San Salvador And Its Gangs, A Cautionary Tale For Colombia

Gangs extort at leisure in the El Salvadoran capital, making a mockery of police and the state. Could this again happen in Colombian cities like Medellín?

Gang memebers in a San Salvador jail
Gang memebers in a San Salvador jail
Pascual Gaviria


We have a habit in Colombia of talking about all the things we can learn from cities that are better organized, or more innovative and civic-minded than our own. But there are also lessons to be gleaned by looking at cities — some not so far from here — that are on the opposite end of the spectrum, where lawlessness prevails and the state is seemingly powerless to stop it.

That is precisely the situation in San Salvador, El Salvador, where maras, as local street gangs are known, have taken effective control of the city's historical center. The Salvadoran news site El Faro published a recent exposé on the crime-ridden country's crime-ridden capital. There, gangs have formed their own kind of city government headed by "junior mayors," shady characters who sit outside shops and give instructions to "minor officials," in this case a posse of gangsters wearing baseball caps and Nike sneakers.

In its report, titled "The Punks that Govern the Center," El Faro explains how in less than five years the gangs have taken economic, social and policing control of the downtown area. The streets of this urban labyrinth are identified not by their names, but by the tattoos and markings that indicate who can walk here at night and charge extortion money. Bosses, codes and prices change from one block to another.
The takeover started in 2007 when the gangs began taking money from taxi drivers and street vendors. Downtown vendors had long ago established a network of associations that negotiated deals with the government and organized their own security. As the maras moved in, they infiltrated and co-opted that network. It was a natural fit given that the gang members "are the sons, brothers, fathers, cousins and in-laws of the vendors," the article notes. "They grew up there."
The city's formal government has been forced, as a result, to take marching orders from the Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, the two dominant street gangs. It has had to suspend trash collection at night, for example, because of the curfews imposed by gangs. The outgoing mayor, a former conservative presidential candidate named Norman Quijano González, says he's had to cancel events after receiving threats.
Salvadoran Special Forces. Photo: Blatant World
We are not talking here about some secretive organization, crouching in fear of the police. The gangsters work in broad daylight, and sit at the same spot every day, like office clerks. When the author of the El Faro report asked one shopkeeper if he knew who was in charge of his area and if he could point them out to the police, the shop owner despondently replied "of course, but I won't."
The gangs have convinced society and the government that they are invulnerable. Another shopkeeper who had to close his business because of extortion said he considered killing one of the "punks" but figured he'd end up being the one sent to prison. "A whole bunch of people would report me. But nobody will say anything against the gang member even though they can all see him."
The gangs began with the weakest elements, street vendors, before taking over the associations and eventually seizing control of formal shops and businesses. Persistence is one of their great virtues. Dead or injured gang members are immediately replaced without any organizational interruption.
Similar things are happening in parts of the city center in Medellín. A few years back a protest by informal vendors backed the local government into a corner, exposing how weak the state is vis-à-vis organizations of this kind. There's also evidence of government corruption, of city officials organizing their own extortion activities.
When it comes to city governance, there's nothing wrong with thinking ahead and looking for examples to emulate. But authorities would also do well to look at what's taking place right here and now — before it's too late. Let the example of San Salvador be a warning to all of us.
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!