Salvadoran Gangs: Brutal Legacies and a Desperate Hope

November 5, 2009

Newly elected Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes inherited a country that is not only facing the worst economic crisis in its history, but also astronomical levels of violent crime. With overall homicide rates for 2009 up 35% over 2008, Funes knows the security- question can easily become the FMLN’s Achilles’ heel as he tries to introduce prevention and rehabilitation policies aimed at reducing youth involvement in street gangs. This follows years of repressive mano dura (iron fist) policies implemented by ARENA governments. Instead of focusing on the social origins of gang involvement and pursuing community-based harm reduction, mano dura painted gangs as the country’s greatest threat and criminalized anyone with tattoos—spilling over into a more general suspicion and stigma against youth in a country where 40% of the population is younger than 18, according to the 2007 census.

By 2009 these policies had created a sense of social breakdown and insecurity far worse than those that they were designed to address in 2004. Under the oversight of successive ARENA governments, prisons built to hold 20,000 prisoners swelled with more than 70,000. So many of the incarcerated belonged to street gangs that soon the Mara Salvatrucha and Eighteenth Street gangs each had several prisons exclusively populated by their respective gangs and essentially under their control. This did not weaken the influence of gangs or reduce criminality on the streets; it drove gangs to new forms of organization and to policies forbidding new members to tattoo themselves. And without any programs of rehabilitation for reentry into society, it has left El Salvador and Funes with a ticking time bomb.

During the summer, I visited communities affected by gang violence, as well as gang members, whom I came to know in the mid-1990s, when gangs were just beginning to emerge in El Salvador. In the communities, I found people deeply traumatized by the crime and extortion perpetrated by gangs. There was also a desperate hope that Funes can finally turn the tide and bring back the social cohesion so many communities have lost. There are some encouraging signs: The Funes government can point to the very modest improvement of lowering the daily homicide rate from 12, as it was during last days of the outgoing Saca government, to 10 as of September.

Among gang members, I found a sense of mistrust toward the new government. One Mara Salvatrucha gang member I interviewed in prison told me: “We have seen a few positive signs, but we won’t be fooled again. . . . We know it is our last hope, so if [reconciliation] happens, it will take time. I hate to think about what would come next [if it doesn’t].” It seems clear that without some kind of accord between gangs and the government, violence will continue to plague El Salvador.

A mother and her children in Barrio FendeSal (above). In the gang-dominated barrios like this one, which cluster along the defunct train line running from San Salvador to Soyapango, most people voted for Mauricio Funes. They hope that his government will restore community trust, as well as alleviate poverty and reduce crime.

The FMLN government is bringing back police foot patrols, suspended under ARENA, in the barrios most affected by crime. The officers pictured above take a break in a small park during their first patrol in a section of Mejicanos. Some members of the local community were happy to see them, but few ventured forth to talk to them.

A father visits the grave of his 19-year-old son, who was murdered on October 3, 2008, by four teenage gang members. The community in Mejicanos, a small town near San Salvador, has known who the perpetrators are but said nothing out of fear. A year later, all of the youths involved in the murder are also dead.

Borromeo Henríquez (center) and other gang members from the Mara Salvatrucha gang—incarcerated at a maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca—see the Funes government as their last hope that El Salvador might change, but remain wary of politicians. “We tried to talk to the ARENA government,” Henríquez said. “We want a better life for our kids when we get out, and so we went sincerely and we trusted them. We went as [humble] people but we didn’t realize until it was too late that we were meeting with political big shots [personajes, more concerned about their image and maintaining that image than a sincere interchange].”

The Passionist Social Services center run by Father Antonio Rodríguez uses an integrated approach to violence reduction that includes a health clinic with options for tattoo removal, community youth education, and recreational and cultural activities. At this youth leadership training in Mejicanos on gender issues (above), a group of young women write down their ideas on how to stop domestic and gender-based violence.

Donna DeCesare is an award-winning documentary photographer and an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas Austin. She serves as a consultant on Latin America and media for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.