El Salvador’s gang history dates back to the 1960s. At the time, numerous neighbourhood-based groups provided marginalised urban youths with the means to hang out, party, take drugs, and fight their rivals. These gangs constituted a nuisance for the affected residents but did not represent a public security threat. The situation drastically changed when the Central American civil wars ended and the United States stepped up its deportations of offending non-citizens, including members of Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and Calle Dieciocho (18th Street). Both gangs had been formed in Los Angeles’ immigrant barrios, a haven for Central American refugees some of whose children responded to difficult circumstances by joining existing gangs (such as the Dieciocho) or forming their own group (Mara Salvatrucha). Tired of the stresses of gang life, many deportees arrived in their country of origin hoping to make a fresh start. Faced with poor reinsertion opportunities, however, they continued with what they knew best. Their comparatively nice dress, money, and tales of gang exploits held a fascination that local adolescents found hard to resist. Soon the imported gangs absorbed their smaller counterparts and continued to grow, since widespread social exclusion made El Salvador fertile ground for gang proliferation. Over time gang members resorted to greater levels of violence and drug activity, but the country long lacked a full-fledged gang policy.
In 2003 – eight months before the 2004 presidential elections – President Francisco Flores of the conservative ARENA party launched Plan Mano Dura (“Strong Hand”), ostensibly to dismantle the gangs and curb the number of homicides, most of which had been attributed to these groups. Backed by considerable media publicity, the measure entailed not only area sweeps and joint police-military patrols, but was also accompanied by a temporary anti-gang law that permitted the arrest of suspected gang members on the basis of their physical appearance alone. Both the nature and the timing of the initiative suggested that it had been designed to improve the ruling party’s electoral position rather than to ensure effective gang control. Plan Mano Dura enjoyed huge support among a population that had become weary of permanent insecurity, but human rights defenders, judges, and opposition politicians criticised it for its abuses and neglect of prevention and rehabilitation. The measure helped ARENA win the elections, but the incoming administration of Antonio Saca responded to the earlier criticism by incorporating prevention and rehabilitation into his Plan Super Mano Dura. These alternative approaches, however, were a largely rhetorical concession since suppression remained the dominant strategy. Contrary to the official discourse of success, Mano Dura was spectacularly ineffective: the homicide rate escalated, and the gangs adapted to the climate of repression by toughening their entry requirements, adopting a more conventional look, and using heavier weaponry. More importantly, confinement in special prisons allowed gang members to strengthen group cohesion and structure. Moreover, the large-scale incarceration of gang members fuelled the need for more resources for both the inmates and their families and resulted in an upsurge in extortions, particularly in the transport sector.
By June 2009, when the government of ex-journalist Mauricio Funes and the FMLN (the former guerrilla army) came into power, the gang problem had become intractable. MS-13 and Dieciocho clicas (subgroups) sprawled hundreds of marginal urban communities, their members committed a variety of crimes – ranging from threats, robbery, injuries, auto theft, and the illegal carrying of firearms to drug sales, extortions, rapes, kidnappings, and homicides – and their violence had become increasingly diffuse and brutal. The Funes government announced a comprehensive crime policy comprising social prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation, victim support, and institutional and legal reforms. The strategy, however, is underfunded (state coffers had been plundered by previous administrations), and gangs are being tackled through the overall crime policy rather than a specific gang programme. The police – now under a new command – has stopped conducting mass raids in gang-affected zones and begun to strengthen its investigative capacity. These are promising steps, but events on the ground soon pushed policy in another direction. Public demands for a quick reduction of homicides and media coverage alleging government incompetence led President Funes in November 2009 to deploy the army. Military participation in public security tasks is no recent development. At present, however, the army has been given broader powers, permitting it to conduct patrols, perform searches, and arrest criminals caught red-handed as well as to maintain perimeter security at the prisons. In what appears to be a face-saving gesture, the Funes administration adopted a gang strategy that exhibits ominous parallels with the earlier Mano Dura policies. Meanwhile, prevention and rehabilitation have once again taken the backseat.
Sonja Wolf is a Researcher at the Instituto para la Seguridad y la Democracia in Mexico City, where she conducts research on security and migration issues in Mexico and Central America.
Image source: VCK xD