence and by strengthening and resourcing these groups so that they can do their jobs effectively. “The emphasis on analysis says a lot about the way Paz y Paz approaches battling criminal groups,” Dudley writes. “To her, individual cases matter, of course, but fighting crime is about seeing patterns and being able to draw the larger picture.”

It is at least possible that a new Attorney General could carry forward some of the momentum achieved by Paz y Paz and her team – including a homicide rate that has been declining since 2009. But it is just as likely that the jockeying and leveraging that has gone into influencing the outcome of the selection committee will ultimately taint the outcome. Here’s hoping for the former outcome.