Last year in El Salvador, more than one person in every 1,000 was killed, a figure more typical of a country at war. The vast majority of these victims are young men, members of the Maras, Central American gangs who rule the neighbourhoods.
Vice President Oscar Ortiz has pledged that new security measures will cripple gang operations within a year, but experts remain skeptical. The state has failed numerous times while maintaining a corrupt system that allows criminality to thrive. Soldiers have been caught selling weapons to gang members and drug cartels, and the nation’s police force has cozy ties to criminal enterprises.
In 2015 in El Salvador, there were 70% percent more homicides than in 2014: 6,650 out of a population of 6.4 million. This small Central American country has become one of the most dangerous in the world.
Enlisted whether they like it or not, young Salvadorans often perceive the Maras, the criminal gangs, as the only way to “become somebody”. In El Salvador, the Maras spread terror and have become a parallel authority. They control whole neighbourhoods and worry police and politicians, who are now unsure whether to confront them or negotiate with them.
There are an estimated 25,000 gang members at large in El Salvador with another 9,000 in prison. The most well-known gangs, called maras in colloquial Salvadoran Spanish, are Mara Salvatrucha and their rivals Calle 18; maras are hunted by death squads including Sombra Negra.
Teens hoping to escape the pressure of gang recruitment in El Salvador by fleeing to the U.S. might breathe a sigh of relief when they cross the border.
Their solace is often short-lived. If they haven’t checked their Facebook privacy settings — and even sometimes if they have — the gang extortions and threats soon pop up again.
“When [immigrant teens] come to the United States, there’s always a way to be found, unfortunately, unless someone can be in a situation that’s similar to a witness protection program,” says Salvadoran American Susan Cruz, who helps young immigrants in conflict with the law. “They start cross-referencing by cell phone numbers. You can look up someone’s Facebook profile with their cell phone number alone.”
El Salvador’s attorney general has begun arresting law enforcement officials who helped carry out a truce between gangs that, until just a few years ago, was central to the nation’s strategy for taming its infamous violence.
The truce, struck by El Salvador’s biggest gangs with the government’s support, won international backing and helped bring down the nation’s devastating murder rate by more than half in 2012 and 2013.
But the government’s role in facilitating the truce caused controversy at home, and the nation’s leaders have switched to a very different approach, cracking down in a no-holds-barred campaign to crush the gangs.
Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has already arrested one of the main mediators of the truce, along with about 20 law enforcement officials who helped carry it out.
But Mr. Meléndez has an even bigger target: top officials in the previous government.
The man at the center of the truce was the former security minister, David Munguía Payés, an general who is now the defense minister, court papers show. Until now, he has remained untouched.
But the attorney general has General Munguía Payés in his sights. Mr. Meléndez, who was appointed by Congress, is preparing to ask legislators to impeach the defense minister and remove his immunity.
“We will go ahead with the prosecution, not only of the minister but of whomever it may be,” Mr. Meléndez told The New York Times in an interview this week.
A February report by the Technological University of San Salvador showed that of 747 Salvadaron migrants surveyed, 42 percent said they left their homes because of violence – compared to just five percent who cited that reason in 2013.
Among the different forms of gang intimidation and violence, extortion is largely invisible and the most poorly documented.
Gangs prey on both rich and poor with demands backed by death threats. Many business owners, from hawkers to tycoons, must hand over a slice of revenues, pushing them to the brink.