Gang Violence and Civil Liberties in El Salvador

Written by Ezra Rosser

I am writing this post in the hopes it will inspire discussion, not because I have any good answers.  This semester I am lucky enough to be living in San Salvador, El Salvador, where my wife is from.  I am there because, given a new baby and family around to help, I can get more work done in El Salvador than I can in the U.S.  On most flights to and from the U.S. there are many Salvadorans and usually a group or two of non-Salvadorans going down to do service projects — often but not always connected to a church — in El Salvador.  You can pick them out by their nervous excitement on the way down and more muted expressions on the way back to the U.S. When I talk to them or when I talk with others from the U.S. about El Salvador, I end up getting a lot of questions about safety or concerns for my safety.  Usually people have in mind the vague memory of the country’s civil war and know very little about the true reason for concern: the gang violence in the country.

Safety and gang violence/gang extortion is the central topic in El Salvador; an NPR story from 2009 gives a small taste of the issue.  President Mauricio Funes, the first leftist-FMLN candidate elected, campaigned against the candidate chosen by ARENA, the former police chief.  But on the wake of an attack by gangs on a bus in which passengers were burned to death, Funes pushed a ‘no one is going to intimidate El Salvador’ campaign with billboards throughout San Salvador and television spots highlighting the decision to deploy the military to support the police.  (Here is a speech by Funes on the topic of violence in the country.)  Finally this week a new law was passed that criminalizes gang membership, period.  The recent killing of 72 immigrants in Mexico, among them many Salvadorans, only highlights the international problem of gangs, but does not detract from the attention the issue is getting in El Salvador.

The central issue lawyers, particularly progressive lawyers, will see in the description above is the conflict between civil liberties and police enforcement.  When I first began regularly traveling to and living in El Salvador seven years ago, I was aghast that the country would criminalize gang tattoos.  But having heard too many stories of extortion, the dangers of public transportation, violence against the population and people I care about, I admit not being as sure of my earlier position.  The violence is threatening to make one of the happiest countries in the world (a finding of reports that my relatives love to show me) into a failed state.

In the face of such violence the nervousness and concern, even if originally misplaced,  of non-Salvadorans is understandable.  My personal experience has and will continue to be that of the fortunate who do not need to take public transportation and can afford to live in safer parts of the country.  I feel safer in El Salvador than I do in many parts of the U.S. and I certainly feel that the people are nicer — and yes, happier — in El Salvador than they are in many parts of the U.S. as well.  But imposing a U.S. lens, as I did in the last sentence, on the gang problem in El Salvador seems problematic regardless of one’s (U.S.) progressive leanings.