Civil war raged in El Salvador between 1980 and 1992. Many victims of the war fled as refugees to the United States, particularly Los Angeles. Young Salvadorean men from peasant backgrounds were often pushed around and humiliated on the streets of Los Angeles by Mexican gangs who ridiculed the way they spoke Spanish, for example. Salvadorean youth organized and hit back, taking over some prominent formerly Mexican gangs and their rackets.
After the war, successive US administrations pushed young refugees with criminal records back to El Salvador. They then grafted onto street life in El Salvador violent elements of gang culture in Los Angeles. These gangs brought a level of violence to El Salvador that it had never experienced before. More people were being killed by homicide in many of the years after the war than were killed by armed conflict during the war. The homicide problem has also proved more historically protracted than the war death problem. In 2015, 23 years after the war ended, El Salvador had a far higher homicide rate than any other country. People refer to the civil war over ideology as being replaced by a “social war” between the police, the military and the gangs.
The challenge is that the cycling of young men caught up initially in the war culture, then gang culture in Los Angeles, followed by gang culture in El Salvador, has become a never-ending and growing cycle.
More refugees are fleeing gang violence in El Salvador to head for the United States today than were fleeing war violence in the 1980s. Salvadorean gangs today control the streets of Latino communities not only in parts of Los Angeles, but in parts of many US cities. More of these gang members are being deported back to El Salvador from the United States today than was occurring immediately after the war. So the cycle accelerates: victimization of refugees, hopelessness, and turning to gangs as the best opportunity structure and social welfare system available to them.
Salvadorean gangs are becoming increasingly significant players transnationally in illicit drug markets. Ironically, they are also becoming more involved in the human trafficking business at the front end of the cycle that created them. They have created such a violent society in El Salvador that the business investment that might help lift young people out of poverty is chilled. They stay away from a country where they cannot keep their employees and property safe.
What is the lesson of this terrible saga of war producing a refugee problem that cycles to worse violence than the war?
It is for the international community to focus on caring for refugees before their children fall into the hands of gangs. This means providing safe communities, within safe zones of the country where the violence is raging, to which Internally Displaced Persons can flee and be provided with excellent housing, excellent healthcare, excellent educational opportunities for their children and assistance with moving into the workforce. With enough international assistance, this could be accomplished in El Salvador today. NGOs supported by churches are beginning to do this kind of work, but they need more resources to expand their community development work.
Many safe communities remain within El Salvador that could be supported to take on the challenge of taking in those fleeing violence in other parts of the country. The alternative is to allow the cycle of violence to continue, to allow the sway of gangs to spread to control the streets of ever-growing proportions of El Salvador. These gangs will then continue to grow as a driver of criminality in the United States and the other countries of Central America as well; and beyond to certain Latino communities in Europe.