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News > Latin America

US Blamed for Gang Violence in El Salvador

  • Gang members in a Salvadoran jail, May 2022.

    Gang members in a Salvadoran jail, May 2022. | Photo: Twitter/ @ElMundoSV

Published 5 May 2022

As long as the United States continues to summarily deport Salvadorans who break the law in the country, it will be difficult to rein in the gang violence.

Mass deportations to El Salvador in the 1990s and a failure to coordinate with Salvadoran authorities make the United States partly responsible for the rise of violent gangs in the Central American country, Salvadoran observers have said.


Extension of Exception Regime in El Salvador Under Review

Following a wave of armed violence and murders that claimed the lives of 87 people in 72 hours, the Salvadoran government on March 27 launched an offensive against the gangs, or "maras," under a State of Exception. So far, authorities have arrested more than 21,000 suspected gang members and collaborators, leading to a drop in homicides, disappearances, extortion and other violent crimes.

Salvadoran anthropologist Marvin Aguilar said the government crackdown on gangs enjoys great popular support from a public weary of the constant violence that has marred life in El Salvador for the past 30 years. Over this period, the gangs have grown out of control, increasingly aware of their own power and capacity to terrorize and dominate communities.

While the successive Salvadoran governments since 1992, when peace accords that put an end to years of civil war were signed, also bore blame for the proliferation of gangs, the United States played a role by "mass deporting Salvadorans it considered a nuisance... without taking any preventive measures," said Aguilar.

The emergence of the criminal gangs that plagued El Salvador and other Central American countries, such as Honduras and Guatemala, can be traced back to the 1980s in the U.S. city of Los Angeles, California, studies showed. Many Salvadorans who fled the civil war settled in L.A., gradually organizing to defend themselves from discrimination and abuse from the authorities and other Latino or African-American minorities.

The objective of these organizations changed over time, evolving into criminal gangs involved in robberies, assaults, drug trafficking, extortion and homicides. The U.S. response was to deport gang members, who brought their gang way of life to their countries of origin. The deported were young people, some of whom had not even lived in El Salvador, and they were thrown into the streets outside the airport.

"The way they found to survive was to recruit young people in the poorest communities, making them see that solidarity and brotherhood could solve the problems of poverty and marginalization," Aguilar said.

According to Salvadoran security and criminology expert Ricardo Sosa, as long as the United States continues to summarily deport Salvadorans who break the law in the country, it will be difficult to rein in the gang violence.

"If these Salvadorans are committing crimes within the United States, they should be legally tried -- captured and prosecuted there. They should have the right to... defend themselves within the United States," Sosa said, adding that the United States "has not found an answer to the problem of the gangs and yet it wants to give us instructions -- that is not credible." 

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has accused U.S. officials of being insincere when they allege Washington supports and supported the fight against gang violence in El Salvador and Central America.

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