A new report from El Salvador says that the country’s street gangs accounted for 84 percent of forced displacements in 2016, in the undeclared war that is ravaging that country.
According to the report by the Civil Society Roundtable Against Forced Displacement by Violence and Organized Crime in El Salvador (Observatorio de la Mesa de Sociedad Civil contra el Desplazamiento Forzado por Violencia y Crimen Organizado en El Salvador) — which is comprised of ten non-governmental organizations — the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) was responsible for about a third of the forced displacements caused by the gangs, while their rivals in the Barrio 18 accounted for another third.
In many cases, however, it appears that researchers were unable to determine the gang responsible or the victims were unwilling to provide that information.
The police accounted for six percent of the displacements, followed by the military with two percent.
Out of 144 specific cases where victims provided information about where they lived and where the violence occurred, the Civil Society Roundtable found that 81 of the 144 forced displacements occurred in the department of San Salvador, followed by 11 in La Paz. Within San Salvador, the municipality of Mejicanos accounted for the most displacements with 21, followed by the municipalities of San Salvador and Soyapango with 16, and Ciudad Delgado with 5.
The report cited a wide range of factors that contributed to forced displacement. Victims cited threats as the most common cause of displacement; murder of a family member, physical injury and extortion, among others. In 138 of the 193 total cases of forced displacement, a combination of causes contributed to the person or persons fleeing the area.
The report documented 193 cases of forced displacement in 2016, accounting for 699 victims. However, the concentration of victims in the greater San Salvador area gives the impression that the situation is more widespread.
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Displacement is rightly associated with war, and wars trigger action, especially from multilateral bodies and international aid organizations. The gang war in El Salvador, however, has never reached this status, despite the fact that it looks every bit like the wars that many other countries have faced.
For years, the country’s two main gangs have been engulfed in a brutal battle for territorial control. In recent years, the police and the army have joined in that fight. And increasingly vigilante groups are becoming important actors in this multifaceted conflict.
The fighting made El Salvador Latin America’s most violent country in 2016 with a homicide rate of 81.2 per 100,000, down from a rate of 102.9 per 100,000 in 2015. The 907 homicides recorded in August 2015 marked the most in a single month since El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992.
The fighting displaces people because it is about territory. For the gangs, territory is about revenue, safety and reputation. When a street gang imposes control over a certain community, it allows them to extort and to sell illegal drugs. It also permits them to control information. And it gives them a symbolic space, one they can use to build their reputation and their recruiting. Any potential enemies or informants are expelled because that territory is literally their fortress.
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It is within this context that people are fleeing. A recent year-end survey conducted by the University Institute for Public Opinion (Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública – IUDOP) in San Salvador found that 40.3 percent of those surveyed expressed a desire to migrate to another country. According to the IUDOP, this is the highest rate of people wishing to migrate that they have seen in their year-end evaluation surveys in the last decade.
Other surveys also convey this point. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center’s 2016 Global Report on Internal Displacement, 500 people were displaced in El Salvador in 2015 due to conflict and violence.