This is the second instalment of GIS expert Dr. Joseph S. Tulchin’s series of comments on the challenges faced by Central America’s Northern Triangle countries. The first one was on Guatemala.
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United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated in a recent speech that President Donald Trump’s administration was determined to stop the increase of violent crime and that the focus of its efforts would be to destroy the gangs that were terrorizing U.S. cities. Mr. Sessions singled out the Salvador-based gang MS-13, explicitly linking the crackdown on MS-13 to the administration’s efforts to limit illegal immigration from Central America. He insisted that curtailing illegal immigration would lower the rate of violent crime in the U.S. The speech and the policy it heralded are remarkable, because they are based on a false statement of fact and a misguided assumption.
In reality, there has been no increase in violent crime in the U.S. The murder rate has been declining over the past two decades. Even with the uptick in 2015, the rate remains lower than any time since 1965. And while it is true that MS-13 and other gangs have been in the news lately for horrendous episodes of murder, their attacks have been mostly directed at Central American immigrants.
Push factor: crime
Most importantly, presenting a crackdown on MS-13 as an anti-immigration policy misses the point entirely. It has been a well-worn cliche for a long time that people leave their countries to go to the United States, or any other place, to find a better life – precisely, economic opportunity. Today in Central America, however, and in El Salvador especially, the driving force in migration is fear of criminal violence.
Nearly 40 percent of the people interviewed in El Salvador declared (in a remarkable 2016/2017 study by the Latin American Public Opinion Project of Vanderbilt University) that they had considered migrating in the previous six months as a way to avoid crime. As the survey makes plain, their daily routines had been altered by crime avoidance. They barred their children from going out alone; they avoided public transportation; they changed jobs – all to avoid crime and violence. The survey found that Salvadorans had paid an estimated $400 million in extortion in the preceding year. In macroeconomic terms, the World Bank estimated that the cost of crime in El Salvador reached 6.2 percent of its gross domestic product, a staggering total.
Violence has been a serious problem in El Salvador since the end of the civil conflict in 1992
The most effective way of reducing the flow of migrants from El Salvador is curbing the influence of the gangs there. A policy helping that government reduce the recruitment of new gang members and increase the sense of citizen security would have the associated benefit of reducing illegal immigration to the U.S. and further reducing crime in U.S. cities.
Violence has been a serious problem in El Salvador since the end of the civil conflict in 1992. A combination of rapid demobilization of combatants and high unemployment in urban areas increased the population of unemployed young people who were not in school. This group was an easy target for the Salvadoran criminals who had been repatriated from jails in Californian cities in the 1990s. The most notorious of these gangs was Salvatrucha 13. Mara is the Salvadoran word for gang, hence the name Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13.
Beginning in the 1990s, the rapid expansion of these gangs drove the murder rate in El Salvador to 80 per 100,000 population, the highest in the world outside of the war zones of the Middle East. For years, the government of El Salvador tried strong-arm policies to control the gangs, including calling out the military to patrol the city streets. Not only did these mano dura (firm hand) policies fail. As a devastating side effect, they also have undermined the country’s judiciary and the rule of law.
In the first decade of the 21st century, El Salvador’s maras began to collaborate with Mexican drug cartels, helping them expand their criminal enterprise in the U.S. Gang members from El Salvador quickly established distribution centers in U.S. cities for Mexican drug dealers. They recruited other Salvadorans, often undocumented aliens, whose economic status was shaky.
Over the past decade in El Salvador, several programs (based on research in local universities) have been set up to work with the most vulnerable segments of the population, a group known in Spanish as NINIs: “not in school and not employed.” Early successes of these efforts have brought them modest support from the Roman Catholic church and the government.
Keeping the NINIs out of gangs, coupled with more effective policing, constitute the best option in dealing with crime and violence in Central America, the most significant driver of illegal immigration to the U.S. Washington ought to utilize the existing framework of the Alliance for Prosperity aid program (already passed by Congress) and funnel funds to the government and to existing civil society organizations that work directly with vulnerable young people in El Salvador. The success of one such program has created a cohort of computer programmers who are becoming fully integrated into the tech world of the United States. Another group of repatriated criminals, fluent in English, is now employed in call centers in San Salvador.
The promise showed by these social programs indicate the way forward in El Salvador and in other countries in the region. Not only would such programs help reduce crime, they would also improve schooling rates to create a labor force better prepared for the globalizing economy. In time, the urge to migrate would dissipate and help to moderate the rate of crime in the U.S.