Pain in the Salvadoran community

The e-mail arrived with the subject line "Pain in the community." It was not good news. Two youth, William and Moises, had been killed by gang members coming from a neighboring district. William and Moises were not gang members; they were only victims. Moises was attending secondary school, partly funded by a scholarship through my church.

The e-mail described the boys funeral:
We passed through the streets of Tonacatepeque, the youth of the community and the fellow students carrying the bodies for burial in the cemetery. It was an afternoon of great pain. The mothers and family members cry bitterly, but the fathers don't cry, they don't speak. Now they think only of showing themselves "passive, strong" -- as they bury their sons.

Moises and William lived in a poor "colonia" or neighborhood to the northeast of San Salvador. It is a place of small cinderblock houses on tiny lots with electricity but no running water. Most households are led by single mothers, and unemployment or underemployment characterizes the situation of most adults.

I knew the families of Moises and William. We have pictures of the boys in our photo albums. I have hugged their mothers and shared meals with these families. Their senseless deaths are just two of the thousands who have died in recent years from the scourge of the gangs in similar communities.

But this was not the first time that gang violence had impacted my friends in this community. The community where these events take place exists in a war zone. El Salvador's two rival gangs each control one of the neighboring districts. A visitor to the community earlier this year told this story:
We first heard about trouble late in the night, when our friend hurried into the house to tell us that his son and son-in-law had not come home. The family had looked for them, and found out that they had been picked up by the police who were investigating a gang-related murder that had taken place on a bus earlier that day, on the road just outside of the community. The family was upset and scared, and before we went to bed, we held hands and prayed that the boys would have a peaceful night.

The next morning, the father had to travel to another city to collect a document which proved that his son was a minor, aged 16. The other boy is 18. The pastor assembled a little rescue team to go and find out what the boys' situation was. As I stepped out of the house, a mom in the community ran up to me and told me that her daughter was having a nervous breakdown in the night. Her daughter, who is 17, was on a bus when the bus driver was shot by a man with a gun. The daughter couldn't sleep all night, and didn't want to take medicine that would badly affect the 5-month old baby she was nursing.

The rescue team was able to get the 2 boys relocated to the police station nearest to the community. The volunteer lawyer said that there was no evidence against the boys, and that they would be released in a day or two. The family was able to take some clothes to the boys.

I found the 17 year-old girl on her way home from school a few hours later. Her mom had wanted her to stay home, but she wanted to continue her studies, and said it helped her not to think about what had happened. She told this story: "I was riding the micro to school. A man with a gun came onto the bus. He looked around and I tried not to look at him. I held my backpack in front of my face so I couldn't see and prayed to God, and prayed to God. I was really scared. The man with the gun shot the man, and they couldn't fix his stomach so he died." She told me that she is scared to be outside of the house, but God will protect her.

A few days later, we found the two boys safely at home. They looked tired, and relieved. They probably won't ever talk much about their experiences. The men in the community don't like to talk about these things.

In my trips to El Salvador I have also gotten to know Luis. Luis has been trying for years to escape the gangs. He is learning carpentry and looking for a way to support himself and his family. He writes beautiful, sensitive letters. But Luis' efforts to try to escape the gangs, have already cost the lives of his aunt and cousin. The maras view your family as a fair target if they feel you have betrayed them.

Today, Luis sits in a border patrol detention facility in the United States. It seems that Luis has given up trying to make a living as an ex-gang member in a country where jobs are few and the danger is high. The lure of "el norte" was too great; however he was apprehended shortly after stepping foot on US soil.

I tell these stories because they make the statistics personal. They are a small glimpse for me behind the phrase "most violent country in Latin America." They influence how I think about the problem of gang violence and what, if anything, can be done about this epidemic.

In the next few days I'll write more about the gangs. There is too much "pain in the community."


Anonymous said…
Tim, our sympathies and prayers go to you and your friends. Änd this incident shows the biggest problem facing El Salvador right now, the gangs. Most of the violence, most of the killings that occur here and give it such a violent reputation come from the gangs. Killing is how they settle their differences, how they initiate new members into the gangs and how they extort money from the weak. Working with gang intervention ministries can also put your life at risk as a close friend of mine found out recently. Strangely enough, gangs seem to be a curse limited to democracies. Most people here tell you there was no gang problem when it was a military run authoritarian government. Castro has no gang problem. But they hide behind and flourish under the human rights protection and rule of law that comes with democracies. And no one seems to have a handle on it. In the U.S. with one of the most well-equipped, well trained police forces in the world, gangs still control neighborhoods in large cities. So to blame Tony Saca for this problem is futile. The government is not the enemy. The 12 deaths that occur daily here are not from right wing death squads as one poster suggested. The enemy is the gangs. How to respond to this cancer and still maintain basic democratic rights is the dilemma. There are far too many fatherless young men in this country which leaves them ripe for the picking. Several times in the history of the U.S. there were what were referred to as Great Awakenings that changed society and the course of history, and I pray that El Salvador has hers and soon.
Anonymous said…
If the government is not responsible for the gang problem, what is it responsible for? True, Saca inherited the gang problem, but all governments inherit all the problems as well as the assets of their country. ARENA has controlled El Salvador for almost 20 years. Before that, they played a large role in the war that tore families apart - the root of the gang problem.

As for you’re your assertion that authoritarian governments don’t have gang problems, you don’t support this with any evidence beyond the anecdotal example of Cuba. What matters is government competence over a period of decades. The fact is that Cuba’s government is relatively competent for an authoritarian government. Sweeden and Costa Rica don’t have much in the way of gang problems, but the Soviet Union did (

Cuba sucks. It is not an example of good governance. The place is falling apart. People are hungry, not starving, but hungry. However, under a Rawlsian veil of ignorance (meaning you will be born to a random family in the country), where would you rather be born El Salvador or Cuba. Let’s face it; it is a sad day for El Salvador that most people in the world would choose Cuba. What other explanation is there other than that El Salvador has been poorly governed for the past 50 years.
Tim said…
I'm not sure that authoritarian v. democratic is a distinction which will help us answer this problem. Consider Chavez' Venezuela where violent crime and gangs are a rapidly growing problem. (I'm not going to comment on whether Venezuela is authoritarian or democratic or something else).

A better focus is on El Salvador's neighbors. Why is Nicaragua, a poorer country than El Salvador, also one of the safest countries in all Latin America? I don't know, but I have a hunch that answering that question may give us some ideas on what must change in El Salvador.
Anonymous said…
I believe that the root of the gang problems are multiple:

1) Fault to the US intolerant society that failed to assimilate the different minorities. This lead to the creation of the gangs.

From El Salvador
2)Being the most densely populated nation in America.

3)The war, which caused multiple people to flee, and eventually lead to 1).

4)US kindly exporting them gangs, which eventually set strongholds in whatever country they entered, and popularized the "gang culture" on the discontent youths of Latin America, eventually even "migrating" increasing their territory.

5)After the war, more than three terms of presidential failure by ARENA. Failing to fix the problems that initially created the civil war, having no trace of social consciousness and act proactively to improve things.

6)Lack of education, lack of jobs, and STILL being the most densely populated country of America, and the smallest, too.

All in all, even when gangs have become a problem, to eliminate them, you must first eliminate the things that gave them a reason to exist.
Anonymous said…
Im sorry for your loss Tim,

I visit your blogs weekly and this truly saddens me. My prayers are with your friends in Central America.

It seems like there will always be this cycle of violence which will never stop. I fear for all my family living in San Salvador, especially my cousin who is a male in his 20s. In my opinion the gang problem is rooted in the Civil War and like many aspects of the war it left scars so deep that they penetrated a younger genration. A generation that only sees the same cycle of violence and no way out of the slums. Other Latin American countires have gone what we are going through, Colombia is an example. The huge buisness of cocaine that attracted many of the countires youth in the 80s was enourmous in Cali, Medellin, and Bogota.

I dont have an answer to remedy this quagmire. To me the young people of El Salvador are infatuated with the Wstern way of life. Making money and buying what you need. El Salvador has much larger numbers of people than here in the states than Nicaragua, and the same goes for Honduras and Guatemala. The youth arent content with livng a simple life in Latin America. They want what they feel is deserevd to them, and I blame this ideology along with ither complicated factors for the problem.
Anonymous said…
It is not question of a "simple life", it is question of not having a "deginifying life".

But with temporal houses that fall apart every year, slave jobs, lack of job placements, over expensive "canasta basica", greedy oligarchy in power, corruption, too huge population, etc. that is what leads people to be socially discontent. I mean, dying of diarrhea, bad nutrition, not having the medicine to fix things, not having a good place to live, etc. is something opposed to a "simple life": a dignifying place to live, be it an apartment building (which being the size we are and the people we accomodate-- or rather DON'T accomodate-- SHOULD be the way to go), a humane job, and a government that listens to you: satisfying your NEEDS. Here that isn't accomplished, reason why you get people who feel that gangs is the way to go. They feel that in a "pack" they have better chances of survival, lack of jabs etc they resort to extortion and theft, lack of faith in things getting better ushers resentment and general apathy towards the society that marginalizes them. Etc. Key to eliminate this is to satisfy the people's needs. No more needy people, lowers the scale of problems a country has to face.
Anonymous said…
Regarding Nicaragua, remember that they were in a totallitary regimen for few years after its civil war, and living under some comunist flavor.
So, they had similar tactics to watch the life of their citizens in the same way as Cuba has made it for years.

Those tactics still are in the mind of the people, so they feel like others are watching its movements.

Under this kind of regimen, people is transformed in its mind.
That is a contradiction of the comunist countries, but it works on a more controlled life in aspects like violent crime.
Anonymous said…
I actually believe Nicaragua's luck has a lot to do with it being the biggest Central American country, but the LEAST densely populated.
Anonymous said…
The only group not blamed for the gang problem in these posts seems to be the gangs.
Anonymous said…
Salvadorians are too poor have dignified lives? That is an insult to the half of the world who live worse than Salvadorians. El Salvador’s standard of living is not that bad. The median Salvadorian has a higher per capita income than the median human being. The problem is that people have come to redefine “dignified.” Exposure to the United States and remittance receivers has given young people unrealistic expectations.

As for the comment on “US intolerant society,” let’s not forget that Salvadorians play a role in this. I can’t count the times I have been embarrassed by Salvadorian comments about Mexicans, Blacks, Asians, etc. The relatively few gringos who speak this way are ostracized, but Salvadorians put up with it.

With all the complaints about population density, perhaps the gangs are doing us a favor by thinning out the population? The funny thing is that Salvadorians in the US constantly complain about living in “pueblitos,” low-density US cities with over a million people. Many of the safest countries in the world (S. Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan) have higher population densities than El Salvador.

The main cause of the gang problem is not that complicated. Lack of parenting and easy money (for kids receiving remittances) has led to disaster. US immigration policy encourages family separation. Parents choose material well-being over time with their kids. Too many kids grow up without parents. Exposure to remittance receivers leads to unrealistic expectations and lack of work ethic. When kids get older they find that money doesn’t grow on trees so, having never observed their parents going to work every day, they turn to a life of crime.

Sure there are other factors. As long as we are throwing ideas out there, I will too – too many Salvadorians are fundamentalist nutcases. The Journal of Religion and Society published an article last year showing a correlation between religion and social dysfunction in prosperous democracies. The University of Michigan’s world values survey shows that El Salvador is the least secular-rational.
Anonymous said…
Dignified life? And insult to half of the world of people that live worse than Salvadoreans? Are you KIDDING me? First of all, I'm talking here about El Salvador, so I'm concntrating on OUR country. So excuse me for not talking about Somalia, North Korea, etc. But if you want to go to that extent, then YES, people become more violent and discontent when they don't have a dignifying life, i.e. a life were there human rights are entirely met.

A life where a human's basic needs are met, where on is free from exploitation, where one can be assured safety in his own country or wherever he goes, a right to a proper job that with it's wages reflects the job he does, is this not what a dignifying life should be? Should not this be what El Salvador should aim to accomplish, and to that extent to satisfy your exaggerated self, shouldn't it be this the norm the entire world should reach?

And of course Singapur is almost the size of El Salvador, and a very densely populated country, but it sure as hell KNOWS how to administer it's lands. It knows how to accomodate it's people, it is also one of the world's least corrupt countries of the world, it has a government that has been able to tackle raising problems properly, it is a country where unemployment is low, it has a government that cares for it's people.

And you worst of all make it appear as if the problem of maras were attached to remittances, a clear ignorance of the very origin of the damn gangs, take a look at the Bloods, the Crips, and the MS-13 gang. All of them started from refugees, or whatever, in a country that failed to assimilate them, that octrazided them. Unemployed and uneducated. You bet that rather than begging, they took a more direct path to make money: theft, extortion, etc. Remmittances or not, you'd bet that the overpopulated country that is El Salvador, which there are many people that could be considered to be SLAVES in their own country would still find crimes as an option to achieve whatever they want. They are the indications of a sick society, a society that doesn't know how to accomodate them. You have an incompetent government that does nothing to satisfy people's needs.

Even though I must admit, that bad parenting can be a cause of the problem, but then again, what great country is this that either people migrate to work or they are stuck wondering what the hell to do? Perhaps even with both parents, people would resort to crime as an alternative.
Anonymous said…
If you had been following the thread, you would have seen my criticism of the Salvadorian government just a few messages ago. Given that there are several anonymous posters, I can’t tell where you are coming from in this conversation, but it would be nice to take the time to read the previous posts.

I agree that high wages, basic needs, safety are things for which all governments should aim. In this thread, I have replied to posters who say we shouldn’t blame the government for the county’s apparent problems on the one hand and to posters who only want to compare El Salvadorian living standards with those of the top 5% in the world on the other. You call Salvadorian living standards undignified while other threads bizarrely argue that El Salvador is the fifth happiest place in the world. I am trying to bring a broader perspective to the debate.

If you are a scientist or an athlete who hasn’t won a Nobel Prize or an Olympic gold metal are you undignified? There is no need for hyperbole. El Salvador is what it is - a middle income country. Its government was quite atrocious through most of the 20th century and is now only mediocre. The result is a country where health and nutrition are inadequate, but still better than most of the world and certainly better than people have lived with throughout human history. Violence is worse than average, but by no means the worst in the world.

Pointing at the US as a cause of the gang problem has merit. The US is a society where social dysfunction prospers. There are many reasons for this (see this article for an interesting perspective,,2-1798944,00.html). However, we can’t do too much about that so it would be good find some causes that Salvadorians can do something about.

Let’s look at your U.S. origins of the gangs problem - 1) Lack of employment opportunities, 2) lack of education, and 3) lack of assimilation (did I miss anything?). 1) Part of this has to do with #2, but part of this has to do with US immigration policy. I will be the last person to defend the US immigration policies. I would like to live in a world where people are free to live where they want. However, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. As has been pointed out multiple times on the board, El Salvador is just as bad when it comes to accepting immigrants. During Haiti’s crisis Calderon Sol said the best way El Salvador could help was with its “very professional military,” he would not accept any refugees. Salvadorians are at least as intolerant as Americans, perhaps more so.

2) Education in the US is very unequal. Schools are provided by local governments. You go to school where you live. Schools in poor neighborhoods are as bad as Salvadorian schools; public schools in rich neighborhoods are some of the best in the world. It is not a good system, but there is an important point to make for it. Those public schools in rich neighborhoods are FREE to those who live in the rich neighborhood. Rich neighborhoods (by definition) have limited affordable housing, but there are places most Salvadorians can afford to live. In fact, an apartment in a rich neighborhood in Ohio is much cheaper than an apartment in a poor neighborhood in New York or D.C. Wages for restaurant workers are higher in Ohio since they have fewer immigrants competing for the jobs. Thus, Salvadorian parents have no excuse for sending their kids to bad US schools. Some live near bad schools because they want to stay near their own kind (an intolerance itself wouldn’t you say). Others simply have different spending priorities – sending every spare penny as remittances, buying electronics or simply renting a home where they can afford the most living space. So, once again, parents bear some of the responsibility for not prioritizing their kids over other material desires.

3) Assimilation is a complicated matter. True, the US is not the most tolerant country in the world, but it is more tolerant than most and probably more tolerant than El Salvador. Most communities offer free English classes. You should also consider that not everyone wants to be assimilated and some people do quite well without assimilating. Where is the evidence that Salvadorians are ostracized? Sure there are American bigots, but it is the bigots who are ostracized by mainstream America. The only Salvadorians I know who are ostracized by the larger society are bigots themselves, those who make offensive statements about Mexicans, blacks, etc.
Anonymous said…
The question is, when will it ever end? This has been going on for so long. Some say itwill never end, but maybe it can decrease a bit.
The root of the problem is ignorance, and over population.