El Salvador is known for being one of the most dangerous countries in the world with one of the highest homicide rates. Most of the violence in El Salvador comes from the presence of gangs and the harsh retaliation from law enforcement. Below are 10 facts about gangs in El Salvador and potential solutions to tackle the issue.
Top 10 Facts About Gangs in El Salvador
- There are two main rival gangs in El Salvador: MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and 18th Street (Barrio 18). They have claimed unofficial territories in several regions in El Salvador and have been known to engage in several criminal activities including murder, rape and extortion. In 2017, there were a total of 3,954 homicides, 1,850 reported cases of rape and 1,414 reported cases of extortion, all linked to the gangs.
- As of 2018, El Salvador ranked 5 among countries with the highest homicide rates in the world. An estimated 60 percent of homicides are related to gang activity, and many are committed against women in addition to sexual and physical abuse. One woman dies every 24 hours solely based on their gender.
- An estimated 60,000 gang members are living in El Salvador, which is about 1 percent of the population. Gang members live among civilians and often attend the same schools, making other students more susceptible to gang threats. As high as 60 percent of schools in El Salvadoran are affected by Gang threats, which have led thousands of students to drop out. In 2015, approximately 39,000 students dropped out.
- Extortion is one of the most common crimes committed by gang members. The gangs in El Salvador obtain revenue by extorting it from civilians and local businesses. Gang members will often go as far as to execute individuals or their friends and family when their payment is overdue or insufficient. In 2015, one in every four Salvadorans has reported that they have been a victim of extortion. At least 80 percent of small businesses in El Salvador have claimed that they pay extortion fees to the gangs, forcing some to close or go bankrupt.
- Gangs often recruit unemployed or out-of-school youth. About one in four young men ranging from ages 15 to 29 aren’t employed or in school, making them more vulnerable to gang involvement. Most members claim to have joined a gang at 15 years old. These boys are frequently pressured into joining gangs either through the promise of security or the promise of social acclaim and power.
- The government has been brutally cracking down on gangs. In 2003, the government launched La Mano Dura, also known as Iron Fist, which is a government intervention policy that allows for the extrajudicial killings and mass incarceration of suspected gang members by law enforcement. This policy temporarily decreased crime rates by 14 percent in 2004 shortly after it was launched; however, rates spiked up in the years following until a recent drop in 2015.
- Many El Salvadorans seek the help of “coyotes” to take them to the U.S. border. “Coyotes” are essentially migrant smugglers who help people who are in danger and transport them north to the U.S. border to pursue safety and escape from gang violence. In 2018, 235,708 people migrated from El Salvador in hopes of escaping violence and conflict, and most migrated to the U.S. Early into 2019, the migration rates are still on the rise.
- There have been efforts towards a gang truce in the past. In 2012, MS-13 and Barrio 18 negotiated on a truce that resulted in a 53 percent decrease in homicide rates in the first 15 months. However, the truce did not persist under the 2014 administration because of the lack of government involvement in negotiations, and the homicide rates began to rise again. Nevertheless, this data exhibits that a gang truce is a viable solution towards reducing violence.
- Gang-related homicides have been on a decline since 2015. This is in part due to USAID projects including the Education for Children and Youth at Risk project, which prevents the Salvadoran youth from getting involved in gangs. The project has provided access to quality education for more than 370,000 middle school students in 750 schools and has provided support to 23,000 youth who are out of school so that they can return to classes. This project implements longer school days, interactive teaching methods, extracurricular activities and tutoring.
- There are local efforts to reduce gang violence in El Salvador. Creative is a nonprofit organization that employs young people who are at risk of getting involved with gangs. Creative has provided “more than 3,000 youth in 10 municipalities” with economic opportunities by partnering with businesses such as Microsoft to train them and provide them entry into the workforce. Creative also builds community-oriented infrastructure and offers counseling programs for teens.
These 10 facts about gangs in El Salvador demonstrate that violence has long been a major, cataclysmic issue. However, through local efforts to prevent youth involvement in gangs and rigid opposition against cutting foreign aid to Central America, El Salvador may see slow but steady improvements towards rebuilding their economy and reducing conflict.
– Louise Macaraniag