Marvin Recinos / AFP / Getty Images
Marvin Recinos / AFP / Getty Images

Victims and perpetrators: Gangs of El Salvador

Activists say US should reconsider ban on funding to programs that work with gang members

When Aracely (her last name is withheld because she is living in hiding) was 7 years old, she ran away from home. Abandoned by her parents as a baby, she was raised by her grandmother in a one-room sheet-metal structure in rural San Miguel, El Salvador. Her uncle, who lived with them, physically abused her for years. It was her older brother Carlos who took her off the streets. "He coddled me. I was his little girl," she says.

But her brother was a foot soldier for one of the largest Salvadoran gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha, or the MS13, and when she was 8, boys from the rival 18th Street gang-raped Aracely. Soon after that, Carlos was killed by 18th Street members.

"I felt like they had taken the only thing I ever had from me,” she says. “That’s when I started trying to join the gang. And I tried until they let me.” She joined at the age of 12. At 16, she was arrested for homicide and extortion.

Aracely is frank about having killed six children from the 18th Street gang while she was in the MS13. Like most gang members, she also had to collect extortion fees from small businesses in her neighborhood. If people couldn’t pay, the punishment was often death.

Once in prison, however, Aracely participated in a creative writing program that she says changed her life. Now 21, she is free and looking for a different future. 

‘They told us we couldn’t work with anyone who had been in jail or was gang-identified. When we heard that, my colleague and I looked at each other and said, who are we going to work with, then?’

Margarita Perla

violence prevention expert

But an estimated 60,000 Salvadorans are involved with violent gangs. Most of them are younger than 20, according to Raul Mijango, who works in violence prevention in the country. He was one of two brokers of the 2012 government-supported truce, between leaders of the MS13 and 18th Street, which began a peace dialogue; within a week, the homicide rate fell by half. But the truce disintegrated in early 2014 because neither the gangs nor the government maintained their commitments.

The influence of the gangs is so pervasive, Mijango says, that “kids have two choices — join or flee.”

Their destination is, increasingly, the United States, where nearly half of them are caught and ordered deported. Last year alone, 31,491 undocumented unaccompanied minors crossed into the U.S. In the first half of 2014, that number has already doubled to nearly 63,000.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) invests millions of dollars annually in violence prevention in Central America — at least $11 million in 2012, $16 million in 2011 and $89 million in 2010, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. But according to USAID officials, this money may not be used to fund programs that work with active gang members, like the one that helped Aracely. This means, experts say, that U.S. investment in violence prevention in El Salvador isn’t as effective as it could be. “Any approach that does not directly address gang intervention and reinsertion as well as rehabilitation and post-prison support will ultimately fail to achieve results for society as a whole,” says Jeanne Rikkers, a violence prevention expert in El Salvador.  

In 2011, Margarita Perla was working at a violence prevention organization in Mejicanos, El Salvador, when her organization received a USAID grant to carry out an alternative sentencing pilot project for youth in trouble with the law. But Perla was shocked by the conditions of the grant. “They told us we couldn’t work with anyone who had been in jail or was gang-identified,” she says. “When we heard that, my colleague and I looked at each other and said, who are we going to work with, then?”

The judges who were supposed to send youth defendants to Perla’s organization as part of the project told her the conditions would be hard to meet. The program never went beyond the pilot stage.

A former member of the 18th Street gang on his way to the church in El Salvador in 2011.
Jan Sochor / Latincontent / Getty Images

“We do not work with gang members,” and that’s USAID policy, says Enrique Roig, coordinator for the Central America Regional Security Initiative at USAID. He explained that part of the reason the policy would be hard to change is that in 2012 the U.S. Department of the Treasury classified MS13 as a transnational criminal organization, “which certainly places limitations on what USAID can do with MS.”

Staff of USAID-funded programs around the country have repeatedly received the same message as Perla: If they want the money, they can’t work with gang members. Juan Jose Pulio, who runs a USAID-funded violence prevention program in the municipality of San Martin, says they must look to European governments to support programs that include community members who are in gangs.

Gangs are deeply embedded in the social fabric of the country. “We’re not talking about a foreign militia or an insurgency,” says Noah Bullock, executive director of Foundation Cristosal, a Salvadoran human rights organization. “We’re talking about members of the families in the communities where they operate. This is a social conflict, not a military one.”

Like Aracely, many young people join gangs because they have few opportunities for recreation and jobs. “There is no youth-serving system in this country that’s functioning,” says Rick Jones, deputy regional director of the international nonprofit Catholic Relief Services.  

‘If you’re a young person between 15 and 25 years old, you’re likely to be both a victim and a perpetrator in this country.’

Rick Jones

deputy regional director, Catholic Relief Services

Only 25 percent of youth 15 to 29 years are able to attend high school, and nearly half of Salvadorans in the same age group don’t have a job.

“Young people in poor communities look around at their parents and neighbors, and they’re having to accept at the age of 10 that the rest of their lives will be spent only trying to keep their head above water,” says Rikkers. “But gangs look like a chance at a different future.”

Jones agrees. "If you’re a young person between 15 and 25 years old,” he says, “you’re likely to be both a victim and a perpetrator in this country.”

Repression at the hands of the authorities adds to the problem. “In the communities where we work, police and soldiers regularly beat kids who they suspect of being involved in gangs,” Rikkers says. “We’re talking knocked down, tried to drown, shot a kid in the leg, cut a kid’s hair with a broken bottle, giving a kid 10 seconds to run around the corner before shooting at him, holding a gun to a mother’s mouth when she protests.”

These kinds of repressive tactics are nothing new in El Salvador. In 2003, Salvadoran President Francisco Flores inaugurated Plan Iron Fist, which allowed authorities to imprison anyone who looked like a gang member, consequently doubling the prison population within four years. His successors, Antonio Saca and Mauricio Funes, pursued similar policies.

“The attitude of being unwilling to work with those who are connected to gang structures is the reigning approach from the past 20 years,” says Mijango. “And there are no tangible results.” In fact, he adds, this approach has created more gang members.

Inmates pray at the national female prison in San Salvador, El Salvador, in 2012. Starting in 2003, Plan Iron Fist allowed authorities to imprison anyone who looked like a gang member, doubling the prison population within four years.
Jose Cabezas / AFP / Getty Images

USAID’s current focus is prevention. “We’re trying to keep those kids in hot spot communities from getting involved with gangs,” said Roig. But in order to be included in USAID programs, youth must have “made a conscious decision that they want to leave the gang and are looking for an alternative lifestyle.” 

Luis Monterosa is a member of the Central American Violence Prevention Coalition, a cohort of groups  in the region working to address the crisis. He believes U.S. government pressure contributed to both the adoption of Iron Fist policies and the failure of the truce. “There were problems with the truce, definitely,” he says. “But if the processes that it set into motion would’ve continued, people would feel safer and fewer children would flee. We’ve learned from the past that repression doesn’t work, but I worry that we’re forgetting those lessons.”

Once she got out of jail in February, Aracely was “supposed to go to San Miguel and check in with the clique boss” but decided not to go. Leaving the gang meant she had to move across the country, cut her ties with family and friends and adopt a new identity. She is now taking English classes, is in therapy and is looking for a job. She spends afternoons at a library, where she’s trying to read Don Quixote de la Mancha. She has a partner and just found out that she’s pregnant. Two weeks ago, after years of collecting extortion payments, she was robbed for the first time — an experience she found terrifying.

“I know now that I deserve a better life than the one I’ve had from the time I was little,” she says. “I deserve a family. I deserve a job, a quality education. And I’m getting all of that, little by little. I believe that if people really want to change, they can.”

USAID’s programs could be more effective if they recognized the context of gang violence, Monterosa says. “It’s curious that U.S. proposals don’t represent the diversity of answers the country has to offer. For example, why not a restorative justice program?” (Restorative justice requires offenders to right the wrong they caused and repair their relationship with their communities instead of punishing offenders by isolating them.)

“A fundamental truth one must accept in this country is that peace is impossible if you don’t talk with the gangs,” says Monterosa.

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Gangs, Refugees

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