El Salvador's Comandos de Salvamento rescue squad

A Wall Street Journal report documents how youths in El Salvador are choosing to become firefighters in order to avoid gang life, a unique case that may nonetheless contain important lessons about preventing violence in the world's new murder capital. 

In a special report, the Wall Street Journal talked with several youths about their involvement in the volunteer rescue squad known as Comandos de Salvamento. In addition to the adrenaline and the pride they feel for helping people, their work has helped them stay away from deadly street gangs, such as the MS13 and Barrio 18

"I like that she's [with the Comandos] because she keeps busy and isn't involved in something illegal," the grandmother of one youth firefighter told the Journal. "There are a lot of lost youth in our neighborhood."

The Comandos have reportedly earned a certain degree of respect from the gangs, since the group does not discriminate when attending to victims. The Comandos are maintaining a tradition that stretches back to before the country's civil war (1975-1992), when the rescue group provided first-aid care to both soldiers and guerrilla fighters as well as civilians, according to the Journal.

InSight Crime Analysis

Youths electing to fight fires during their free time is extremely noble, but in El Salvador it's also a form of self-preservation. The small Central American nation registered a staggering homicide rate of over 100 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, which according to World Bank data is the highest of any country during the last 20 years. And the gangs, which are at the center of the violence, are often the only form of extra-curricular activity on offer for youths from gang-dominated communities.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Programs such as the Comandos demonstrate how strategies to lower violence must include a social component that provides youths with opportunities beyond gang life. Although authorities in El Salvador have taken a highly repressive approach to combating the gangs in recent years, there are also examples of promising social programs aimed at reinserting former gang members back into society. Factory owners have provided jobs to former MS13 members, while one mayor has established technical schools and set up a bakery for former gang members.

But given the difficulty of leaving gang life once initiated, as well as the complicated politics of reintegrating gang members into society, initiatives that prevent youths from joining criminal groups in the first place may offer the best chance for success. Indeed, a 2014 study by Vanderbilt University's Latin American Public Opinion Project found community-based crime prevention programs had a significant positive impact on neighborhoods experiencing high levels of violence in Central America. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
Prev Next

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well...

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Former Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla -- a decorated war hero and a longtime US ally -- finds himself treading water amidst a flurry of accusations about corruption and his connections to drug traffickers. López Bonilla is not the most well-known suspect in the cases against...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...