Forced Migration and the Politics of Violence in El Salvador
In June 2022 more than fifty migrants from Mexico and Central America perished in the scorching heat of a trailer that was left on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. Abandoned by its driver after it suffered an apparent mechanical problem, the truck’s chance discovery brought to light the single deadliest migrant smuggling attempt recorded in the United States. Governments in the region were quick to blame the smugglers for the deaths and reaffirm their commitment to cracking down on this illicit industry. Meanwhile, US conservatives and Republicans attributed this latest tragedy to the Biden administration’s supposed “open border” policies and called for more drastic immigration enforcement.
The renewed focus on the smuggling business and border security is as predictable as it is unhelpful. Predictable, because it builds on a decades long political discourse that makes criminal networks the scapegoats for the harmful effects of hostile migration policies. Unhelpful, because it obscures why people from the Global South might decide to undertake clandestine and hazardous journeys in the first place. This “why” is forced migration. As sociologist David Bartram has suggested, forced migration occurs when individuals feel their lives or livelihoods are threatened and see no alternative to fleeing within or beyond the borders of their country. What drives these displacements?
In the case of El Salvador much of this mobility is related to gang violence. However, the policies that governments have pursued since the early 2000s allegedly to reduce and prevent this violence, have exacerbated the problem. As I show in this article, a combination of symbolic politics and backstage politics has spurred the transformation of the nation’s gangs and acted as an accelerant to their destructive behavior. El Salvador needs to break with its politicized response to these groups if it wants to build authentically peaceful communities and halt the current exodus of its citizens
Escape from an Impossible Life
Across the globe people are dislocated by conflict, violence, and human rights violations. UNHCR data indicate that at the end of 2021, 89.3 million people worldwide were in a situation of displacement. According to the same UN agency, this population included 1,186,879 refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. This number likely paints an incomplete picture, since official statistics do not include individuals who hire a smuggler, evade detention, go missing or die in transit.
My research has found that economic precarity, the effects of climate change, and gender violence as well as gang and criminal violence all contribute to forced migration in and from northern Central America. El Salvador shares with its neighbors a history of political violence and US intervention. The country emerged from a civil war in 1992 when UN-brokered peace accords ushered in an unprecedented transition to democracy. Since then, however, El Salvador has experienced a negative peace –the structural causes of the armed conflict remained unaddressed, and this deficit soon gave rise to street gangs.
These groups first emerged in the 1960s when disaffected youth banded together to hang out in their neighborhoods. But they underwent a dramatic transformation three decades later, when the United States began mass expulsions of non-citizens, including Salvadorean-born youths who had joined street gangs in Los Angeles. El Salvador was as unprepared for the arrival of these deportees as it was for the import of US-style gang culture. Groups such as the Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (today split into rival Southerners and Revolutionaries factions) offered alienated adolescents a sense of belonging, identity, and social status. Met initially with indifference, the gangs gradually became more tightly organized, more entrepreneurial, and more prepared to carry out brutal and indiscriminate acts of violence.
While the gangs have spread into rural settlements, they maintain an overbearing presence in impoverished urban areas across the country. Their members affect residents through mobility restrictions, forced recruitment or dating, extortion, and complicity in or facilitation of crimes. Citizens who are perceived to defy these expectations experience threatened or real violence. Manuel, who was 33 years old when I interviewed him in Mexico, had worked as a public relations officer for a municipal government. His house, just outside the capital city San Salvador, was located among a patchwork of gang territories. After he had built a wall to prevent gang members from using his property as a shortcut, the MS-13 gave him 24 hours to run for his life. Unlike many Salvadorans, Manuel decided to report the threats to the police. But the officer on duty bluntly noted that the gang, if provoked, would retaliate. Advised to find himself a new place to live, Manuel successfully claimed asylum in Mexico but felt traumatized by what had happened to him. “The gangs govern El Salvador,” he observed wearily, “and there is no one to stop them.”
Those who have been targeted by a gang need to change their routines and residence. Some, hamstrung by limited resources or attached to family and country, relocate domestically and try to keep a low profile. The victims soon discover, however, that they will never be safe in El Salvador. At this point they head to Mexico or, more often, the United States, a country they associate with safety, economic opportunities, and pre-existing family ties. Mexico has seen a sharp rise in asylum applications since 2013 and has struggled to both process the claims efficiently and create adequate housing, healthcare, and jobs. The United States, for its part, has retained Trump administration measures (the Migrant Protection Protocols and Title 42) that were designed to prevent the entry of migrants. The country also pressures Mexico, through diplomatic, commercial, and financial means, to act as its immigration enforcer. Unable to obtain protection or to return home, displaced persons may find themselves stuck in limbo. For Salvadorans this predicament is compounded by their political leaders’ refusal to embrace a different gang policy.
The Spectacle of War
Suppression, or aggressive law enforcement, has been El Salvador’s preferred approach to gangs since 2003. Back then, President Flores of the conservative ARENA party launched a mano dura (iron fist) strategy ostensibly to combat both the country’s climbing homicide rate and the gangs that supposedly caused this bloodshed. But the plan, which centered on militarized patrols, neighborhood sweeps, and mass arrests, was actually meant to garner the popular vote in the upcoming general elections. The mainstream media depicted the heavily tattooed gang members as monsters and suggested that the only sensible response was indeed suppression, not prevention and integration.
The idea of fighting violence with violence resonated in El Salvador’s authoritarian political culture (deepened during the civil war), yet the policy proved to be highly counterproductive. The number of murders escalated, and detention in gang-segregated prisons had the effect of making the gangs more cohesive and extortion more systematic. Mano dura was what political scientist Murray Edelman has described as symbolic politics: a strategy that sought to reassure citizens that decisive action was taken to tackle violence, but without doing what was necessary to resolve the problem in the long term. The symbolic politics of gang suppression carries the real risk of normalizing military participation in public security and displacing civilian institutions.
All presidents of El Salvador have since recycled gang suppression for immediate political gain. Nayib Bukele of the New Ideas party, in office since 2019, is the latest to do so. Since 2009, if not earlier, politicians at the national and local levels have also made covert pacts with the gangs. The Funes administration (2009-2014) negotiated a homicide reduction in return for relaxed law enforcement and improved prison conditions. ARENA and the FMLN approached the gangs to mobilize voters in 2014, and Bukele, as mayor of San Salvador (2015-2018) made a deal with the gangs to facilitate his work in the city center. As president, Bukele has publicly appeared tough on gangs, but his team has simultaneously agreed homicide drops with the gangs. The truces or pacts with these –widely despised– groups were kept secret to avoid a popular backlash and did not form part of a comprehensive gang policy. They are what sociologist Erving Goffman has called backstage politics: behavior that is invisible to the audience but that is vital to upholding the illusion created by the public performance.
As tools for managing violence, truces are pragmatic but unreliable. They may produce the instant decrease in killings that a dysfunctional security apparatus cannot deliver. However, they also remind the gangs of their political power and ability to compel compliance with their demands. As readily as they can cease fire, the gangs can resume it to pressure other actors to keep up their side of the bargain. Sudden and dramatic homicide spikes in 2015 and 2022 followed a breakdown of the truces. Registered murders have notably declined under Bukele, but there is no denying that disappearances have increased, extortion has persisted, and the gangs’ power in local communities remains undiminished.
Uprooting Violence, not People
The violence that does not make the frontpages of El Salvador’s newspapers –the silent terror, the not knowing, the unresponsiveness of a state that is itself abusive– makes life impossible for many citizens. To confront the root causes of forced migration, the country’s governing elites will need not only to commit to broader development and institutional reforms, but also address gang activity differently.
This does not mean, as is currently the case, viewing these groups through the lens of organized crime or terrorism and seeking sentencing enhancements in the few cases that make it to trial. It does mean improving investigations of gang offences to decrease the overall impunity rate and investing in local communities to provide meaningful and legitimate alternatives to gangs. Any government that hopes to implement a sustainable gang strategy also needs to adopt a narrative that makes peace more palatable than conflict. As Manuel put it, “I would like El Salvador to heal its wounds of violence, to be a place where you can walk around safely without breathing so much tension. For the country to stop being in a silent war, its leaders need to change their way of thinking and start promoting peace.”
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