El Salvador’s Politics of Perpetual Violence

  • What’s the issue? After fifteen years of failed security policies, the government of El Salvador and criminal gangs are deadlocked in an open confrontation. Efforts aimed at tackling the deep-rooted social issues behind the gang phenomenon have not produced desired results due to a lack of political commitment and social divisions that gangs use to their advantage.

  • Why does it matter? Born in the wake of U.S. deportation policies in the late 90s, gang violence in El Salvador has developed into a national security problem that accounts for the country’s sky-high murder rate. The combination of mano dura (iron fist) policies and the U.S. administration’s approach to migration could worsen El Salvador’s already critical security situation.

  • What should be done? All political actors should honour the government’s holistic violence prevention strategies by fully implementing them and reframing anti-gang policies. Specific police and justice reforms, as well as a legal framework for rehabilitating former gang members, are crucial steps toward a future pacification process.

Executive Summary

El Salvador, a small country in the isthmus of Central America, is wracked by an implacable strain of gang warfare. Exceptionally intense and persistent violence pits rival street gangs against one another and in opposition to the police and state. Formerly hailed for its smooth transition to democracy and for turning the two foes of its 1980s civil war into political forces competing vigorously yet peaceably for power, El Salvador once again is famed for its bloodletting. Its recent murder rates rank among the highest in the world and its jails are among the most overcrowded. For the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, its main gang, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), personifies the menace of undocumented immigration. Although the Salvadoran state has developed a series of strategies for violence prevention, its mainly repressive efforts over the past fifteen years have checked the influence of these alternative approaches. It should now implement plans to prevent crime, rehabilitate gang members and spur development in marginalised communities. Most urgently, El Salvador will require protection from the turbulence that U.S. mass deportations could provoke.

The permanence of violence owes as much to the success as to the failings of the peace accords. The two former wartime foes have jostled for democratic supremacy, repeatedly using security policy for electoral purposes by seeking to satisfy public demand for mano dura (iron fist) against the gangs. Although government has changed hands, security methods have not altered: mass detentions and incarceration, as well as militarisation of policing, have become standard procedure whether under the rule of right-wing elites or former guerrillas. U.S. authorities have recently offered support to this approach, pledging to “dismantle” the MS-13.

In private, however, high-level officials from across the country’s political divide lament the harmful effects of this crackdown on over-stretched courts and front-line police. Blueprints geared to preventing the drift of young men from low-income neighbourhoods into gang life have been drafted: the government launched the most recent, the “Safe El Salvador” plan, as a holistic strategy to restore the state’s territorial control. But as violence soared after 2014 following the disintegration of a truce with the gangs, extreme measures of jail confinement and police raids have once again become the government’s predominant methods to choke the gangs. Allegations of police brutality and extrajudicial executions have multiplied.

Recent surveys suggest that veteran members of these gangs wish to cease the violence. However, the economic dead-end of El Salvador’s urban outskirts – the country’s recent GDP growth rate of 1.9 per cent is among the lowest in Central America – continues to drive a supply of willing young recruits, and consolidate a rearguard of sympathisers dependent on income from the gangs’ extortion schemes and other rackets. The reality and stigma of gang violence combine to block off alternative ways of life for those born into these communities, cutting years of schooling for young people in areas of high gang presence and alienating potential employers. Instead of succumbing to the state’s offensive, gangs set up roadblocks in their neighbourhoods and impose their own law; their fight against security forces has claimed the lives of 45 police officers so far this year.

The deadlock between a tarnished set of security policies and a gang phenomenon that thrives on the ostracism and contempt of mainstream Salvadoran society can only now be resolved by recasting the way the country treats its security dilemmas. Judicial and security institutions require careful reform to ensure resources are distributed to areas with the highest concentrations of violence, and used to boost intelligence-led policing that targets gang members committing the most serious crimes. Jail-based reinsertion schemes, and cooperation with diverse churches, NGOs and businesses that offer second chances to former gang members, must be strengthened to provide a legal framework for rehabilitation as well as material incentives for the gangs to eventually disband. Although the country’s main political parties and most of the public oppose any hint of negotiation with gangs, the reality in many poor areas is of constant daily encounters with these groups. Tolerance for these grassroots efforts, despite the existing legal restrictions on any contact with gangs, is essential to build the confidence that will be required for dialogue in the future.

None of this will be easy, nor is it likely to be assisted by U.S. policy toward either gangs or Salvadoran immigrants. The potential cancellation of the rights to residency in the U.S. of 195,000 beneficiaries of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program threatens to overwhelm the Salvadoran state’s capacity to accommodate returnees, not unlike the experience of the late 1990s when mass deportations of gang members from the U.S. to El Salvador exported the criminal capital that led to the lightning rise of the MS-13 and its main rival, the 18th Street gang. El Salvador is simply unprepared, economically and institutionally, to receive such an influx, or to handle their 192,700 U.S. children, many of them at the perfect age for recruitment or victimisation by gangs. At a time when levels of violence remain extraordinarily high, with exhaustion toward an unwinnable conflict voiced on both sides, the arrival of thousands of migrants back to their crime-affected homeland would impose huge strains. To escape its perpetual violence, El Salvador needs support, not the recurrence of past mistakes.


To improve El Salvador’s public policies on security and prevent further regional spillover of gang violence and undocumented migration.

To the government of El Salvador:

  1. Fully implement the five axes of “Plan Safe El Salvador”, and balance investment between law enforcement, institutional strengthening and violence prevention.

  2. Approve a legal framework for rehabilitation, with special emphasis on the reinsertion of former gang members into society in coordination with local NGOs and the church.

  3. Recognise the existence of forced displacement in El Salvador, adopt the Comprehensive Regional Framework for Protection and Solutions (MIRPS), and work in coordination with local NGOs to implement protection mechanisms for its victims.

  4. Allow visits from humanitarian organisations to high security jails.

  5. Institutionalise by executive order monthly meetings between the security cabinet and human rights groups to monitor alleged violations of human rights by security forces.

  6. Create stronger coordination protocols between the National Civil Police and the prosecutor’s office, and strengthen the former’s internal control unit to ensure those suspected of abuse or corruption are held accountable.

To members of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly:

  1. Promote multiparty efforts on security and support the government in the implementation of “Plan Safe El Salvador”.

  2. Revise the distribution of resources in the judiciary to ensure they are based on intensity of criminal activity rather than administrative criteria.

  3. Stabilise funding to the prosecutor’s office by giving it a fixed percentage of the annual state budget, and mandate the office with monitoring forced disappearances.

To the government of the U.S.:

  1. Avoid massive deportations, and redesignate El Salvador for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

  2. Continue providing El Salvador with financial support to carry out violence-prevention initiatives, and place a greater emphasis on investigative policing and general skills training in the security forces.

To El Salvador donor countries and institutions:

  1. Promote creation of an independent observatory to provide monthly information on crime victims, gang expansion and homicide figures.

  2. Finance a plan in coordination with the private sector to offer incoming youth deportees job skills and employment opportunities.

Guatemala City/Brussels, 19 December 2017