Violence is still an issue in El Salvador, but today it is no longer the guerrillas or the soldados that are causing it, rather it is gangs. These are the aftershocks still being experienced after the Salvadoran Civil War, giving El Salvador the infamous title of “Murder capital of the world.” The gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, originated after many of El Salvador’s citizens emigrated north in order to escape the war that was ravaging the country in the 80’s. “Rape, Control, Kill” is the motto of the MS-13 gang, a very grisly and disturbing slogan for anyone that comes across it. Seeing those words as something to live by for a group of people sends a chill through my mind and my heart. It is unbelievable how bad things can get in a world where this can be avoidable.
In the capital of San Salvador, around 2015, a fifteen-year-old female was shot point blank while crossing a heavily populated intersection; her name was Marcela. Her family believes she was murdered because she lived in one gang’s territory, but was selling tortillas in another. Her movements, like what she did and where she went, were restricted by an invisible set of rules I am not so sure she was made aware of. What crime was it for her to be selling food to others? There is not any, and her death is one of the many inexcusable deaths that can occur in El Salvador as a result of gang violence.
The aforementioned rival gangs are believed to have originated in Latino neighborhoods here in the US, with Salvadorans gaining a big presence between 1980 and 1992, specifically in Los Angeles. Between 1980 and 1990, the Salvadoran immigrant population raised from around 94,000 to 465,000, with high densities in Texas and California. Salvadorans seem to have lived a marginalized life and these gangs began as self-defense groups against other neighborhoods from coming in and causing damages or any type of harm. The youth were major players in these groups. Broken homes and poverty after the war led some Salvadorans in search of a family wherever they could find it, and for some of the young people, that family lay within these gangs. The groups became the identity under which they lived. The slogan was originally, “I live for my mother, I die for my neighborhood,” a much more bearable statement than what it has become.
In the 90’s, as gang violence started becoming more and more of a problem and gangs started being labeled terrorist groups, the US decided to start deporting those affiliated with them back to El Salvador. The problem was being turned away to a country that was incapable of dealing with it. When these gang members went back after the Civil War was finished, they were not met with any psychological support, re-integration policy or any assistance since the country was focused on rebuilding. Just like when they had emigrated, without any real support from their native land or their surrogate land, the gang members were essentially back to square one. Back to the same environment they started in. A place where they felt they had to stick together and look out for one another, them versus everyone else.
Today, it seems that some of the youth feel they are faced with little choices other than to join a gang, with over fifteen thousand gang members residing in El Salvador’s crowded jails. Children as young as seven can be found in their ranks, with a common age of initiation being between twelve and sixteen years old. The people most affected by gang violence are the poor. It breaks my heart that this is the situation in El Salvador, a small country stricken with so much inner turmoil. More assistance needs to be provided to at risk children in impoverished neighborhoods so that they can stay away from violence, and can be given the resources to have better futures. The young people seem to once again be the ones hurt the most just like it was during the war. In terms of dealing with gangs, there has to be an alternative to fighting violence with violence, and simply throwing gang members in jail.