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.
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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.