blog

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

-OpEd-

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.
[rebelmouse-image 27089056 alt="""" original_size="372x240" expand=1]
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.
Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
Society

Why An Iconic Pharmacy Is Turning Into A Sex Toy Museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg thanks to its industrious owner. Now, her daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop.

Anna Genger, founder of L'Apotheque poses on the pharmacy counter

Eva Eusterhus

The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner, who is sitting next to her at the table. Genger and Müllner are surrounded by heavy wooden drawers and antique glass vessels labelled with the Latin names of their contents, as is often found in old pharmacies.

Keep reading... Show less
Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ