The gang problem and the elections

Carlos X, moderator of the San Romero mailing list, recently shared these thoughts and authorized me to republish them here:

El Salvador's "mara" (violent gang) problem is feeding the silent
violence of old war grudges and antagonism between El Salvador's left
and right in troubling ways. Today, I received an email from an
ARENA (official rightwing party of President Tony Saca) activist
stating that the FMLN (the former rebels and now opposition party) is
forging alliances with gang members and prison inmates in a
deliberate campaign to destabilize the country. He cited recent
newspaper articles supporting his position. On the other hand, an
article in the left-leaning DIARIO CO LATINO yesterday cited FMLN
sources stating that the right is promoting the gang conflict "with
all its strength" in order to boost gun sales that benefit wealthy
gun distributors who belong to the official party, and to give the
official party a Splendid Little War against gangs to tout in an
election year.

The truth almost certainly belies both assertions but, the resort to
such accusations is an alarm bell that something is rotten, very
rotten, in Denmark -- or at least in San Salvador. First of all, the
wild charges unmask the deep distrust between two sides of a
continuously polarized Salvadoran society. Secondly, the boldness
with which these charges are leveled reveals a type of political
bravado that borders on recklessness, and hardly bodes well for the
prospects of respectable and stable democratic institutions arising
in El Salvador anytime soon. Thirdly, and perhaps most
distressingly, the categorical and sweeping scope of the charges
reveal that neither the left nor the right has the first clue about
how to stop gang violence, and that they are desperately flailing
blindly in the air like blind men caught in a panic.

An interesting sideshow to this national drama is the struggle
between the left and the right to wrestle away from the other the
language of legitimization. The minister of governance told the
newspaper EL MUNDO today that the problem is a widespread impunity.
By this, he meant, that soft judges fixate on the civil rights of the
accused and end up releasing violent offenders who are left to wreak
havoc on the citizenry. The word "impunity" is more frequently
associated in El Salvador with the left's charge that rightwing
governments have been too eager to leave civil war abuses unpunished,
and to let these criminals go free, who have been left to plant the
seeds of violence among the impoverished masses, whom the free
marketeer ARENA governments have forsaken.

In any case, neither the government, nor the opposition, nor civil
society (including, the once prophetic Church) appears to be have a strategy
for confronting the gang problem in El Salvador and, so, the
frontline of the war against the Salvadoran maras is intramural rhetoric.


Anonymous said…
The gang problem is certainly a real and present danger. However, are you really suprised at over-the-top rhetoric in the final month of the campaign? The truly amazing thing about El Salvador is that factions once at war are now contesting a free election.
Anonymous said…
Fair point. Look, in a stable country a little election eve fervor is a natural thing, a healthy thing. But in a country that has a higher violent death rate than Colombia (the only country in the hemisphere actually at war), not so much. The headlines today were of the shooting of an ARENA sympathizer, the latest in a string of news about election violence. I don't think civil war is likely, but I don't think this violence, whether physical or just verbal, is a healthy sign.

Anonymous said…
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Mysterious Me said…
I agree with Carlos that a civil war isn´t likely right now, but the current climate is certaily brewing something. Nevertheless, the amount of violence is suspicious, and I would venture to say, there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

And just for the record, both ARENA and FMLN use the Mara...or rather the Mara uses them. Recipocity at its finest!
Anonymous said…
Well, the U.S. went from being one of the unsafest developed countries (1970's) to being one of the safest (1990's)

How? ---
1) Federal Minimum Sentencing Guidelines
2) 3 Strikes = life sentence

The problem the gringos had was that judges were too soft.

If you do not think judge leniency is a problem in E.S.... you haven't been paying attention

Anonymous said…
With all due respect, I have been paying attention and what I have noticed is a number of key distinctions to be made in the comparison cited. We are talking apples versus oranges. In the first instance, El Salvador is NOT a developed country. It possesses the highest incidence of poverty found in Latin America -- among the five countries with the highest levels of poverty (49%). More importantly, it has been only just over a decade since El Salvador concluded a bloody civil war. The period of U.S. history to compare is not the 1970s or 1990s, when America had been a stable democracy for over 100 years, but the Reconstruction period following America's own Civil War, in which major legal protections for civil liberty were put in (13th, 14th, 15th Amendments) , not a period a century afterwards when perceived excesses were reigned in.