Dateline Central America:

Military Armed forces Launch onto the Streets of El Salvador in Conjunction with the National Police

As thousands of people gathered on the 20th of November, outside of Fort Benning, Georgia for the annual protest to shut down the US Army training center dubbed by critics as the “School of the Assassins” for having trained some of the worst human rights violators in Latin America, El Salvadorean armed forces have now taken to the streets of El Salvador in conjunction with the national police. Although priests murdered by graduates of the School of the Americas were posthumously and recently bestowed El Salvador’s highest civilian award by the newly elected president, marking for the first time the fact that Salvadoran government has honored the priests since their deaths, on November 6th 2009 about 3,800 soldiers from the El Salvadorean army launched into the streets with the National Police in an attempt to combat the growing delinquency and violence that has surrounded many of the barrios in the city.  Mauricio Funes, the recently elected president of El Salvador, himself a former guerilla for the FMLN, has decided to use the military forces to contain the growing threat by the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, or MS, as they are known in the streets (Terra/EFE

MS in El Salvador and Central America

Mara Salvatrucha has, without a doubt, become Central America’s greatest problem, both criminal and civil, and they extend throughout Central America, not just in El Salvador.  Not only do they commit extremely violent acts against citizens and gang rivals, but the gang has even engaged in the past in organized violent acts against the government.  Take for example in 1997 when the son of Honduras President Ricardo Maduro was kidnapped and murdered by MS-13 members.  MS-13 members have also continued to mock Central American government officials with their ineffable violence and tattooed logos of gang affiliation. Members left a dismembered corpse with a note for the Honduras president in 1997 that “more people will die… the next victims will be police and journalists.”.  In 2004, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger received a similar message attached to the body of a dismembered man from MS-13 members ( Mara Salvatrucha).

In 2002 in the city of Tegucigalpa in the Honduras, MS-13 members boarded a public bus and immediately executed 28 people including 7 small children. Again, they left a message written on the front of the bus taunting government officials to fight them, to find them, to confront them (ibid).

Honduras was the first Central American country to adopt strict anti-gang laws. As a result of MS-13, Honduran government officials enacted a law that makes it illegal to be an associate of a crime, in other words, if someone looks like a gang member, they are profiled and subject to arrest.  El Salvador adopted a similar law calling it Mano Dura or Firm Hand in the early 2000’s.  In 2004, El Salvador went so far as to implement “Super Mano Dura” to strengthen elements of their existing laws. A suspect in violation of these laws now could find themselves facing a 12-year prison sentence, even if no crime had been committed.  Having a gang tattoo or ski-mask was evidence enough of criminal behavior and many gang members languish in both US and El Salvadorean prisons as a result.

Authorities in El Salvador estimate there could be as many as 30,000 so-called mareros in El Salvador alone, who sell drugs, rob illegal migrants or extort money from businesses in the tiny, impoverished country of 6.1 million people. Many of the gangsters were deported back to El Salvador from the United States after serving jail terms.  More on this later.

El Salvador now boasts of one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.  Plane loads from the US would arrive (and still do according to my sources) weekly, dropping gang members into the middle of the city of San Salvador with no jobs, no skills, no education, no social services, heavily tattooed and basically exiled from the larger community.

Population Says it Supports Armed Forces in the Streets

Although the move by the new Funes government in El Salvador was met by some residents of the country with skepticism, an overwhelming 94 percent of the population seems to back the measure ( November 19, 2009, Troops Return to El Salvador Streets, Targeting Crime, Terra, Last night I spoke by telephone to my good friend of twelve years who works as a taxi driver in San Salvador, El Salvador.  I visit him every two years in El Salvador and he strongly supports the action of the new president, stating that the violence of fear, intimidation and homicides has made life unbearable for himself and his family.  He indicated that if the situation does not improve he will move out of the country, for he has been attacked several times by gangs.

With over 14 homicides per day, or 56 per thousand residents of this war torn country, the situation regarding growing violent extortion and narco-trafficking gangs has reached its denouement (ibid).  Nevertheless, the future hardly promises a better tomorrow and one could say with all candidness that it proceeds to look even grimmer as El Salvador is bent on breaking its own record when the next annual murder statistics are compiled and released.
During the first ten months of 2009 alone, the number of murders by gangs was an astounding 3,673 – that’s 500 more than all recorded in 2008, according to the Spanish news agency EFE (

On October 20th, 2009 the United Nations Development Programme Report on Human Development in Central America was released — a report presided over by the President of El Salvador together with Rebeca Grynspan, Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean:

Central America has become the region with the highest levels of non-political crime worldwide. According to Report data, approximately 79,000 people have been murdered in the region over the past 6 years. Despite the significant differences among the region’s countries, the average murder rate reached 33 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, three times greater than the global average (UNDP presents the Report on Human Development in Central America

The gang problem is not just limited to narco-trafficking but is expressed in what is known as “la renta”, an extortion racket that has touched over 11,000 public service members in the country.  The payment demanded by the gangs is $8.00 to $10.00 per day just to do business in the country.  If the payment is not received, then death ensues.  According to Terra, an online newsletter that covers the region, “la renta” has caused 122 assassinations of conductors of transportation, business aids, and businesses personnel in 2009 alone.  The armed forces of El Salvador, in conjunction with the national police, are now in the streets of the capital San Salvador and some of the ,members of the Armed Forces frighteningly harken back to the 1980-1992 days of terror and violence, much of it learned at the School of the Americas (Terra, June 11, 2009).

The Deputy for the right-wing, and some say formerly fascist party, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), Deputy Carlos Reyes weighed in eagerly on the neo-militarization stating:

We agree that the army needs to take care of the civil population that is suffering from the delinquency (

But not all citizens of El Salvador are in agreement with the new plan to militarize the country using the armed forces in conjunction with the national police. José María Tojeira, a Rector at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), called the move “propagandistic” (ibid).

I do not think that the presence of the military will contribute in any major way to the descension of violence” (ibid)

He went on to add that although the presence of the military in some zones would make them un-useable for the gangs, the fact is that the “delinquencia” has the ability to organize themselves and change geographical locations, hinting that this might just be a move in the beginning of another civil war.  From his point of view, what is needed is political and systemic change.

Benjamin Cuellar of the Institute for Human rights at the University, went on to add that:

It is more of the same.  For 15 years El Salvador has been patrolled by the military (

He even went so far as to say that the militarization of El Salvador has the possibility of worsening the situation, not bettering it.

What can happen with this scenario?  That  organized crime in El Salvador will ‘Guatamalsize” itself or “mexicanize” itself, or “columbianize” itself? (ibid)

He then went on to point to the militarization of Brazil and Mexico where armed forces have exacerbated the gang problem.  One might add Guatemala, Honduras and perhaps soon, Nicaragua to the list.

Preparation has been in the planning: What it all Means?

According to a report published by Terra, the mission was planned earlier this year when on June 18th, 2009 2,500 military El Salvadorean personnel participated with the 1,300 National Civil Police (PNC) in preparing for military operations in preparation for entering the barrios to contain the ever increasing violence wrought by ‘gangas’.  These are areas where the MS’ has strongholds. reported on November 19th, 2009:

Bringing 3,800 troops into civilian regions was an unusual decision for a country where the armed forces – and military-backed death squads – were linked to the brutal civil war that took tens of thousands of lives in the 1980s, reports Inter Press Service ( Troops Return to El Salvador Streets, Targeting Crime, November 19, 2009).

With the support of the newly elected president and most of the population, what this means is that the armed forces and the soldiers within them will get back some of the same dictatorial power they had during the civil war.  These powers include setting up road blocks, searching and arresting citizens and who knows what more.  “We live in exceptional times and we must utilize the armed forces”, stated Funes in an interview.  He also stated at a press meeting that he would guarantee the security of the public citizenry (  He went on to note that five of the fourteen departments that make up the country, including San Salvador, will be posted to register people, vehicles, detain “flagrancy”, reinforce blind spots on the borders, provide air support, maritime support and field support to combat the gangs while they oversee external security in the prisons where many MS members reside and organize.  This is now what is happening in the country.

La Vida Loca

Christian Poveda, the Dutch filmmaker, who lived in El Salvador filming and living with the MS was found in his car murdered, a shot to the head, early in September of this year.  Police say that Poveda was driving back from filming in La Campanera, an overcrowded ghetto that is a stronghold of the Mara 18 gang, when he was apparently ambushed. Poveda was 52 years old and his body was discovered in a car in Tonacatepeque, a poor rural area, 10 miles outside the capital, San Salvador.  The film he made, La Vida Loca (Crazy Life), was critical of the heavy police crackdown on gang members, which Poveda felt failed to take account of the hopeless poverty and personal tragedy that drive young Salvadorans to turn to crime (Times online September 3, 2009 Controversial French filmmaker Christian Poveda shot dead in El Salvador).

La Vida Loca concentrated on the hopeless and brutal lives of various fantastically fanatic tattooed members of Mara 18.  Many of the MS gangsters were killed or jailed during the filming by Poveda and the documentary records disturbing scenes of disposable lives of horror and apocalyptic fear: gang members gunned down in the streets, relatives crying over coffins and young female gangsters with tattooed faces can now be viewed on the internet. Poveda actually lived with the MS in El Salvador while producing the film, making the murder even more difficult to swallow.  In a recent interview with El Faro, a Salvadoran online newspaper, shortly before his death, Poveda commented:

We have to understand why a 12- or 13-year-old child joins a gang and gives his life to it.  Children who have terrible family problems, or come from poor families who don’t have time to take care of their children (

US Deportation Measures Fuel the Problem

US deportation measures and the growing anti-immigration sentiment in the US has helped fuel the problem of gang violence in Central America for years.  Latino gang members have been targeted for particularly aggressive action by ICE officials and have been for some time.  Since 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dragnets have swept up more than 6,000 suspected gangsters and deported them back to their countries of origin.  From 2005 to 2007, arrests—usually preludes to deportation—increased more than fivefold (How to Grow a Gang, The Atlantic, By deporting record numbers of Latino criminals, the U.S. may make its gang problem worse. May 2008, by Matthew Quirk

In the mid-1990s a similar wave of criminal deportations occurred and this is exactly what helped build the notorious Mara Salvatrucha. The criminal deportations helped turn a small gang from Los Angeles, Mara Salvatrucha (better known as MS-13), into an international threat and now what Customs and Border Protection calls America’s “most dangerous gang.” MS-13 was formed in the Rampart area of Los Angeles in 1988 or 1989, during the time I worked with newly arriving immigrant families and their children as a teacher in South Central Los Angeles. A civil war in El Salvador had displaced a fifth of that country’s population, and a small number of the roughly 300,000 Salvadorans living in L.A. banded together to form the gang in an effort to protect themselves from rival Mexican gangs.  But MS-13 didn’t really take off until several years later, in El Salvador, after the U.S. adopted a get-tough policy on crime and immigration and began deporting first thousands, and then tens of thousands, of Central Americans each year, including many gang members.  According to journalist Matthew Quirk of the Atlantic:

Salvadoran police report that 90 percent of deported gang members return to the U.S. After several spins through the deportation-and-return cycle, MS-13 members now control many of the “coyote” services that bring aliens up from Central America. Deportation—a free trip south—can be quite profitable for those gang members who bring others back with them upon their return (ibid).

It is a revolving door of gloom and doom and MS-13 and other gangs born in the United States now have 70,000 to 100,000 members in Central America, concentrated mostly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The murder rate in each of these countries is now higher than that of Colombia, long the murder capital of Latin America.

In Guatemala the Situation is Worse

In Guatemala, the situation can be said to be even worse than that found in El Salvador.  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, said in a weekend press statement in 2006 at the end of an official visit to the Central American country:

Nothing can exemplify this better than the delay encountered by victims of the armed conflict in obtaining justice and reparation. Where impunity is the rule for past violations, it should come as no surprise that it also prevails for current crimes (May 30, 2006, New Centre Guatemala must do more to assure security, justice – UN rights chief.

She then went on to call for reform of the police, including dismissal of officers with poor human rights records and criminal prosecutions where required.

This has led Guatemala earning the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent countries in the region (ibid)

Echoes of El Salvador?  In general terms, Guatemala continues to suffer from the region’s lowest public investment in social services and lowest tax collection base at 10 per cent of gross domestic product. It scores consistently low on the UN Human Development Indices including on infant mortality, life expectancy and literacy.  Arbour went on to note:

Security cannot be achieved without a sustained attention to the social and economic challenges that the country faces. (ibid)

I recently drove with a Nicaraguan man from Managua to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua and he described to me how the gangs now work with motorcycles to drive 16 wheel trucks off the road to steal their cargo.  It happened to him, which is why he quit working for the trucking company out of Guatemala that employed him.

Death Squads in El Salvador:  La Sombra Negra

Over the past few years there has been numerous speculation, proffered evidence and discussion regarding Central America’s death squads. The existence of death squads for political purposes has been a frequent occurrence in the history of the country of El Salvador, as well as elsewhere.  In the 1980s a vigilante group from El Salvador known as Sombra Negra, or Black Shadow was founded in El Salvador. They were extremely active in attempting to erase the criminal elements from their social fabric and would resort to extra-judicial assassinations to do so.  Believing that the judicial system in El Salvador was not up to the task in adequately dealing with the nation’s problems, many ‘citizens’ became what many would call “Self-appointed executioners of justice.”  Compared to similar groups of years past, La Sombra Negra receives little attention or mention from the media inside our outside of Central America.  According to the website, this may be attributed to in part because MS does not engage in massive executions like their counterparts in other Central American countries, but instead kill their victims individually or in small groups( In addition their victims are almost exclusively gang members and other criminals, hardly a sympathetic group.

Couple this with “la renta” and the mass kidnappings that plague El Salvador, many El Salvadorean people are now not only supporting the unleashing of the armed forces within the departments and zones that make up the country, but are also actively involved in their own vigilantism that includes assassination.  And although the El Salvadorian government, even with the election of the new president, officially denies all sponsorship and involvement in the activities of Sombra Negra, many civil rights groups have reported that the group is mostly comprised of off-duty police and military personnel who are attempting to cleanse their society of criminals and gang members (ibid).  This has been confirmed by many people I know in and about El Salvador.

As people group to oppose the School of the America’s and celebrate the lives of those murdered and assassinated in the bloody war in Central America and call for an end to US assassination schooling and torture training, it is important to understand that many of these same trained scicarios are now involved once again with their own governments, this time in a civilian cleansing on a legal level.  Whether trained in the School of the Americas or at undisclosed locations, it is important to understand that Central America, with its poverty and years of colonialism, is now experiencing the “blowback” of centuries of exploitation and severe oppression.  For the US this could be a canary in the coal mine, for major cities in the US are infested with narco-trafficking gangs and with education unavailable to so many, and with civilian life collapsing life a sick lung, one can only wonder when and if these gangs will become their own apocalyptic government, linking up in a apocalyptic lego-type configuration that in its barbarism, challenges the post-colonial, global capitalist nightmare that has engulfed the world.

Danny Weil