A new study argues that powerful street gangs have gone a long way toward creating a parallel state in El Salvador, providing a helpful framework to illustrate the extent to which the gangs impact society and undermine state governance.
The report, released by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in October, is divided into three sections, with each looking into separate aspects of the gangs’ influence on Salvadoran society: the political, the economic and the social impact.
Citing the 2012 truce brokered between the country’s two main street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18 (18th Street), and evidence — revealed by Factum, El Faro and InSight Crime — of high-level officials from the ruling party negotiating with gang members in the build up to the 2014 presidential elections, the author of the political study argues that the gangs have effectively become political actors in their own rights.
“The negotiation with the gangs during [former President Mauricio] Funes’ administration …, the confirmation of meetings between party representatives with gang leaders during the 2014 presidential campaign, and the resources gathered for the ongoing investigation into the truce have strengthened the hypothesis that the El Salvadoran gangs have definitely entered the political arena,” writes the author of the report, Marlon Hernández-Anzora.
The study’s thesis revolves around the idea that by applying political pressure, gangs fall into the category of interest groups. The gangs, the report notes, differentiate themselves from traditional political parties because of their lack of ambition to hold public offices. One of the definitions brought forth by the report for a pressure group is “any organized group that attempts to influence government decisions without looking to exercise the same formal powers as the government.”
Marlon Hernández-Anzora went on to tell La Prensa Gráfica that “people therefore transit between the formal State and its institutions, and the one created by the gangs, who at the end of the day have become decision makers.”
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Using data published this year by the country’s central reserve bank, the study found that extortion cost Salvadoran companies $756 million in 2014 — a staggering 3 percent of the country’s GDP — and that the total cost of gang-related violence that year reached 16 percent of the GDP.
The study also suggested that the likelihood of extortion corresponds with the proximity of businesses to gang-controlled territory. The analysis shows how gangs usurp part of the state’s economic control over demarcated areas.
The final aspect of the study delves into the gangs’ cultural penetration by looking at how they have influenced the country’s music, fashion and even sports. The author of the chapter on culture, Willian Carballo, reports that the cultural impact of the gangs is such that the vast majority of football players avoid wearing the numbers 13 and 18 on their jerseys. Some fans of the FAS soccer team even referred to their club’s campaign for an 18th title as “17+1” on social media, the author writes.
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While the theoretical approach may have some limitations, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s study does provide an interesting framework that illustrates the extent to which gangs now impact the Salvadoran government, economy and culture.
The idea that the gangs have evolved into political actors in the form of pressure groups can be seen in the MS13’s current strategy of upping the violence and targeting police officers in order to force the government into abandoning the recent “extraordinary measures” against incarcerated gang leaders. The objective behind the intensification of the attacks could also frame some gang-related violence as political violence; a means to obtain a political concession. The gangs’ enforcement of a bus strike in the country’s capital last year, in the hope that the administration would modify its stance regarding the truce, could also be viewed in this context.
The study argues that this political violence hints at an evolution of the Maras over the years, as the gangs had traditionally resorted to violence for pecuniary reasons related to their extortion activities rather than as a means of impacting political circles and decisions.
Coupled with the gangs’ virtual control of entire urban areas, the aforementioned violence does sustain the idea that the Maras now possess a political component. And the interactions between gang leaders and high-level political actors was seen in the two videos obtained through a joint investigation by Factum, El Faro and InSight Crime. The recordings show that in 2014, the former Minister of Public Security Benito Lara and the current Interior Minister Aristides Valencia met with gang leaders, and the latter offered the Maras up to $10 million in micro-credit. These revelations came a few months after an audio recording was exposed by El Faro, in which Valencia could be heard negotiating with gang leaders in order to obtain their support during the second round of the 2014 presidential elections.
But while the gangs in El Salvador may weigh in directly on certain political issues, they do not currently seem to possess a political vision of governance or political demands other than on specific issues that directly affect their members. In that sense, they appear much closer to lobby groups — albeit ones that resort frequently to violence — rather than politicians.
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The economic and social impact of the Maras on El Salvador’s society may be best exemplified by the transport industry, which is frequenty impacted by the gangs’ criminal schemes. The extortion of bus drivers and bus companies has become virtually institutionalized, and 692 bus drivers were murdered between 2010 and 2015 according to the El Salvadoran police, “in a country where paying extortion to gangs is an unwritten rule.” Nor is this issue confined to El Salvador, as the very same gangs have similarly targeted transport companies in other Central American countries.
The author of the cultural study is right to emphasize how the media’s portrayal of the daily conflict between the government and the Maras aggravates the gangs’ impact on society. Indeed, news outlets now tend to associate the majority of committed crimes with gang members.
“You can see the spectacle. You can see the television journalist going to a dangerous area, he arrives there and there are six hooded guys. Take away the word pandillas (gangs) and it could be whatever newspaper title,” Carballo told La Prensa Gráfica.
The portrayal of gang members by the media could partly explain why El Salvador’s police maintains significant support from the general public, all while evidence points to increasing human rights abusse and extrajudicial killings of gang members by public security forces.
But as InSight Crime has noted, the real proportion of crimes committed by El Salvadoran gangs is uncertain, and very likely significantly exaggerated by both government rhetoric and media coverage. Even official numbers showed that only 26 percent of individuals condemned for homicide in 2015 were gang members.