A Nation Held Hostage
The rival gangs MS-13 and La 18 control or influence every facet of life in El Salvador, making the small Central American nation the world’s most dangerous place outside a war zone.
El Salvador is widely regarded as the deadliest place on earth that is not a war zone, but it may as well be one.
The gang culture that has evolved since the end of the 12-year-long civil war in 1992 is unmatched for its brutality and scale of violence. The country’s defense ministry estimates that as many as 500,000 Salvadorans are involved in gangs—in a country of 6.5 million—either through direct participation or through coercion and extortion by relatives, amounting to 8 percent of the population.
El Salvador’s homicide rate reached over 100 murders per 100,000 residents in 2015—giving it the world’s highest rate that year. Almost all the murders in El Salvador over the past two decades have been connected in some way to a three-way gang war among members of the two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (La 18), and government security forces.
El Salvador is characterized not only by widespread violence but also by the brutality with which the violence is carried out. After firearms, machetes are the most common murder weapon. Often, the aim is not just to kill, but to torture, maim, and dismember the victim. The emergence of an intricate gang culture with its own traditions, rules, and structures has transformed the act of killing into a ritual, filled with intentional references to sadism and satanism.
Videos and stories of these killings, which usually involve a group of laughing gang members gleefully hacking away at the body parts of a victim and removing organs, have paralyzed Salvadoran society, creating a pervasive atmosphere of fear: Anybody can be an informer for a gang, nobody is safe, any street can become a crime scene, anybody can disappear. Public killings are common, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all murders.
The roots of El Salvador’s current violence lie in the country’s civil war during the 1980s. The war was brutal and exposed many Salvadorans, particularly children, to horrific violence. Many Salvadorans fled to the United States, and in particular to Los Angeles, where Salvadorans teenagers joined together in ethnic solidarity to protect themselves against other established gangs in the city.
Following the end of the civil war in 1992, immigration policies in the United States became more restrictive, and migrants who had been convicted of crimes were sent home, bringing gang culture and violence to an already struggling state.
Today, in many Salvadoran cities, it is impossible to cross the street due to the boundaries of rival gangs’ territory. When entering a new neighborhood by car, visitors often have to flash their lights or roll windows down to indicate allegiance to the gang that controls it—or face violence.
Young people grow up in warlike conditions and are often socialized into the gang, beginning for MS-13 with a 13-second beating. The ubiquity of violence is devastating to regular psychological development—and this violence is normalized. One widely shared video showed a group of gang members cleaving off the hands of a victim and then playing with the fingers, all while laughing hysterically. The knowledge that the perpetrators are most likely sober, as gang rules often prohibit intoxication, makes it even more terrifying.
Traditionally, both major gangs have operated in a decentralized way, usually financed through daily extortion promises, which range from just $2 to $3 for small businesses and $5 to $20 for medium-sized businesses and distributors. However, through combined extortion of 70 percent of all businesses in the country, the gangs collect large amounts of money, with estimated revenues of $31.2 million for MS-13. The money spent because of gangs, either through extortion or buying private security, combined with the money lost because of violence, amounts to a staggering $4 billion per year, about 15 percent of the country’s GDP, according to a report from the Central Reserve Bank.
In the past, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (known by its Spanish acronym ARENA), the traditional right-wing party that has held control over El Salvador for much of its postwar history, has been known to strike pacts with gangs that allowed extortion collection as well as executions of rivals. Testimony from 2017 showed that the bribes amounted to $350,000 in the 2014 elections by the two parties, and the eventual winning party, the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, promised up to $10 million in microcredit to gang leaders in exchange for an electoral victory.
The election in February of Nayib Armando Bukele—a young president from neither of the two major parties—has brought some measure of hope. He has pledged to eradicate gangs in the country within three to four years.
During his first 150 days in office, the murder rate has dropped precipitously. The first seven months of 2019 were the least violent months in the last 15 years (except for 2013 and the 2012 gang truce). On July 31, not a single killing was recorded—only the eighth murder-free day in 19 years. However, violence and disappearances remain a fact of life.
Even with a new reformist government in place, it is not hard to see why so many Salvadorans still see emigration as the only way out. For now, fear, violence, and intimidation remain an unavoidable part of everyday life.
This is an edited and updated version of an article first posted on Nov. 21.