The US Government’s Complicated Relationship with MS-13

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Members of the [US Funded] Jaguars waiting to deploy on an operation in San Vicente. Credit: Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

By now, most educated US citizens are aware of the fact that the MS-13 got its start not in Central America, but in Los Angeles, among an earlier wave of Salvadoran immigrants fleeing violence. Then as well as now, the US was intimately involved in El Salvador’s violence — trying hard and spending a lot in order to “help” but not always succeeding (to put it charitably). Indeed, on the day I arrived to San Salvador to start interviewing former gang members, the US announced that it was opening an FBI office in San Salvador to investigate the MS-13. That was in 2007! Yesterday’s article in the New York Times titled A Conflicted War: MS-13, Trump and America’s Stake in El Salvador’s Security, offers a helpful look into what the State Department has been doing recently. In a nutshell, we are training Salvadorans to play “good cop, bad cop” both literally and figuratively. We are, on the one hand, promoting “community policing” and on the other, preparing “elite” crime-fighting units charged with investigating high-level crimes and suspects. For a variety of reasons, as I have argued elsewhere, our well-funded efforts in El Salvador have had mixed results at best. In Guatemala, US expenditures on behalf of justice have  been aimed more at improving the accountability and functional capacity of the courts than at training police (although there have been some efforts here as well). And there are indications that this strategy has yielded better results. There are many signs, starting with Guatemala’s significant, continuing reduction in the homicide rate, especially in the capital city, that Guatemala has been able to do far more to provide public safety than El Salvador even though it has fewer police per capita and a lower incarceration rate. Recent setbacks under President Jimmy Morales are worrisome, but we should beware of the tendency to think that if a country has a public security problem, the answer is always more police and better crime labs.

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