“Tenemos único camino, único destino, que es la muerte o el penal.”

We have one path, one destiny, which is death or prison.

Juan Flores is 32 years old and was born and raised in Apopa, a municipality in the northern district of San Salvador. Living near the country’s capital, nestled in the heart of Central America, Juan looks and plays the part of an average, working-class Salvadoran, but one thing sets him apart—his arms are covered in tattoos.

Recruited into the network of las maras—Salvadoran gangs—when he was 13 years old, Juan spent 15 years as a member of Barrio 18, one of El Salvador’s two main rival groups. In 2007, he was sent to prison on criminal charges, and when he emerged five years later, he yearned for redemption. He found solace in Catholicism. The Church eventually led Juan to League Central America, a collegiate apparel company that employs former gang members and runs various rehabilitation programs. Since 2012, he has had the freedom to share his story, through company-organized presentations and now through a conversation with the HPR, tracing memories in the ink on his body that serves as a permanent reminder of his past.

However, the other estimated 55,000 active gang members in El Salvador remain tangled in violence. The country’s homicide rate is skyrocketing, now at 104 murders per 100,000 people, or an average of over 20 murders per day. Many of the homicides result from fighting between Barrio 18 and its rival gang, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. These violent conflicts have caused some news outlets to call El Salvador, a country of 6.11 million people (smaller than the state of Massachusetts), the new murder capital of the world.

Such negative labeling of El Salvador has harmful consequences. As Linda Garett, senior policy analyst for the Center for Democracy in the Americas, noted to the HPR, “the media and press coverage given to this problem only enflames and incites fear.” Pointing fingers at gangs as the source of all violence in the country fails to acknowledge the role of structural forces that leave poor Salvadoran youth with few other options.

“Death or prison”: deep historical and sociopolitical roots of inequality have produced this grim set of alternatives and offer a broader lens through which to consider comprehensive solutions.

Hecho en los EE.UU. | Made in the USA

The origins of El Salvador’s modern-day gang problem can be directly traced to the country’s civil war between 1980 and 1992. Over 75,000 people died in this bloody conflict between guerrilla fighters under the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and the central government’s counterinsurgency forces. Much of the funding for the military’s death squads came from the aggressively anti-communist Reagan administration, which funneled $1 million a day into the repressive Salvadoran regime. At the same time as the United States was funding a war that established violence as a way of life, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans were attempting to flee north. Many eventually settled in Los Angeles, establishing densely populated and alienated refugee communities where gangs formed as a mechanism of self-defense and protection. Their culture was characterized by a common saying: “vivo por mi madre, muero por mi barrio.” I live for my mother, I die for my neighborhood.

In 1994, following the end of the civil war, U.S. immigration authorities began a massive series of deportations of Salvadoran refugees, inadvertently planting the seeds of crime in an unstable post-civil war climate. American-bred Salvadoran gangs infused the process of remaking a war-torn society with survival-driven violence. Moreover, in the midst of deportations, the World Bank reported that 48 percent of households in El Salvador were living in poverty due to limited access to employment and education. Such social instability combined with the fragility of a fledgling democracy created the perfect recipe for gangs to flourish. Today, the deep-seated inequality that once spurred guerrillas to war has now created a country in which 31.8 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line and the leading cause of death for adolescents under 19 years old is homicide.

Jocelyn Viterna, associate professor of sociology and co-director of the Transnational Studies Initiative at Harvard, further explained the lack of alternatives for youth within this harsh reality. “There is a sense that you’re going to die if you join [a gang] and you’re going to die if you don’t join—so why not join and a get a little money and status out of it before you are killed.” Many others also flock toward las maras for the sense of community that they provide. With high numbers of non-marital births and single-parent households creating unstable home environments in El Salvador, children searching for emotional and financial support are often drawn to the promise of community and advancement that gangs offer.

La Mano Insegura | The Uncertain Hand

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, repeat—waiting for his next meal was the only thing Juan had to do every day of his five-year prison sentence. Lamenting the lack of any opportunities to better himself while incarcerated, Juan viewed prison as a “university for delinquency,” where he learned some things, but “nada bueno.”

Prison reform and rehabilitation programs have been on the Salvadoran government’s agenda since the 2014 election of current president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla leader. Once in office, Cerén launched “Plan El Salvador Seguro,” a comprehensive strategy for quelling violence with a focus on prevention, reintegration, and community building.

At the same time, however, Cerén has continued a mano dura, or heavy-handed, approach against active gang networks. The tactic originated in 2003 and involves deploying military units for anti-gang crackdowns. Moreover, the government has rejected the idea of facilitating a truce between rival gangs, refusing to engage in dialogue with las maras in accordance with its rhetoric of “war against gangs.”

The logic behind these contradictory methods lies in the government’s need to show proof of progress. Adriana Beltrán, senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, explained the dissonance in an interview with the HPR. “In countries like El Salvador, when a certain situation has become politicized and when the government is under tremendous pressure from a society that is demanding greater security… they tend to look for any kind of measure that has short-term impact, to communicate to the citizenry that they are doing something.” Yet, a recent poll conducted by the University of Central America Institute of Public Opinion showed that two-thirds of Salvadorans believe that the government’s public security policies are actually achieving little to no results and that the country’s situation is worse than a year ago.

In fact, military operations and massive incarceration of gang members have exacerbated the problem of gang proliferation by adding to existing violence through extrajudicial killings and overwhelming the country’s inadequate prison system. Given the extent and depth of El Salvador’s street violence and the apparent ineffectiveness of current policy, Viterna believes that any approach moving forward will have to be significantly more ambitious: “We have problems in the judicial system, police system, overcrowding in prisons, not enough jobs, gang recruitment in schools—there needs to be an entire societal overhaul to make a solution happen. El Salvador simply cannot do that on its own.”

Un Buen Vecino |  A Good Neighbor

More than two decades after its involvement in the Salvadoran civil war, the United States remains intimately tied to El Salvador’s transnational movements as a new generation of Salvadoran refugees attempts to flee the violence of their country. This time, the mass migration consists primarily of 60,000 unaccompanied minors sent across the border to escape gang recruitment.

The Obama administration has responded to this migrant crisis with a $1 billion aid package for Central America; the current federal budget also allocated $750,000 toward investment in the region’s development. Although the United States has generally supported the Salvadoran government’s militaristic means of public security, if properly distributed and utilized, U.S. aid has the potential to expand opportunities for the over 300,000 Salvadoran youth aged 15 to 24 that neither study nor work and are prime targets for gang recruitment.

At a grassroots level, U.S. investment in local job creation, culture, and education is essential, according to Leslie Schuld, director of Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad, a non-profit organization based in San Salvador that focuses on Salvadoran solidarity and social justice. Education in a country where only 21 percent of poor teenagers complete high school is especially “key because it gives people the tools they need to make changes—all this is a part of the tapestry of building community.” Through funding scholarships, vocational training, and extracurricular programs in local communities, U.S. aid can empower youth by offering them alternatives to gang involvement and building support structures around them.

Nevertheless, to say that there is one solution to the country’s tumultuous history and complex situation is undoubtedly a stretch. Education is simply a step in the right direction. In line with this idea, the gang rehabilitation program at League Central America that worked with Juan offers English lessons and night classes. Though not exactly a wide-sweeping national reform, the program serves as an example of effective targeted interventions. The founder, Rodrigo Bolaños, described his mission to the HPR. “The company has become a human development center where everybody has hope. Everybody wants to be successful because we offer them a path to becoming successful. Everybody has a dream.”

Debajo de la Tinta | Beneath the Ink

“Society is not ready to see a person with tattoos and offer him their hand.” Juan’s somber assertion reveals the discrimination that gang affiliates face from ordinary Salvadorans, to whom words on skin spell out murder and extortion. Overcoming this societal fear is just one challenge in forming a solution as extensive as the problem itself.

However, ultimately, “El Salvador is not violence, and violence is not El Salvador,” said Viterna. While the media has recently drawn attention to homicide statistics, it is important to note that the Salvadoran government, for all its shortcomings, has indeed made significant strides in other areas of reform, particularly education and health care. Its hardline policies against gangs have proven less successful, but with the help of U.S. aid, more comprehensive social reform is within grasp. Over half of Salvadorans may feel fear when they think of the future of their country, but 40.9 percent still have hope.

Recently promoted to a supervisor position at his company, Juan is also working his way through grade 10 classes as he studies to become a lawyer. His tattoos, physical markers that once broadcast his social alienation, no longer bind him to a life of crime and desperation. Somewhere past the faded edges of the ink, he has found his way out.

“Aquí son mis tatuajes. Ya no tengo miedo … Aquí, soy libre.”

Here are my tattoos. I’m not afraid anymore … Here, I’m free.

Image Source: Unsettled: Children in a World of Gangs/Donna De Cesare

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