Oswaldo joined the Salvadoran gang Barrio 18 when he was 14 years old. By the time he was in his early 20s, he wanted out — and luckily, gang leaders gave him permission to leave. But they warned him: “No one will offer you a hand out there like the gang has.”
For a long while, that was true. For Oswaldo, his gang clique was his adopted family. They had his back, and they found food and shelter for him and his family. Without the clique, vulnerable and alone, he barely scraped by while selling toothbrushes at a market. Oswaldo had finished high school, and he hoped to find a steady job. But when he was invited in for an interview, he remembers, “the first question was, ‘Are you a gang member?’” Then, it was: Are you tattooed? Do you have family in a gang? Friends? Are you from a gang-controlled neighborhood? Oswaldo denied his past throughout the grilling, but couldn’t lie when the man doing the interviewing said he needed him to lift his shirt. Oswaldo’s torso is covered in Barrio 18 ink. So he was rejected from yet another job, and soon after, his wife left with their toddler son, calling Oswaldo a failure.
He told a trusted pastor that he was struggling. Privately, he was so desperate that he was considering rejoining the gang. The pastor told him he knew a business that wanted to hire ex-gang members. Oswaldo couldn’t believe it.
“This is a country where people don’t believe that gang members can change,” he told The Intercept last fall, sitting in a conference room, employed at the company the pastor told him about on that day three years earlier. The company is League Central America, a textile factory that makes collegiate wear for U.S. universities such as Arizona State and Yale. League’s president, Rodrigo Bolaños, has long been a rare and vocal advocate in the Salvadoran business community for hiring former gang members. Bolaños argues that the problem of gangs in El Salvador isn’t so complicated. There have been gangs across the world, from England to Chicago, at every time in history, he says.
“The same way gangs generate, you can also get them out of gangs, if you do positive forces like second chances, education,” he said. The company tests those who belonged to El Salvador’s three main rival gangs — MS-13 and two factions of Barrio 18 — with techniques like icebreaker games that require physical closeness. If a new hire couldn’t stand it, Bolaños said, “that person wasn’t ready.” The company subsidizes employees’ secondary and college education if they haven’t finished it, and offers classes on-site.
League’s initiative has been widely celebrated, even by two leaders of MS-13, who once summoned Bolaños to a meeting at the prison where they were held, to say that they hoped all of their members could go through a program like his. Targeting people who have recently left a gang, or would like to leave, and offering them rehabilitation and employment is essential, a growing body of research on gang desistance has found. “League is a model for how to reinsert former gang members into society,” concluded a major academic survey of gang membership in El Salvador in 2017.
The U.S. government took a bit longer to come around. One day a few years ago, two representatives from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL, came to visit. Bolaños says they were skeptical; it seemed to him that they “didn’t believe in this.” But after spending two hours talking to Bolaños and touring the factory, they seemed pleased — and INL later put funds toward a program that would specifically funnel ex-gang members who had just finished prison sentences into working at League.
It might seem unremarkable that the U.S. government would direct funds to a program that sounds so wholesome. But for El Salvador and neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala, it represents a delicate, tenuous shift in U.S. foreign policy. It marks a step away from years of a U.S.-supported approach that has favored the mano dura, or “iron fist,” response to gangs, and has mostly shunned work that directly engaged current and former gang members who wished to leave crime and violence behind. Past U.S. policy has erred toward an almost exclusively military, police, and mass incarceration response; and when violence prevention work was funded, the government stipulated that the organizations that implemented U.S.-funded projects on the ground must ensure the participants had no ties to a gang. In fact, until recently, it was prohibited under U.S. Treasury Department restrictions to use government aid money for any program that directly engaged members of MS-13.
This policy change could be imperiled by the attitudes and actions, currently in vogue at the White House, that are meant to demonize gang members. From his presidential campaign to the recent policy of separating families at the border, President Donald Trump has used MS-13 to justify his calls for harsher immigration laws. He has insisted that its members — who he has repeatedly called “animals” — should be treated as an existential threat to the United States.
But while Trump and many in his administration act as though Salvadoran gangs exist due to a lack of toughness, parts of the U.S. federal government in Central America — which for years enabled the implementation of exactly the kind of policy Trump calls for now — have recognized that mano dura has failed. “It’s a policy that did not have positive results,” said Enrique Roig, former coordinator of the Central America Regional Security Initiative for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a major vehicle for U.S. funds to the region. “The whole intention to focus more on the prevention side, on respectful law enforcement,” was to correct the mistakes of the past, like “the use of incarceration as the main method of dealing with the problem.” It is also meant to build “relationships of trust between communities and police, so people in communities actually report crime, and police know what’s happening by responding in a way that’s respectful of human rights.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, police forces in major U.S. cities went all-in on a tough-on-crime approach known as “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” policing, using surveillance and high arrest rates in response to all manner of minor crimes in order to stem major ones. Decades later, the United States is still wrestling with the failed legacy of broken windows, including mass incarceration and police brutality that sparked movements like Black Lives Matter and a wave of criminal justice reform. But countries across Central America are still implementing anti-gang zero tolerance policies, pushed and supported by the U.S. government. This is the case despite the fact that the approach has generally failed to lower crime rates across the region; in fact, it has often empowered police and military forces implicated in crimes themselves.
El Salvador, like most countries, has long had disaffected kids in poor communities who create gangs – Salvadoran anthropologist Juan José Martínez D’Aubuisson dates the earliest gangs to the 1950s, when state modernization prompted a disorganized mass internal migration to urban centers. What appeared were neighborhood or schoolyard crews defending their honor and territory with fistfights and knives. Throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the homegrown crews meshed with the violent legacy of a recently ended civil war — and with U.S. street gang culture, which arrived among the tens of thousands of Salvadorans deported from the United States during that time. According to the FBI, many of those deportees were members of two gangs formed in the U.S. and composed mostly of embattled Salvadoran war refugees: the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18.
As the gangs grew in size and power, successive Salvadoran governments reacted with mano dura, doing so with the full backing of the United States. First officially implemented in 2003, the policy has consistently been sold to the Salvadoran public as the antidote to an explosion of gang violence that has sent thousands of people from El Salvador and neighboring countries north to seek asylum in the United States. But because of mano dura, young people in marginalized neighborhoods face skyrocketing police abuse, including torture and extrajudicial murder. Since the policy’s 2003 adoption, El Salvador’s jails have become notorious: A 2017 United Nations visit found one prison operating at over 900 percent capacity, and others between 200 and 600 percent. Inmates regularly die of preventable diseases. Meanwhile, the policy failed at its one objective; paradoxically, when it was implemented, the country had seen nearly a decade of declining murder rates, but ever since, violence has surged, spiking in the past three years so that El Salvador has held its spot among the murder capitals of the world.
As mano dura has escalated into a low-intensity conflict between the gangs and the government, over the years, civil society organizations in El Salvador have been trying an alternative approach: working directly with gangs to help members leave or renounce violence, or in some cases, stepping in to mediate and interrupt vengeance killings, for example. These initiatives are often modeled on programs in U.S. cities like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles (the city where El Salvador’s largest gangs originated).
Such work is known in aid industry parlance as “tertiary violence prevention,” and it entails working with people who are not “at risk,” but rather already in conflict with the law. It is a type of restorative, not punitive, justice. No matter the form it takes, tertiary violence prevention faces intense skepticism and involves significant risks. In addition to requiring a closeness to the violence practiced by some gang members and state security officials, the groups that work with gangs are often themselves criminalized, cast by law enforcement or the general public as sympathizing with criminals.
It didn’t help that the U.S. government focused on empowering the Salvadoran police, and did little to address the root causes of gang violence. This was due to a pervasive “nervousness and concern” about tertiary work, said Roig.
The impact of the reticence in El Salvador was that in any project receiving U.S. federal funds, “it was strictly prohibited to work with youth in conflict with the law,” said Rick Jones of Catholic Relief Services. A major international nongovernmental organization and one of the pioneers of tertiary prevention in El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services had, since the early 2000s, been doing street work with current and former gang members to intercede in cycles of violence and to help guide them to licit employment so that they could leave gangs. The U.S. government was squeamish about such innovative work.
That policy was backed by law in October 2012, when the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated MS-13 a “transnational criminal organization,” adding the gang to a list alongside terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Many experts dispute the extent and reach of the gangs’ transnational activities, including cross-border drug trafficking, arguing that most cliques are made up of kids from the country’s poorest neighborhoods who barely manage to feed themselves. Still, the designation set into motion a chain of possibilities for the U.S. government. For one thing, it enabled INL to open a field office in the country, which would be impossible without the presence of an officially designated transnational criminal group. In 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement built an entire cross-border strategy around the designation, “deploying special agents to El Salvador” who would work with the Salvadoran National Civil Police to chase the gang’s assets and act on a “free flow of actionable intelligence between ICE and our host country law enforcement partners.”
The direct impact of the Treasury Department’s designation is that it became illegal for U.S. citizens and corporations to engage in financial transactions with members of MS-13. The indirect impact was that it also became illegal for U.S. federal agencies to financially support any program that engaged with members of the gang, even if the program’s aim was to get those members out.
In conflict zones worldwide, these designations have had a chilling effect on tertiary work in which government or civil society actors attempt to engage with armed groups in order to end violence. Designations have interrupted peace talks and led to the disbanding of negotiation in places as diverse as the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India.
The designation in El Salvador came on the heels of a secret gang truce, which the U.S. opposed. In March 2012, the Salvadoran government brought MS-13 and Barrio 18 to a negotiating table, and international cooperation agencies from the European Union and elsewhere pledged money to build initiatives meant to help former gang members disarm and re-enter society. Seven months later, the U.S. added MS-13 to a list populated by terrorist groups and high-level money laundering organizations.
“It was a mistaken belief in the U.S. Embassy that Salvadoran gangs were some kind of sophisticated criminal enterprise,” said Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat who was involved in truce negotiations. “I kept saying to them, ‘If that’s true, if they’re operating at the level of cartels, show me the money.’ And no one ever could.”
The truce was designed on international standards for post-conflict demobilization processes, like those used in Ireland and Colombia — and also on U.S. experiences with gang violence reduction, Blackwell said. “We were trying to convince the [U.S.] Embassy, ‘We’re just trying to do what you guys have done successfully in LA.’” It was to no avail. In El Salvador, where the U.S. has been, for generations, the single most important foreign influence, the message resounded like a gavel: The only acceptable way to define and address the issue of gangs is through punitive measures.
Although little noted at the time, U.S. federal agencies were not unified behind the Treasury Department’s designation and hard-line approach. In a 2014 interview, Roig was tight-lipped, saying only that USAID did not work with people trying to leave gangs, and that the 2012 designation “certainly places limitations on what USAID can do with MS.”
But in a recent interview with The Intercept, Roig, now a director at the Washington-based aid contractor Creative Associates International, said that behind the scenes, he and others were working to educate their peers about tertiary violence prevention. In 2012, USAID brought municipal leaders from Los Angeles to the region to share best practices from the city’s gang violence reduction program, which included tertiary work. Then came the Treasury Department designation, which made it more difficult to put the lessons from LA into practice, Roig said.
The fault lines of resistance didn’t occur by agency, Roig said, but by individual. In interagency meetings that included USAID, the FBI, ICE, and others, “some people would say, ‘You can never work with these kids, they’re criminals.’ Others would say, ‘Oh yeah, these great prevention programs, we should do more to support those.’ My experience was it depended a lot on the people.”
For years after the Treasury Department’s designation, USAID helped organize a series of high-level conferences and events on violence prevention, including tertiary work, in the U.S. and Central America. “We started writing it into all the strategy documents. When we did briefings on the Hill, we talked about it,” he said. This “helped sensitize policymakers within State and AID,” and introduced into “the bureaucratic consciousness that this was the direction we wanted to move in.”
That analysis remained sidelined until 2015, when thousands of Central American children fleeing violence showed up at the southern U.S. border. Faced with the children, the Obama administration investigated the causes of emigration. In all three countries, it found systemic corruption. In Guatemala, there were conflicts over natural resources that were sometimes drug-fueled and often disproportionately affected native people; in Honduras and El Salvador, what stuck out was violence from narcos and gangs. The administration’s investigation led to a new openness toward tertiary prevention — a shocking move on the ground in El Salvador. Jones from Catholic Relief Services remembered thinking at the time that State Department visitors “are very open right now. … They are seriously exploring what can we fund that will work.”
In 2016, INL funded Florida International University political scientist José Miguel Cruz to conduct a study of how and why members choose to leave gangs or stay in them. His study found that 68.6 percent of current members of El Salvador’s gangs had intentions to leave. And while 16.7 percent said they’d never leave, the vast majority — 81.5 percent — said they knew someone who had “calmed down,” or become inactive in their gang. “Calming down,” more common than leaving entirely, is a way for members to preserve their gang identity while no longer contributing to violence and crime.
Those who are able to leave their gang face endless struggles, Cruz found, including running into former enemies, struggling to find work, family abandonment and police harassment. Employers which, like League Central America, know and accept employees’ pasts and are willing to support them through lingering struggles tied to their old lives are vital to keeping former gang members from joining again, the study reported to INL. That same year, a meta-study of violence prevention strategies around the world, commissioned by USAID, recommended focused intervention with violent offenders and found that “aggressive ‘zero tolerance’ strategies … can create community tension and undermine collective efficacy.”
In February 2017, the Treasury Department awarded a waiver, called an OFAC license, to the State Department and USAID; the license allows agencies to do certain work with former or nonactive MS-13 members. The waivers expire at the end of this year, and federal agencies are preparing to seek renewal.
The license also covers the third-party organizations, like League and Catholic Relief Services, that carry out the projects funded in part by U.S. federal agencies. Although NGOs are free to apply directly for a license, Jones said Catholic Relief Services applied, was denied, and received no explanation of why. A spokesperson for the Treasury Department said the agency does not comment on individual licenses. (USAID and INL referred all requests for comment for this story to Treasury.)
One significant concern is that under some projects covered by the OFAC license, local organizations are required to hand over the identities of the people who participate in the violence prevention programs to a U.S. Embassy working group – composed of people from the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, and others — for vetting. Participants worry that the requirement will lead to increased surveillance and abuse by authorities, whether U.S. immigration officials or Salvadoran law enforcement. Several NGOs have formally submitted their resistance to the stipulation, which appears in an upcoming USAID project in Honduras, and are awaiting the government’s response.
The Honduras project provides a window into shifts in the federal government’s thinking on tertiary work. In February, USAID invited organizations to apply for funding to carry out a program to reduce recidivism among violent youth. The $8 million project, to be implemented in the five most violent municipalities across Honduras, is called “Improving Tertiary Violence Prevention.” With the project, USAID says it is complementing the work of Honduran state prison agencies that are “seeking to transform the juvenile justice system” to “a modern, rehabilitative, and restorative justice model,” and notes that the agency is now investing in multiple tertiary prevention projects in Honduras.
In El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services and League are using U.S. funds for a program called “Segundas Oportunidades,” or “Second Chances,” which seeks to create a pipeline from prison to employment, including job training for inmates, cognitive behavioral therapy, and workshops focused on topics like “masculinities,” the study of distorted ideas of manhood, childhood trauma, and violence — or, as Jones put it, “where it all came from in the first place.” The idea is to send a message: “You have a choice. This is not normal. You can change,” he said. The 2016 USAID study singled out cognitive behavioral therapy, particularly programs focused on “becoming a man,” as the single most effective violence-prevention strategy.
Catholic Relief Services and League also recruited other NGOs and the Salvadoran national justice and prison systems to join Second Chances. The wide buy-in is important, because the root of gang violence isn’t individual failure, but systemic injustices that must be rectified across society, said Rosa Anaya, the Catholic Relief Services chief of party for Second Chances. “No judge, government institution, company, family, or individual will be able to overcome alone the great disaster in which we’ve found ourselves.”
And not a moment too soon: “Over the next five years, 12,000 people will have fulfilled their sentences. What will they do?” asked Jones. “These programs are critical to reducing recidivism.”
Last October, we entered a prison outside San Salvador called Apanteos, along with a major delegation of NGOs, local businesspeople, and two representatives from INL. Painted a fresh yellow, with the words “Yo Cambio,” or “I Can Change,” across the gate and many of the walls inside, Apanteos was decked out for a graduation celebration for Second Chances. We were led on a tour of the prison’s kitchens, where inmates train as cooks; the hen cages, where a teenage prisoner showed off rows of eggs to the visitors; and tanks where they farmed tilapia. It was a visit day, and the common yard was full of families.
Over the last year, Second Chances has trained 811 people, including current and former inmates and employees of the justice system and private sector. Among other factors, Catholic Relief Services measured inmate participants’ positive changes in attitude. “To have evidence of a trustworthy change and a credible support network behind them helps businesses feel like they can employ these people,” said Anaya. Among the 21 Second Chances participants who have completed the program and been released, 18 have been able to find jobs.
The Treasury Department ban on using U.S. money to engage with MS-13 is still in effect. But none of the organizations that make up Second Chances are violating it, because they’re covered by the OFAC waiver. Without the dispensation, this work would be a violation of U.S. federal law.
INL now publicly celebrates the tertiary work it funds. In an April 2017 speech at League Central America about Second Chances, Glenn Tosten, then-director of the INL section at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, said that to watch the first people pass through Second Chances “changed the way I saw security challenges in El Salvador.” He continued, “I should admit that at first I felt skeptical. I thought there was no other option … that the young people who joined gangs in El Salvador were lost forever.” But the program “convinced me that, in fact, there is another way. There is a process and a support system that truly can transform people’s lives.”
That message is still a minority voice in the U.S. government. Mostly, the focus is on aiding and training the Salvadoran police — despite a well-documented record of shakedowns, abuses, and extrajudicial killings.
When his shift ended at League, Oswaldo still had to return to the streets of a society that believes gang members leave “only through the grave.” He was terrified of the police. One of his greatest fears, he said, is that officers will stop him on payday, see the cash in his pocket from his salary, “and say it’s [money from] extortion. And then kill me.” His wife still hadn’t returned with their son. She said she feared drawing police attention through her association with him.
The Salvadoran press has repeatedly uncovered cases of torture and extrajudicial murder of suspected gang members by police and soldiers. Young people from poor communities face constant harassment from authorities; are often taken into custody without reason; and frequently have drugs or “extortion money” planted on them. Sometimes, the police are working for a rival gang, but often, they’re just corrupt. Abuse of authority is so bad that the minister of security recently admittedthat state violence contributes to the country’s refugee crisis.
U.S. federal agencies continue supporting the Salvadoran police in an attempt to professionalize them, they say — but the aid flows even to units implicated in severe and systematic human rights abuses. The Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security reported a wide range of donations and training for the Salvadoran National Civil Police in 2015 and 2016, according to data released to Congress and shared with The Intercept by John Lindsay-Poland, a Latin America expert who participated in making the request. The donations and training spanned combating cybercrime and narco-trafficking, administering polygraphs, “arrest techniques and self defense,” and “K9 nursery care.” Trainings also covered intelligence gathering and special ops commando courses. Donations include items like pickup trucks, computers, cameras, bunk beds, and bulletproof vests.
The State Department also reported that it donated body cameras and provided other assistance to the internal department of the national police that investigates allegations of police abuse. But a recent study from the Government Accountability Office found that overall, State and other departments are not systematically implementing human rights into their trainings in El Salvador and other Central American countries. Roig, the former USAID official, says the fact that aid reaches units implicated in systemic abuses “is not positive at all,” and is an obstacle to effective violence prevention. “It’s harder to do prevention work and community policing when you’ve got a general distrust of the police and human rights abuses,” he said.
Another place the U.S. has loudly supported a system rife with rights abuses is in El Salvador’s prison system. A regime of special laws known as “extraordinary measures” restrict alleged gang members’ access to basic needs like food, water, and communications with the outside world. With “extraordinary measures,” inmate deaths doubled, largely because of outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, according to a June 2018 U.N. report.
The U.N. and Red Cross have called “extraordinary measures” a violation of human rights and urged the Salvadoran government to repeal them. The current administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has said that such outcry is based on falsehoods, and successfully enshrined the policy, originally temporary, into law — which the U.S. Embassy supports. In April 2018, when the measures came up for renewal, U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes encouraged Salvadoran congressmen to vote affirmatively, saying in a televised interview, “We talk about extraordinary measures, but these are normal measures.” Then she joked, “If the gang leaders don’t like it, then I do like it.”
By pushing policies like these, the U.S. is fueling violence on one hand, while trying to solve it with the other through tertiary prevention.
Commissioner Hugo Ramirez, subdirector for public security in El Salvador’s National Civil Police, wishes that would change. “It turns out that the more muscle we developed, the more undesirable effects we saw,” he told The Intercept. Ramirez has traveled around the United States to study community policing and tertiary violence prevention initiatives. His is not a common view among Salvadoran police, but he now argues that, “definitively, if we don’t take this on from a focus of tertiary prevention, it won’t be possible. It’s a debt we owe to this country.”
“If the U.S. would support this,” he added, “it’s fundamental.”
Currier and Mackey reported this story as Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellows with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Mackey’s reporting was also made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and a fellowship with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, with support from the Ford Foundation.