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An MS13 member

In response to a recent article by Douglas Farah on the MS13 published by Foreign Policy and reprinted at InSight Crime, gang expert Juan Martínez D'aubussion challenges Farah's analysis and interpretation of the threat posed by Central America street gangs.

Track Record of Disinformation

In 2013 Douglas Farah published a report with Pamela Phillips Lum (pdf) for the International Assessment and Strategy Center on the situation of gangs in El Salvador, in which he painted a pessimistic scene full of apocalyptic descriptions.

On that occasion, Farah and Phillips Lum talked about training camps organized by ex-guerrillas, the mass purchase of weapons, and a very close relationship between big drug lords and gangs. There was no specification.

The bulk of the report was not true and the other part were half-truths. Facts were peppered with a strong dose of fatalism, imagination, and irresponsible generalizations, resulting in a very different gang to that which you'd find in the neighborhoods of El Salvador. Soon after, another version of the same report was released in Prism (pdf), a publication of the National Defense University, which is administered by the US Department of Defense.


In fact, the gangs today, specifically the MS13, are less vertical than before and during the truce. The unquestioned power of prison groups has given way to a greater degree of autonomy at the local level, at the level of cliques.

A week ago, Mr. Farah submitted a new report, this time for the magazine Foreign Policy, which was republished by InSight Crime. This time the author spoke of rampant savagery among Central American gangs, which, possessed by an unprecedented brutality and ever more barbaric thirst for blood, engage in "beheadings, dismemberment, and systematic rape."

In this most recent article, the author presents a direct relationship between the gangs and organized crime structures. Above all, Farah asserts a close relationship between the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and the major drug cartels of northern Mexico.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

The author not only provides no evidence, documents, or anything that allows us to believe such claims, but also states that it is within this relationship where a process of understanding was forged between the gangs and the Salvadoran state, known as "the truce." According to the article, this process sought to create a favorable environment for the transfer of cocaine through El Salvador to the United States. The author goes further, even saying the truce was developed at "the behest of local drug traffickers," again without giving specifics.

Farah's findings are not without weight. Farah has a powerful voice given his long career as a Washington Post reporter and expert on issues of drug trafficking and gangs in the region. He has written several books, testifies frequently before the US Congress, and currently manages a consultancy that conducts studies for the US government -- among other customers -- that echo throughout the international community.

This is not why I am opposed to his analysis, but rather by what I perceive to be a lack of rigorous investigation and a tendency toward sophistry, as well as ideological leanings in his work that distort public policy toward the gangs.

Myths of The Truce

It is undeniable that the process of pacification and dialogue between the gangs and Salvadoran state, popularly known as "the truce," reconfigured the sociocultural world of the gangs. Effectively, in 2012 and 2013, the gangs became more vertical structures. For the first time they were a structure with a head and feet, with the heads being powerful incarcerated groups, known as "ranflas," and with whom the government delegates organized the truce in March 2012.

These groups are within both the rival MS13 and Barrio 18. From Southern California to Central America's Northern Triangle, these groups were composed of men over thirty years old that, with few exceptions, had been deported from the United States -- almost all from the city of Los Angeles -- and had been leaders of "cliques," or gang cells, before being arrested. That is to say, they enjoyed the recognition of gang members on the street.

However, the truce did not last long, just two years. After a change in the security cabinet, persecution of the truce mediators and gang representatives by the Attorney General, lack of executive support, contradictions in public security policy, and internal gang friction, the truce crumbled. By the end of 2013 and early 2014, the truce was no more than just a bad name.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador gang truce

The truth is that, as usually happens with "artificial" processes -- that is, one not based on the real and legitimate aspirations of social groups -- it did not withstand the onslaught of adversity. Communication between gang cliques with the groups in power became weaker due to the persecution and transfer of gang leaders within the prison system.

In fact, the gangs today, specifically the MS13, are less vertical than before and during the truce. The unquestioned power of prison groups has given way to a greater degree of autonomy at the local level, at the level of cliques.

Most MS13 cells or cliques are made up of children between 14 and 25 years old, and whose fundamental commitment still remains the maintenance of a system of reciprocal attacks against the closest Barrio 18 cliques.

Two years after the truce it is clear the gangs changed: they restructured in certain areas and became diluted in others. And while it is true that gangs now have an "interest" in politics, it is not in the sense set forth in Farah's article. Rather, it is of a growing awareness of the need to position themselves as a group in the game of national power.

This does not mean there are no MS13 cells or structures connected to drug trafficking. Of course there are. The clique Sancocos Locos de Sonsonate, the famous Fulton Locos de Nueva Concepción, Chalatenango, and the Normandie Locos commanded by Moris Alexander Bercian Manchón, better known as "Barney," are several examples.

But such cases are isolated. Most MS13 cells or cliques are made up of children between 14 and 25 years old, and whose fundamental commitment still remains the maintenance of a system of reciprocal attacks against the closest Barrio 18 cliques. Yet, given the horizontal structure of the gang, within this system are a thousand nuances and variants based on territory. What is a fact is that the MS13 is not an important link in the trafficking of cocaine to the United States, something Farah repeatedly states in his texts and which the Salvadoran police and even the US Treasury Department have tried to maintain.

Lies and Ghosts of the Past

We also see some myths propagated in the work of Farah regarding violence. One of the most apparent is when he says:

But the Institute of Legal Medicine, the forensic body under the Salvadoran Supreme Court, found that while there were more than 800 fewer homicides reported, the number of "disappeared" -- a term with deep psychological impact in the wake of the nation's civil war -- had risen by an almost identical amount. Many of the "disappeared" had been buried in clandestine cemeteries. The excavation of those graveyards simply overwhelmed the system, and efforts to identify the bodies were largely abandoned.

Here is a plain lie, without exception. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. During the truce there were not 800 fewer homicides. The actual projection suggests the number of lives saved during the two year truce to be over 5,000. Disappearances actually decreased substantially.

Generally speaking, we can say that it has been very common for the "specialized" literature to draw unsubstantiated or radically false parallels.

In this case it is difficult to make exact estimates. Enforced disappearance is a crime that must be reported by victim's family, and it is on this basis that statistics are compiled. As such, we could probably infer that less were reported during the truce, that the number remained the same, or that it perhaps even increased or decreased slightly.

But to assure that the number increased, and that it was in fact 800 who went missing, is irresponsible and unprofessional. This data is quite common within networks of academics and intellectuals who work on the phenomenon of violence. In any case, what we can infer is that to ignore it suggests a political line that is aimed or meant to accompany certain measures or policies.

Islamization and Biased Characterization of the MS13

Throughout its history, treatment of the MS13 has tended to match it with various other structures. Salvadoran elites have repeatedly championed the idea of gangs as the "illegitimate children" of the guerrillas from the 1980s. Leftist groups compared the gangs with elite-financed "death squads" during 1980s as well (reaching the point of claiming that it is precisely these elites who finance the MS13).

In academia there have also been unfortunate comparisons with other structures, such as by journalists Jorge Fernández and Victor Ronquillo, who wrote the book "From the Maras to the Zetas: The Secrets of Drug Trafficking, from Colombia to Chicago" (De los Maras a Los Zetas: los secretos del narcotráfico, de Colombia a Chicago). Generally speaking, we can say that it has been very common for the "specialized" literature to draw unsubstantiated or radically false parallels.


In fact, the article stimulates an almost exclusively repressive logic against the migration phenomenon, since it portrays gang members as little more than a wave of armed savages inching closer and closer to the United States.

In his article, Farah goes further. According to him, the MS13 is influenced by global terrorist groups. That influence is via printed documents downloaded from the Internet, whereby it is supposed teenage gang members are learning the practices of the Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Mr. Farah qualifies this by saying this does not imply a relationship. However, he says we must be careful because "the MS13 is actively looking to the literature of terrorist groups to learn."

In the next paragraph, he remarks that:

There are some striking similarities between the behavior of some of MS13 and the Islamic State. Like the Islamic State, the gangs primarily recruit young, unemployed males with few economic opportunities, both in person and through extensive social media outreach. The recruiters promise a life of purpose and a chance to be part of something larger than oneself.

In fact, under this description we encounter "striking" similarities between the MS13 and almost any criminal structure in the world, the majority of political parties, all religious sects, and the very army of the United States of America. No. Farah chose to find forced similarities with IS and Al Qaeda, knowing the sad burden the last carries in the minds of Americans following September 11, 2001. Words can be powerful, but also dangerous when the goal is to generate terror and panic.

A Political Agenda?

The article is framed around the increase in migration to the United States. Farah begins by saying, "The possible arrival of a few thousand Syrian refugees in the United States has caused a political firestorm, but there is a much more serious humanitarian crisis brewing on America's southern border."

Farah, despite demonstrating favor towards the migrant cause in some forums and public events, seems oblivious to give details such as how the aforementioned generates the opposite sentiment, possibly closing the door to thousands of migrants fleeing gang violence. The majority of these migrants are young adolescents, the portion of the population most stigmatized.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

In fact, the article stimulates an almost exclusively repressive logic against the migration phenomenon, since it portrays gang members as little more than a wave of armed savages inching closer and closer to the United States. This is done without any explanation of the phenomenon from a theoretical position, without reference to the abundant academic and journalistic literature on the nature of these groups, and without making an effort to approach a systemic, historical, and holistic understanding of the phenomenon.

Ultimately, I think this is not, or should not be, the role of the intellectual community that studies the phenomenon of gangs and violence. We are in a very complex, divided, and violent international context in which US society, which for decades has feared a fundamentalist and "Anti-Yankee" Middle East, does not need more spokesmen of terror. Remember that the activation of alarms generates panic, and this is a breeding ground for dangerous and violent public policies, which start at the borders of the United States and end in marginalized communities in El Salvador.

*Martínez D'aubuisson is a sociocultural anthropologist at the Universidad Nacional de El Salvador. He is author of "Ver, oír y callar: Un año con la Mara Salvatrucha 13," and co-author of "Crónicas Negras: Desde una region que no cuenta." He is currently an associate investigator at the Institute of Science, Technology and Innovation (Instituto de Ciencia, Technología e Innovación – ICTI), and an InSight Crime contributor.

This article was originally written in Spanish, and was translated and edited for clarity. Its views do not necessarily reflect those of InSight Crime.


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