El Salvador is the epicenter of the Northern Triangle's gang-related violence. It is now officially the world's most violent country, with 104 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Crime in El Salvador has reached such unprecedented levels that the U.S. Peace Corps halted operations there in late December 2015.
The origins of El Salvador's violence stretch back to 1932, when a peasant uprising against Gen. Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez led to more than 25,000 deaths. After the failed uprising, the military ruled El Salvador, Central America's most densely populated country, for more than 45 years. In a bid to topple the country's military government, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla movement emerged; the guerrillas and the military waged a 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992.
Substantial numbers of Salvadorans moved to the United States to escape the conflict and the poverty that persisted after it ended, with almost 500,000 living in the United States by the 1990s, largely in the Los Angeles area. But violence would find them there too. To fend off the already established Mexican- and African-American gangs, Salvadorans formed the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 neighborhood protection units. In time, these groups evolved into archrival organized gangs.
In response to the increased crime in Central American immigrant communities, the United States began deporting Salvadorans convicted of crimes — simultaneously exporting their criminal skills to El Salvador. A poor, corrupt country such as El Salvador proved no match for the deportees' gang culture, which they also exported to Honduras and, to a lesser extent, to Guatemala thanks to the lack of border controls between El Salvador and its two neighbors and the poverty, corruption and impunity enjoyed by criminals there.
Homicides in El Salvador began trending upward starting in 1999. In response to the increase, San Salvador adopted tough anti-gang policies beginning in 2003 known as Mano Dura ("Hard Hand") and Super Mano Dura ("Super Hard Hand"). This in turn caused El Salvador's prison population to surge, with the number of gang members rising to 8,000 by 2008, double the 2004 figure. The increased numbers of prisoners translated into increased clout, with MS-13 and Barrio 18 taking control of the prisons — directing extortion, human smuggling and kidnapping on the outside.
In light of these failures, San Salvador changed tack, and by 2012 it had brokered a truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18. Homicides had dropped considerably by then, but by 2014, the truce began falling apart. By 2016, more than 100,000 unaccompanied Central American minors had left for the United States, many seeking to escape the violence in El Salvador and Honduras. This sparked a political backlash in the United States and prompted Washington to promote anti-graft commissions to strengthen Central American government institutions and economic development to curtail illegal migration.
After the truce ended, the FMLN-led government launched a full-fledged offensive against the gangs. Since mid-2015, gangs have been labeled terrorist organizations (though in actuality they differ from terrorists in that their goal is financial, not political). Moreover, a security-related tax of 5 percent on telecommunication transactions was levied to fund security programs, including new elite military-trained police squads. In spite of these actions, San Salvador's efforts continue to fall short.
A significant part of this failure is due to the evolution of Salvadoran gangs into sophisticated transnational organized criminal groups with many non-Salvadoran members, although both gangs lack a centralized leadership. This means that both MS-13 and Barrio 18 subgroups are not necessarily monolithic — cliques can cooperate as much as they can remain independent from one another. Both groups have capitalized on their Central American roots and links to the United States to establish a presence extending from the Northern Triangle to Los Angeles and Washington. Another factor explaining El Salvador's failure to rein in the criminal groups is the fact that during the truce period, the country's gangs took advantage of the lack of police and military control to infiltrate the security forces. Finally, San Salvador has been overwhelmed by deportations from the United States. Since 2014, the United States has deported an average of 20,000 Salvadorans per year — deportees who will find few legal employment opportunities. And even were San Salvador somehow able to imprison most of the gang members, they would likely continue their operations from prison.
In light of this bleak picture, El Salvador clearly needs foreign assistance. But while the United States has approved a $750 million aid package to bolster government institutions in the Northern Triangle, disbursement of 75 percent of these funds will depend upon the implementation of anti-graft policies on the rationale that a strong government means strong institutions — and strong institutions will be able to fight organized crime more effectively.
Of the three countries, however, El Salvador has been the most reluctant to establish an anti-graft commission. But without a major, sustained infusion of cash, Salvadoran institutions will remain weak. Given that gang-related violence threatens to overwhelm, El Salvador has little choice but to implement Washington's anti-graft requirements. Until El Salvador — and the region, for that matter — deals with its deeper economic and sociological problems and is able to provide a stable and non-corrupt government, the problem of powerful organized crime gangs and the violence that accompanies them will continue.