“Ralph Northam: Weak on MS-13”

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Last week, during a quick trip to the DC area, I decided to turn on the radio in my rental car as I drove away from Dulles Airport. I like to do this when I’m traveling in order to get a feel for what’s happening outside my “Vermont bubble.” Sure enough, life — political life in particular —  is a little different outside the Green Mountains. One of the most surprising moments came when a political ad for the governor’s race came over the airwaves denouncing none other than the MS-13 youth whom I’ve studied across Northern Central America. In many ways it was a familiar piece of campaign rhetoric — familiar in Central America anyway. After all, the topic of transanational gangs and the threat they pose to “good people like you and me” have been an extremely valuable political tool in Central American political campaigns since the early 2000s. Never mind that the administrations, like El Salvador’s Tony Saca, and their policies of mano dura and super mano dura (iron fist and super iron fist) have proven to be enormously ineffective and even counter-productive in reducing gang violence. The important thing for political races is that the rhetoric itself resonates with a wide swath of the population who feel as if the heavy-handed language of “zero tolerance” gets it right morally (settling the score of morality and fairness) even if it doesn’t improve the situation on the ground. In a piece I wrote with Adriana Garcia for the Oxford Handbook of Criminology and Criminal Justice, we note that El Salvador’s mano dura policies of massive arrests of gang members and longer sentences for gang-related crimes coincided with a rapid rise in gang membership and homicides. The graph below makes this clear. Keep in mind that mano dura was introduced in 2004 and super mano dura in 2006.

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And yet, here we are, listening to American politicians trying to use the same tactics of anti-gang rhetoric in order to get themselves elected. Here is a comment from the Washington Post article on the television ads that Republican candidate for Virginia governor Ed Gillespie has been running.

The 30-second spot intersperses photos of Northam with the tattooed faces of men who, as it turns out, were photographed in a prison in El Salvador and were not MS-13 members but part of a rival gang, Barrio 18 – which ThinkProgress first reported and Spanish photographer Pau Coll later confirmed to The Washington Post.

In other words, it doesn’t matter apparently that the men in the photographs are neither MS-13 members, nor immigrants, nor in the US. The important thing is what they represent to listeners — outsiders who threaten “the rest of us.” And of course, it’s ludicrous to imply that the MS-13 pose a real threat to the typical Virginia resident. Although MS-13 members do practice violence (a lot more in Central America than in the US) I almost laughed out loud when I heard the radio ad announce that Ed Gillespie would protect the fine folks of Virginia from “criminals like the MS-13” — as if the gang were wreaking havoc on Virginia. The vast majority of Virginia voters who are planning to vote for Gillespie, according to a recent Upshot/Siena Poll, are whites without a college degree — in other words, rural whites, who have nothing at all to fear from the MS-13. 

All of this goes to show once again just how valuable the gangs are to politicians in need of an emotion-laden issue that will bring voters to the polls. As it turns out, political discourse in the US and in Central America are not so different after all. . .

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Leaving the Gang: Is It Still Possible?

El Salvador Pandillero Pastor Evangelico

This photo, originally published in D’Aubuisson’s Factum article called “Divine Intervention,” portrays a young female ex-gang member, “Ms. Z”, preaching a fiery sermon against the gang to which she formerly belonged.

Over the last few years, I have tried to ease back on the claims made in my book about leaving the gang by way of the (Evangelical/Pentecostal) church. It’s not that I don’t believe my own research. Rather, given that some of my first interviews with ex-gang members and gang experts are now almost ten years old, I have been less eager to make claims about what the Central American gangs allow. After all, a key characteristic of street gangs is their tendency to adapt to their social surroundings and therefore, gangs, including the Central American gangs, are constantly evolving along with their society. Also, I had been told by several gang researchers that gang leaders, especially those in El Salvador, “no longer let anyone leave.”

I have always been a little bit skittish about the sweeping statements regarding gang policies, especially when those statements make reference to hard-line, supposedly “universal” policies or practices. My research taught me that Central American gangs tend to vary somewhat from one “clica” to the next, even though they do share strong tendencies across the major affiliation groups (MS-13, M-18 “Revolucionarios” and M-18 “Sureños” are the big three in ES). But I had been out of the field long enough that I had started to wonder if my findings regarding religious pathways out of the gang no longer applied in Central America.

Newly published research suggests that my findings — especially the conclusion that many gang leaders allow a “pass” for religious converts if they can show evidence of a changed lifestyle — continue to hold true, including in El Salvador, where gang growth and institutionalization has been the strongest. Two pieces of research that support this conclusion are an extensive report published just this month by Jose Miguel Cruz of Florida International University, and a feature republished in February by Insight Crime. Cruz, who has been studying the Central American gangs consistently longer than any other scholar alive, conducted a large-scale (N=1196) survey of mostly gang members and sympathizers, and came to the conclusion that, not only is it still possible to leave the gang permanently in many clicas, but additionally, “Religious experience plays a key role in the pathway desistance from the gang” (6). He points out that the vast majority of those surveyed reported that the churches are the most capable facilitators of gang rehabilitation (followed by NGO’s).

Meanwhile, Salvadoran sociologist Juan Martinez D’Aubuisson argues, in a very interesting piece called “Divine Intervention” that “Hundreds of gang members are abandoning and outright rejecting their gangs, opting instead for the teachings of evangelical churches.” He also states that some of the ex-gang members, many of whom join churches inside the prison, preach a fiery rejection of the gang.

I am not posting this as “vindication” of my research, conducted in 2007 and 2008. It is, of course, possible, that at some point the gang leaders will end the frequently-held policy of “respecting” religious conversions so long as the convert shows evidence of a changed life. Nor am I stating that the religious pathway out of the gang is the “answer” or “solution” to the problem of gang violence. As my book makes clear, a much more effective, far-reaching approach to reducing gang violence would be to reduce the economic inequalities that fuel alienation among youth, and to expand opportunity and inclusion in marginal barrios through significantly enhanced spending on public schools, parks, and youth recreational opportunities. For the time being, however, local initiatives, both religious and non-religious, can continue to play a key role in providing “off-ramps” from the violent, vida loca lifestyle for a significant minority of gang members who have grown weary of the gang and it’s demands.

El Salvador’s Changing Landscape

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Violence and gang control has spread from San Salvador to almost every province of the country. That was the takeaway from a presentation by Alexander Segovia, director of INCIDE, a Salvadoran think tank created by the director after his tenure working as technical secretary for the Funes administration. Segovia’s talk was based on a recent report put out by INCIDE titled Nuevo Patrón de Violencia. Granted, it´s a fairly easy argument to make when looking at the homicide data. I was more interested in his comment regarding

Three ways communities are responding to the gang violence:

  1. Some communities are responding by “hunkering down” or migrating. In these communities there appears to be insufficient social capital to provide the courage or capacity to resist gang control.
  2. Other communities are organizing to protect their youth from the temptation to join. (I wasn’t clear on all of the details here of how this is done but Segovia was not necessarily speaking about law enforcement here. This kind of organizing includes looking for ways to provide alternative options to youth including local jobs.)
  3. Another set of communities are organizing to arm themselves and fight. This option is most common in communities where the war was the “hottest” and there is a memory of how to organize and arm the citizenry. Among other means of “resisting” gangs, some communities are using social cleansing — the extrajudicial killing of gang members.

Finally, Segovia commented that a relatively new or newly-intensified aspect of Salvadoran society is the pattern of migration — both within Salvador and within Central America, especially to Nicaragua, and especially among youth. When he said this, I immediately thought of one of the young security guards I recently interviewed here in Guatemala. After graduating from high school in El Salvador, he migrated to Guatemala due to the increasing gang activity in his urban neighborhood. “It wasn’t safe enough anymore” he told me. Later I met his cousin, a young woman who had herself just finished her studies and had come to stay with her aunt and uncle in Guatemala, just like her cousin had done a few years earlier. This migration strikes me as a terrible waste of human capital for El Salvador. We are not talking about people who have nothing to offer. We are talking about educated (relatively speaking for the region) young people with hopes and dreams, who are being forced to leave their homeland because of a security situation that has been dealt with in a totally haphazard and “top-down” approach for decades.

On that note, for anyone interested in understanding the actual impact of the Gang Tregua (truce) let me recommend a very interesting thesis I read last week. It’s called Enhancing Citizen Security on the Frontline of a Contested Playing Field by Margriet Zoethout and it provides a view from one of San Salvador’s “Violence-Free Municipalities” over a three-year period during and after the Truce.

One more very interesting point about El Salvador, this one made by Prof. Mauricio Gaborit, Social Psychologist at the Universidad Centroamericana Simeon Cañas. He has been interviewing deported Salvadoran migrants on the day the are forcibly returned to ES. He noted that “The vast majority of Salvadorans who migrate are not jobless or school-less. They have bad jobs or are in weak schools.” Given that the conference was addressing the matter of forced migration, it is interesting to think about the nature of an economy that provides “plenty” of jobs — but way too many of them are really bad ones. Similarly, there are public schools — but most are overcrowded, underfunded, and unsafe. In this context, gang violence and the increasing experiences of insecurity it brings to the community are often a kind of “last straw” as families try to weigh the costs and benefits to sticking it out.