What does gang violence mean to you

Domestic conflicts

Jonatan Suarez Palomino

Jonatan Suarez Palomino completed his master's degree in "Peace Research and International Politics" at the University of Tübingen. During this time he gained a lot of practical experience with various actors in international development cooperation, including in Nepal and Kosovo. His main research interests are nation building processes, conflict studies and terrorism research.

28 years after the civil war in El Salvador, President Bukele appears to have managed to contain the rampant gang violence. But the situation remains fragile, because the structural causes of violence continue to have an effect. Poverty and a lack of prospects as well as the unresolved history of the conflict continue to threaten the country.

Agents of the National Civil Police from San Salvador during the "Secure House" operation against criminal gangs. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, Oscar Rivera)

Current conflict situation

Since his election in February 2019, Nayib Bukele has succeeded in becoming the most popular president in Latin America. The former mayor of San Salvador, who started with his own political movement "Nuevas Ideas", enjoys approval ratings of over 80%. In the parliamentary elections on February 28, 2021, the Nuevas Ideas party, founded by Bukele, immediately won a clear majority of the 84 seats with 56. Together with the Gana party (5 seats) it even has a two-thirds majority. In contrast, the two long dominant parties suffered severe defeats. The right ARENA only had 14 and the left FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) had four seats.

Bukele, the youngest president in the history of El Salvador when he took office at the age of 38, announced a fresh start. On closer inspection, however, the style of government is not new; it resembles the classic populist and authoritarian leadership style, paired with nepotism and clientelism. Many cabinet posts are held by relatives or friends. An uncle Bukeles is trade minister and a cousin is chairman of his party. Bukele maintains direct contact with the population - following his great example, Donald Trump - via Twitter and is therefore called "Trumpito" (little Trump). Just like Trump, he sells simple solutions to complex problems to the people and has a similarly quick-tempered and radical disposition.

The government's authoritarian orientation is particularly evident in its dealings with its adversaries. In April 2020, after the murder rate soared, Bukele ordered the police and the army to use firearms, and announced the instruction on Twitter, along with photos of detained gang members who were shackled, bare-chested and sitting close together in a prison courtyard were.

Through tweets, Bukele repeatedly blames youth gangs, so-called "maras", for the serious violence in the country. He has openly declared war on the estimated 70,000 Mara members in the country. Because crime and violence have continued to increase recently, the crackdown by the government has met with a great deal of approval from large sections of the population.

At the same time, attacks and human rights violations by the security forces are increasing (Human Rights Watch 2020: 185–190; Amnesty International 2020). Journalists and editorial offices in particular are increasingly coming into focus when they report critically about the government. The government has journalists filming who ask critical questions and posting the recordings uncensored on the Internet. The identity of the journalists is not protected, which is a considerable risk in a country with high crime, corruption and murder rates. Bukele also attacks journalists personally via Twitter, often combined with insults and threats from his followers. There are also hacker attacks and break-ins in editorial offices.

Causes and Background

With the end of the civil war (1980-1991) a positive development towards democratization began. But the advances were quickly crushed in the irreconcilable confrontation between the two leading parties. This is on the one hand the right-wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista de El Salvador (ARENA) and on the other hand the former guerrilla movement Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMNL). Both faced each other during the civil war in which the ARENA provided the military government. The rivalry means de facto the continuation of the old conflict with predominantly political means. The consequences are a polarized political system and an unprecedented level of populist propaganda from both sides.

In addition, the crimes in the civil war were never dealt with. In 1993 a general amnesty was even issued in parliament for those responsible and perpetrators of all war crimes before 1992. This happened five days before several investigative commissions, such as the "Comisión de la Verdad para El Salvador", wanted to publish the results. 13,569 cases were identified, including serious war crimes and human rights violations.

Other factors that aggravate the conflict are the lack of natural resources and the low competitiveness of Salvadoran companies in the global market. The situation was exacerbated in the 1990s by the neoliberal austerity policies of the ARENA governments. As a result, the traditional gap between the rich upper class and the vast majority of the population widened. The future prospects of the younger generation in particular deteriorated drastically.

The fragile stability is also threatened by gang crime. Violence and homicides not only endanger public order and security, they also deter foreign investors and slow down economic development. The strong socio-economic inequality, especially at the expense of young people, increases the incentives to join gangs.

The state's monopoly of violence has never been in danger since the end of the civil war, but the extreme violence and criminality of the gangs in isolated places led to the loss of state control. The safeguarding of basic civil and human rights could no longer be fully secured by the state due to the high crime rate.

Gang crime also has its origins in the civil war. About a million people fled the country at that time. They were stranded in the slums in the western United States. In order to protect themselves from local gangs, young people in particular joined existing groups or formed gangs themselves so as not to be helplessly exposed to violent attacks. The MS-13 in particular quickly became one of the most dangerous gang groups in California. Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13), which dominates El Salvador today, has its roots in Los Angeles and other cities in California.

Due to the rapidly increasing violence and crime rate, the USA tightened its migration legislation and deportation policy from 1996 onwards. Between 1998 and 2005 alone, 46,000 people were deported to Central America, including thousands of gang members with their structures, their know-how and their ideology. This explains why the maras, whose members are estimated to be tens of thousands, have now become a cross-border security problem across North and Central America.

Many Mara groups have contacts with Mexican drug organizations. Among other things, they operate smuggling routes with the Mexican "Los Zetas" and receive combat training in exchange. In general, maras act as middlemen who take care of the transport and protection of the goods. In addition, they appear more and more often as operators of their own establishments in the service and entertainment sector - among other things, to launder the money they earn.

Processing and solution approaches

President Bukele is trying to get the country's problems under control with a "hard hand" policy. Shortly after taking office, Bukele sent an additional 2,500 police officers and 3,000 soldiers onto the streets of the capital San Salvador and other cities. According to his "Plan Control Territorial", gang crime is to be contained in seven phases. Despite the disregard of elementary legal bases, government-compliant media and large sections of the population stylize him as a savior. Statistics also seem to agree with the president. According to the "Conflict Barometer 2019" of the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK), the murder rate in El Salvador has dropped to a low since 2013 of 2,383 cases compared to previous years. The number of clashes between security guards and gangs is also falling. This development prompted the government to continue the "hard hand" policy (HIIK 2020).

However, the repressive strategy does not lead to sustainable solutions. On the contrary, the increasingly brutal crackdown on the Mara groups, in which the police and the army were authorized to use "deadly force" "to protect the population", are worsening the country. After the prison conditions for the approximately 13,000 imprisoned maras were tightened and the detention of members of various mara groups in separate cells was lifted, the situation in the overcrowded prisons escalated, according to reports from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

After an increase in the number of violence in El Salvador, Bukele had once again announced the state of emergency in the prisons and the isolation of the prisoners, and ordered the police and army to use deadly force against the "terrorists" outside the prisons. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized this as a "blanket power to kill". There are 600 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants. This puts El Salvador in second place in the global ranking behind the USA in terms of the ratio of inmates to population. [1]

Unlike many of his Latin American counterparts, who long ignored the dangers of the coronavirus, Bukele ordered strict measures to contain the pandemic. Via Twitter, he called on the military and police to detain anyone who disregards the domestic quarantine for 30 days in specially set up camps. He brusquely rejected the Supreme Court's objection to these practices and ordered government and security agencies to continue to implement the measures.

In the face of a climate of violence and revenge, the president's measures met with widespread public approval, also because large sections of the population have suffered from the arbitrariness and ruthlessness of the gangs for decades. The opposition in the country enjoys less support and is partially intimidated by Bukele's tough approach. State institutions are used to attack media that report critical of the government.

Encouraged by public approval, Bukele also practices an increasingly authoritarian style of government in other areas. On February 9, 2020, he occupied parliament at the head of a group of uniformed soldiers. The reason for this was a dispute over the approval of a loan to finance his plans to "maintain public safety". Although the Supreme Court ruled Bukele's actions and the use of the armed forces inadmissible, this has no effect on the undemocratic and irresponsible actions of the president.

History of the conflict

On January 16, 1992, the bloody 12-year civil war in El Salvador ended in which 75,000 people died. Through the mediation of the Church and the UN and the "Peace Treaty of Chapultepec" a nine-month ceasefire began, which ushered in the transition to democracy. The implementation of the treaty was guaranteed from 1991 to 1995 by the UN observer mission (ONUSAL). The process has long been considered a prime example of liberal peace-building. In addition to the democratization of the country, the treaty included the disarmament of the guerrilla group FMNL (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) and their recognition as a party, the reduction of the military as well as land ownership and judicial reforms.

The peace treaty signed in 1992 created a new political system based on political and civil rights. The candidates of the ARENA party with their pro-American and neoliberal orientation won all four presidential elections since 1989 and controlled the executive branch until 2009. During this period the country experienced high economic growth, which made it possible to lower tariffs. The ARENA was also largely responsible for the introduction of the US dollar as the national currency in 2001 - a measure that was accompanied by declining economic growth from the 2000s onwards. Growth came to a standstill during the global economic crisis in 2008 and only recovered very slowly in the years that followed.

When the FMNL won the presidential elections for the first time in 2009, there was great concern among right-wing circles that the new government might stop the market economy-oriented policies of the previous government. The FMNL government focused on the disadvantaged population groups. Among other things, it decided to increase spending on education and health as well as state support for the pension plans. These increases in spending increased the pressure on public finances. National debt and the budget deficit reached record highs in 2017. As a result, under pressure from the opposition, a law was passed that obliged the government to limit deficit spending and new borrowing.

These economic and political crises have been accompanied by an explosion in organized and gang crime, and opened a bitter debate over how to deal with it. Although ARENA and FMNL agree that the causes of the violence are largely to be found in the deep gap between rich and poor, incompatible positions still exist on how the socio-economic differences can be overcome.


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