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El Salvador

Gang Violence Surges In El Salvador

Once considered a social phenomenon of shared sense of identity for poor youth, gangs in El Salvador have grown increasingly deadly, as the country counts the world’s highest murder rate. Latin America's exploding drug trafficking routes threaten

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang being arrested
A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang being arrested
Paulo A. Paranagua

ILOPANGO - Ana, a 17-year-old El Salvadorian, is one of nine children. "My sister and I decided to rebel against the family, to do bad things," she confides. "In this crazy world where everyone is killing each other, we don't realize how wrong the things we do are." A member of the Mara Salvatrucha, a gang of ultraviolent youth, she was sentenced to three years of prison for extortion.

Beatriz, 19, was a member of the main rival band, the Mara 18 (also known as the 18th Street Gang). ""People have the wrong idea about the maras," she says. "They think they rape girls. But I'm respected. I used to have a ‘formal" boyfriend, then I got together with a ‘marero." I preferred my friends to my family, whom I refused to love."

Sentenced to six years in prison for extortion, Beatriz underwent therapy, then she went to a workshop where she learned cosmetics. She stopped using the slang of the maras and now dreams of pursuing her studies while working at the same time, as soon as she is released from prison. She is a member of the Friends of Israel Tabernacle Baptist Church.

Ana and Beatriz (their names have been changed to protect their identity) are serving their sentences at the Center for Social Reintegration for Women, the country's only detention center for girls, located in IIopango, a 30-minute drive from the capital San Salvador.

Among the 50 or so young women aged between 15 and 22, at least one has been sentenced to 15 years for homicide: the violence of the maras is not an urban legend.

As for the young male members of the maras, prisons are crowded with them. There are 24,000 inmates, even though the prison system has the capacity to hold a third of that number. The prison wardens make sure to keep the rival gangs separated.

Thelongstanding feud between the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18 has grown far more vicious as drug trafficking increased. "Overpopulated and uncontrollable prisons have become the centers for organized crime," says El Salvador's Minister of Defense General David Murguia.

Drug money and extortions mean that guards can be bribed. The army has thus taken over the prisons. "We search everyone, and we trust no one," explains the General.

In the turbulent neighborhoods of San Salvador, soldiers often patrol by themselves. This deployment has been criticized by Benjamin Cuellar, the director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America. "The permanent use of the army for public missions is contrary to the constitution," he claims.

Twenty years ago, the army was at war with leftist guerilla groups (leaving 75,000 either dead or unaccounted for). Now, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former guerilla group, is the ruling government party since 2009. The call for military control however does not shock Sigfrido Reyes, the first elected official of the FMLN to preside over the Legislative Assembly. "The police, prosecutors, and judges have shown their ineffectiveness against crime and corruption," he says.

"Our officers and soldiers were specially trained before taking on their new mission," says General Murguia, who also brings up the threats at the country's borders. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala form the "northern triangle" of Central America, deeply affected by the explosion in violence. The fight against drug traffickers in Colombia and Mexico has diverted a significant amount of organized crime activity toward the more fragile Central American countries. "El Salvador is a secondary route for drugs making their way to the United States," says the General. "Colombian cocaine passes more often through Nicaragua and Honduras."

Neverthelesss, El Salvador suffers the highest rate of homicides in the world (70 per 100,000 inhabitants). More than 80% of offenses are committed with a firearm, remnants of the civil war (1980-1992). "Organized crime is transnational, the response must be local," says Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez.

In the name of shared responsibility between producers and consumers of drugs and of countries of transit, Central America is asking for assistance from the United States and the European Union.

For example, the El Salvadorians do not archive digital fingerprints. A central wiretapping system was created with American help. However, "cartels and gangs have more resources than the Central American governments," says General Murguia.

The connection between the maras and the traffickers transforms criminal activity. "The maras are no longer a phenomenon of identity for the youth," says Aida Luz Santos de Escobar, president of the National Council of Public Security. "These gangs have become fertile ground for organized crime." But with the drug trade creeping toward its borders, many believe the worst is yet to come.

Read the original article in French

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