Causes of the gang problem

In thinking about the problem of gangs in El Salvador, it is worthwhile to review the various theories about the factors which have promoted the growth of gang violence in the country. Set out below are a number of those factors -- there is no doubt that it is the combination of many of these factors, and not a single factor, which is driving the problem.
  • Poverty. Gangs and crime are a product of the unemployment and poverty which impacts many areas of the country. With jobs difficult to come by and with great disparity in the distribution of wealth, young men turn to gangs as a way to survive. Gang members come from the poor communities, not from the children of the rich.

  • Violence of Salvadoran society. Another theory, which appeared in several of the comments this week, is a view that Salvadoran society it simply more violent than others. The gangs are an expression of this innate violence.

  • Materialism. Salvadoran media and advertising is filled with images of a consumer-driven "good life." These images, which place the acquisition of money and things above other values, create feelings of frustration in youth who don't have the means to live that dream life. The gangs and their illicit sources of income offer a way to satisfy that desire for material things.

  • Disintegration of Salvadoran families. In the past decades, traditional family structures have been breaking down in El Salvador. Single mothers are raising children in poverty. One or both parents have emigrated to the US leaving children with less supervision. Gangs provide a social network which replaces family units for some youth.

  • US exporting its problems to El Salvador. The US had a gang problem in Los Angeles. Rather than addressing the root causes of Latino gangs in Southern California, the US simply deported its criminal element to El Salvador, who continued what they had learned in the US.

  • Lack of hope. If you grow up young and poor in the ring of poor colonias around San Salvador, it is difficult to have hope. Without hope, human life is cheap.

  • Failed ARENA government policies. There are no areas where the ARENA government has had any success in dealing with the gangs. Firm Hand and Super Firm Hand policies result in occasional sweeps and mass arrests in gang-controlled areas, but little progress. The majority of murders are never solved. The government has no working program for rehabilitation. The prisons are warehouses at best, and training grounds for the gangs at worst.


Anonymous said…
I live in Mejicanos, and work for and have stitched up numerous ms13, 18, mau mau, etc, and taught ESL in MAriona jail.

You missed the biggest one.

U.S. INvolvement in the CIVIL WAR.
Anonymous said…
As an opponent of U.S. involvement in the Salvadorian civil war, I am disposed to believe your assertion that this has something to do with the gang problem. However, it will take a little more reasoning to convince me. If the U.S. had not been involved, two scenarios are possible. 1) the left would have won. 2) The right would have persecuted the war even more violently, and won. If you think #1 would have reduced gang violence, how is this different than simply blaming ARENA policies? As for #2, I suppose the gangs would be the least of our problems under a D'Aubuisson dictatorship.
Anonymous said…
Without US intervention, though, backing the death squads and financing the official governemnts with millions of cash to fight off the "spreading RED plague", there is no way the official government would've won. Furthemore, the point is not WHO was the victors, but that there was a CIVIL war. This caused he families to break down in the first place, this is what caused people to migrate and lead to the forming of the wars. Also, even if there were a Butcher Dictatorship, if them people didn't turn into maras', you'd be certain that they'd represent the next wave of subversives.
Anonymous said…
you miss other big one

La PN-GN y la PH fueron disueltas.

la nueva PNC le falta mucho.


y son pocos en relacion a la cantidad de salvadoreños que somos
Anonymous said…
I'm confused. You say the problem was the fact that there was a civil war. You also say the left would have won without US help. How exactly would the left have won without fighting a civil war?

I think you are really saying that there would have been a civil war regardless of US intervention, the only difference would have been the outcome. I think this is probable. But, if the civil war would have occured regardless of US involvement, how can you claim US involvement is the cause of the maras?

You can claim that the US prevented a leftist victory. Thus, if you want to argue that the US caused the mara problem, you have to show that a leftist government would have prevented the formation of the maras.
El-Visitador said…
"Poverty. Gangs and crime are a product of the unemployment and poverty [...] jobs difficult to come by [...] great disparity in the distribution of wealth, young men turn to gangs as a way to survive."

Well, that's a mighty big insult to the poor. Does this argument insinuate that the poor have a tendency to be criminals? That to be unemployed = to be a criminal? Thank goodness I am not looking for a job now, who knows what might be said of me around these parts!

Are we to cross the street to the opposite sidewalk when we see a poor person, because she could be criminal? No! Yet this is exactly what this horrible prejudice you have put out as a "factor" implies.

- * -

To see just how wild this argument is, think of the following:

- Are Salvadoreans poorer today than in 1935 or 1975? How many gangs were there?

- How can it be explained that El Salvador has over 2 million youth, yet less than 100,000 belong to gangs? Is it because we have 1.9 million rich "uncriminal" kids?

- Is wealth today more evenly distributed than it was in 1965?

- Turn to gangs as a way to survive? Holy guacamole! You must never have seen the desperate but hardworking newspaper boy, the bus fellow who hawks newspapers, the fruit salesman, the kid who works 5 to 8 at the public market, goes to school, and then works 2 to 7.

I know you said that this is "one of the factors" ---I don't think it is a factor at all.

We are free will creatures. We choose our own path. Criminals elect to live outside of the law, and to imply otherwise, it is to insult millions of Salvadoreans who toil sunrise to sunsent and elect to live honorably.
Anonymous said…
very weel said visitador!!
Anonymous said…
How about over-population and the catholic church's silence in regards to birth control. Why is every young girl from 13-16 yrs holding a baby?
ARENA has been doing a great job. I see more children (yes Tim, even poor ones) going to school and sustained growth. When will you support women, birth control and the empowerment of women???
Tim said…
To El Visitador:

We've had this discussion before. Poor people are not criminals. Poverty may, however, create pressures on people which lead them to commit crimes. Those pressures are less for persons who can afford the basic necessities of life. Poverty can be correlated with gangs/criminal activity even if it is not a cause of that activity. If poverty disappeared in El Salvador tomorrow, I can guarantee that the problem of gangs and violence would decrease by some measure. But poverty is only one factor -- by itself it does not explain the violence in the country.

To anonymous:

I don't know why you think I oppose birth control or the empowerment of women. Empowering women, including giving them power over their reproductive lives, is important for reducing poverty, for reducing domestic violence, for increasing the earning power of women and much more. Maybe in the future I'll write a post about the tension between a conservative Catholic church hierarchy and these issues, but please don't make assumptions about my views.
Anonymous said…
Mi ingles no es lo suficiente bueno para ser escrito aunque creo poderlo leerlo bien. Por eso, escribo en español. Me disculpo con los demas lectores del blog de Tim y le pediria a él que lo traduzca si lo considera pertinente.

Negar que la pobreza sea un factor a favor de las pandillas es incorrecto.
Es como negar que el dengue y otras enfermedades siguen siendo endemicas en El Salvador debido a la pobreza que existe, entre otros factores. Estar de acuerdo con esto ultimo, por supuesto no quiere decir que como solo unos cientos de niños mueren anualmente de dengue y diarrea entonces quiere decir que los demas son ricos. Tampoco con eso se esta diciendo que solo los pobres padecen de dengue y diarrea.

Comparar el pasado con el presente sobre el tema es incorrecto tambien debido a que el marco de valores que tiene la sociedad actual y sus fuentes de influencia ha cambiado tambien.
Entre ellos figuran los programas de televisión, videos musicales y las películas que presentan la violencia como la solución fácil a los problemas y la sociedad materialista y consumista en la que vivimos que con frecuencia califica a los pobres de fracasados y les recuerda constantemente que se encuentran imposibilitados para hacer o tener lo que otros hacen o tienen.
Anonymous said…
One perspective missing sometimes in talking about gangs and violence and Salvadorans is that violence is, unfortunately, the prevailing strategy in our societies to pursue personal and group goals. The ruling classes don't have gangs, they have police forces and armies and, in the case of many places in Latin America, private armies that use various forms of violence to protect interests and pursue eocnomic, cultural and social goals.

Let me say that I think Jesus (and Ghandi and King and others) were right, that violence only leads to violence and there is a better way to get a good life than to use violence.

Nevertheless, in the real world you can see the "illegal" immigrant as a "criminal" or as a person who is taking initiative to solve a personal and family problem - poverty. In the US we give praise to the ones who want to be prosperous.. unless they don't have the right papers - wheich really translates into have the right "class" or "ethnic" identities.

Well, there is great distance between crossing the border without papers and some of the violence associated with gang life - including the violence that is self directed. Nevertheless, if the FMLN had been able to organize 100,000 militants in active resistance to the prevaling order, they would have been extremely happy. Gangs are the new civil war in El Salvador.

Agreeably, the violence they use is misappropriated, wrong, and, all things considered, criminal... but it is a kind of resistance to the established order, albiet using the same means to accomplish an end - violence - to get identity, power, economic wealth.

Gangs, I think, are a shared responsibility of the whole of the society. Blaming one group of another doesn't necesarily lead to a solution. The current society in El Salvador, as in the US, does not offer an acceptable, non-violent way for all people to obtain the minimum blessings of life to give meaning to existence... so, we have gangs, who, take initiative to resist being run over by reality and, in very violent ways, claim identity, power and economic standing in society.

If we could provide alternative ways to accomplish the same goals, many would enter for the better paths. The church, all the political parties, and civil society in general have to get involved to develop the alternatives.

To say, as I read in one of the blogs, that there are only 100,000 in gangs is like saying there are only 50,00 insurgents in Iraq - you can't get to that many if there aren't 10 or 15 persons who support, one way or another, the existence of the insurgency or the gangs.

Gangs and what we might call gratuitous and criminal violence are the ongoing expression of class warfare in societies where the prevailing institutions are unable to provide the underclasses with viable, non-violent and productive routes to meeting the fundamental needs of life.

That doesn't excuse the behaviour, but then there is no excuse either for the gratuitous and criminal behaviour unleashed by Osama Bin Laden and Bush either.
Anonymous said…
(This is the translation requested by "Soy salvadoreño" ["I'm Salvadoran"]- please address any responses to him)
"My English is not sufficiently good for writing, although I believe I can read it well. Therefore, I will write in Spanish. I ask that Tim's other blog readers excuse me and that he would translate it if he considers it pertinent.
"To deny poverty as a factor favoring the gangs is incorrect. It is like denying that dengue fever and other illnesses continue to be endemic in El Salvador owing to the poverty that exists, among other factors. To agree with this last statement, of course, does not mean that the fact that only some hundreds of children die annually of dengue and diarrhea therefore signifies that the rest are rich. Neither with this is it being said that only the poor suffer from dengue and diarrhea.

To compare the past with the present on this topic is incorrect as well, owing to the framing values the society currently has and the sources of influence have changed also.

Among these figure the TV shows, music videos, and movies that present violence as an easy solution to problems and the materialistic and consumerist society in which we live, which frequently labels the poor as failures and constantly reminds them that they find it made impossible for them to make or have that which others make or have.
# posted by Soy Salvadoreño : 6:36 PM
Anonymous said…
Don’t believe one optimistic word from any public figure about the economy or humanity in general. They are all part of the problem. Its like a game of Monopoly. In America, the richest 1% now hold 1/2 OF ALL UNITED STATES WEALTH. Unlike ‘lesser’ estimates, this includes all stocks, bonds, cash, and material assets held by America’s richest 1%. Even that filthy pig Oprah acknowledged that it was at about 50% in 2006. Naturally, she put her own ‘humanitarian’ spin on it. Calling attention to her own ‘good will’. WHAT A DISGUSTING HYPOCRITE SLOB. THE RICHEST 1% HAVE LITERALLY MADE WORLD PROSPERITY ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE. Don’t fall for all of their ‘humanitarian’ CRAP. ITS A SHAM. THESE PEOPLE ARE CAUSING THE SAME PROBLEMS THEY PRETEND TO CARE ABOUT. Ask any professor of economics. Money does not grow on trees. The government can’t just print up more on a whim. At any given time, there is a relative limit to the wealth within ANY economy of ANY size. So when too much wealth accumulates at the top, the middle class slip further into debt and the lower class further into poverty. A similar rule applies worldwide. The world’s richest 1% now own over 40% of ALL WORLD WEALTH. This is EVEN AFTER you account for all of this ‘good will’ ‘humanitarian’ BS from celebrities and executives. ITS A SHAM. As they get richer and richer, less wealth is left circulating beneath them. This is the single greatest underlying cause for the current US recession. The middle class can no longer afford to sustain their share of the economy. Their wealth has been gradually transfered to the richest 1%. One way or another, we suffer because of their incredible greed. We are talking about TRILLIONS of dollars. Transfered FROM US TO THEM. Over a period of about 27 years. Thats Reaganomics for you. The wealth does not ‘trickle down’ as we were told it would. It just accumulates at the top. Shrinking the middle class and expanding the lower class. Causing a domino effect of socio-economic problems. But the rich will never stop. They will never settle for a reasonable share of ANYTHING. They will do whatever it takes to get even richer. Leaving even less of the pie for the other 99% of us to share. At the same time, they throw back a few tax deductable crumbs and call themselves ‘humanitarians’. IT CAN’T WORK THIS WAY. This is going to end just like a game of Monopoly. The current US recession will drag on for years and lead into the worst US depression of all time. The richest 1% will live like royalty while the rest of us fight over jobs, food, and gasoline. Crime, poverty, and suicide will skyrocket. So don’t fall for all of this PR CRAP from Hollywood, Pro Sports, and Wall Street PIGS. ITS A SHAM. Remember: They are filthy rich EVEN AFTER their tax deductable contributions. Greedy pigs. Now, we are headed for the worst economic and cultural crisis of all time. SEND A “THANK YOU” NOTE TO YOUR FAVORITE MILLIONAIRE. ITS THEIR FAULT. I’m not discounting other factors like China, sub-prime, or gas prices. But all of those factors combined still pale in comparison to that HUGE transfer of wealth to the rich. Anyway, those other factors are all related and further aggrivated because of GREED. If it weren’t for the OBSCENE distribution of wealth within our country, there never would have been such a market for sub-prime to begin with. Which by the way, was another trick whipped up by greedy bankers and executives. IT MAKES THEM RICHER. The credit industry has been ENDORSED by people like Oprah, Ellen, Dr Phil, and many other celebrities. IT MAKES THEM RICHER. So don’t fall for their ‘good will’ BS. ITS A LIE. If you fall for it, then you’re a fool. If you see any real difference between the moral character of a celebrity, politician, attorney, or executive, then you’re a fool. WAKE UP PEOPLE. The 1% club will always say or do whatever it takes to get as rich as possible. Without the slightest regard for anything or anyone but themselves. Vioxx. Their idea. Sub-prime. Their idea. NAFTA. Their idea. Outsourcing. Their idea. The commercial lobbyist. Their idea. The multi-million dollar lawsuit. Their idea. $200 cell phone bills. Their idea. $200 basketball shoes. Their idea. $30 late fees. Their idea. $30 NSF fees. Their idea. $20 DVDs. Their idea. Subliminal advertising. Their idea. The MASSIVE campaign to turn every American into a brainwashed credit card, pharmaceutical, love-sick, celebrity junkie. Their idea. All of which concentrate the world’s wealth and resources and wreak havok on society. All of which have been CREATED AND ENDORSED by celebrities, athletes, and executives. IT MAKES THEM RICHER. So don’t fall for their ‘ good will’ ‘humanitarian’ BS. ITS A SHAM. NOTHING BUT TAX DEDUCTABLE PR CRAP. Bottom line: The richest 1% will soon tank the largest economy in the world. It will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. and thats just the beginning. Greed will eventually tank every major economy in the world. Causing millions to suffer and die. Oprah, Angelina, Brad, Bono, and Bill are not part of the solution. They are part of the problem. EXTREME WEALTH HAS MADE WORLD PROSPERITY ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE. WITHOUT WORLD PROSPERITY, THERE WILL NEVER BE WORLD PEACE OR ANYTHING EVEN CLOSE. GREED KILLS. IT WILL BE OUR DOWNFALL. Of course, the rich will throw a fit and call me a madman. Of course, their ignorant fans will do the same. You have to expect that. But I speak the truth. If you don’t believe me, then copy this entry and run it by any professor of economics or socio-economics. Then tell a friend. Call the local radio station. Re-post this entry or put it in your own words. Be one of the first to predict the worst economic and cultural crisis of all time and explain its cause. WE ARE IN BIG TROUBLE.