A March 2019 presentation at the University of Notre Dame, as part of its conference, “Belonging: The Church of Romero and Gangs.” The subject of the panel on which I spoke alongside anthropologist Juan José Martinez was, “Gangs in El Salvador as a transnational form of belonging.”
A main focus of my reporting in recent years has been gangs and security policies. Basically, I’ve spent a lot of time with gang members and former gang members, police officers, violence prevention workers, documents from Salvadoran and US institutions, and some time with US federal agents. I did some of this as a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and as of last year I’ve begun publishing the three-part series that has resulted.
Not all of my work is about gangs — for instance, I’m on a team of Central American journalists investigating corruption in Honduras — but even that which isn’t directly related influences my thinking on them.
I’d like to begin with a few images, all related to the case of Daniel Aleman, a young man who was playing soccer with friends on a field in his San Salvador neighborhood in 2017 when he was arrested. The police planted drugs on Daniel and framed him as a gang member. He spent 1 year, 5 months and four days in prison for crimes the court ultimately said he didn’t commit, and was freed in June 2018 — the image of him below is of his first moments of freedom — which he won thanks not to an effective justice system, but to the work of his mother and sister, Meira and Tatiana, and a spontaneous community of artists and human rights activists who built a movement to demand the Salvadoran state not simply swallow Daniel and disappear him into the bowels of prison, as it does with an unknown number of other young people falsely accused of crimes under the guise of battling gangs.
(Addendum: On March 18, 2019, after I delivered this speech, the Salvadoran justice system announced it would scrap the not-guilty verdict on one of the charges against Daniel, extortion, so the case continues.)
What I’d like to highlight is this: Modern-day El Salvador is ruled by a punitive idea of security in which gangs are public enemy #1 – I’m referring to mano dura, which I’ll define in a minute — and under mano dura, what it took to free Daniel Aleman, who maintains his innocence, was an extraordinary feat. And even now that he is free, because the Aleman family dared question the anti-gang state, they live targeted by intimidation and threats.
From the moment they publicly disputed the police’s claim that Daniel was a gang member, the Aleman family was treated as an enemy of “the good guys”, the “heroes in blue,” and an ally of the gangs. From police officers to online commentators, some people seemed hell-bent on believing that Daniel was guilty, that he had to be a gang member, because he was young and because he came from the urban neighborhood he did and because the police said he was. That certainty wasn’t based in evidence but instead in the moral panic around gangs that mano dura trades in — specifically, that young people from poor communities are gang-members-in-waiting. The average people who have threatened the Aleman family both online and in person seem to understand themselves as defending their country’s honor.
To face the tide of hate and rage directed at the family, the facts of the case weren’t enough. They had to make Daniel into an icon. This is an image created by Salvadoran artist Malu Saenz, its classic iconic style paired with a line from a poem by Salvadoran writer Roque Dalton, who was killed in an earlier period of conflict, the Salvadoran Civil War. The poem, El Poema de Amor, is about the generational loops of discrimination sewn into the Salvadoran experience. So the iconization of Daniel was a desperate appeal directly to the Salvadoran heart.
And here we have Daniel’s mother, Meira, holding the poster. (This is a photo taken by Salvador Melendez, photographer at Revista Factum.) Meira has told me about how, when she would go to prison to see Daniel on visit days, other mothers would approach her and whisper, my son too, he was framed too, what can I do? It sends chills down the spine of anyone who lived, or has studied, the Civil War. How fitting that in this photograph, who you see painted behind Meira are the mothers of war-time political prisoners, who of course told similar stories about looking for their own children in government holding cells and finding many, many others the state had arrested or kidnapped, systematic rights violations at the service of eliminating an earlier internal enemy – not gangs then, but communists. (Here I’m alluding to a concept that my colleague Juan Jose explores in his work).
In this modern conflict, the government has methodically hunted young people like Daniel Aleman. They are all young and poor, and sometimes are gang members, sometimes not. After years of the approach, there are more gang members than ever, and the gangs are ever more sophisticated and cruel, as Jose Miguel Cruz has repeatedly pointed out. Which is to say that mano dura doesn’t work.
Daniel Aleman’s freedom is the kind that happens in anti-gang El Salvador: he lives in hiding, fearing for his life. Whether a young person from a poor community decides to join a gang or not, this is the air they breathe.
If only it were so easy as knowing this. The fact is, we know so much about gangs and security policies already – we know what doesn’t work, and we know how we got to the tragedy where we are. We have solid ideas about what does work. That’s thanks to decades of brilliant civil society and academic work, and, in recent years, some journalistic work on the subject, especially that done by Central American journalists living in Central America, at outlets like El Faro and Revista Factum. But, if you cross our wealth of knowledge with the Aleman family’s experience you see: the public conversation around gangs and security policies doesn’t match what we know to be true. The way the public analyzes the problem doesn’t allow for the conditions we know are necessary to fix it.
Something we can do is tell the story differently, in a way that frees people up to think again. Which means, I think, talking beyond the gangs.
And yes, gangs do offer a form of transnational belonging, as is aptly summarized in the title of this panel and which I’ll touch on briefly in a second. But there are also potent forms of transnational belonging made available to governments, via mano dura, with the excuse of gangs — and I think highlighting those is essential to unfreezing the public discussion about gangs that’s been stiff for years.
A few words on mano dura, to clarify what I understand the term to mean: It was an announcement made by the administration of former president Francisco Flores in 2003. The announcement was the tip of a lance aimed, allegedly, at gangs, and charging behind it came an assortment of repressive state behaviors, mostly involving abusive policing in marginalized communities, mass incarceration, torture and murder as a means of thinning the population of gang members and deterring others from joining. Mano dura has no interest in history or social context, and it does not believe that investment in holistic wellbeing is part of security. In it, the world is simple: gangs are El Salvador’s problem, which the government will fix via mano dura, thereby restoring the country to a mythic time of peace. The approach has evolved in some ways over time but remains the Salvadoran state’s chief model of security.
The promise that mano dura makes is to protect so-called good citizens by clearing so-called bad ones from their paths. It’s a dream of community you make by ostracizing and purifying. As a police commissioner from the FMLN fraction described to me late last year, when mano dura was introduced, it “was a way to attack the problem without investing anything.”
Because the approach is stilted and doesn’t reflect the real world, you see attempts by political leaders to curl themselves into visibly awkward positions to make the status quo work; flashpoints where opposites are both true, in a way that cannot be but is rich with meaning. For instance, every major political party, including the one that president-elect Nayib Bukele used as his vehicle to the presidency, have publicly advocated draconian measures to eradicate the gangs, while negotiating with gang elite behind closed doors for votes and other benefits, a fact we know thanks to Salvadoran journalism. There’s a lack of real interest in accomplishing what every party claims to be uniquely suited to do — to get rid of gangs — while there is real interest in using them to maintain power, the same end goal for which political parties use mano dura.
As I see it, there are two reasons that facts don’t matter much under mano dura. One is the unresolved grief and continuing, vicious violence that plagues so many whose lives gangs have upended or destroyed. And the other is mano dura’s use of the media, especially in the early 2000’s, as Sonja Wolf has explored in her work. From the beginning, the gangs were presented in the news on the government’s terms: groups with no home, that did not belong to El Salvador, to which El Salvador owes nothing. They were mentally ill or uniquely evil, the largest national population of sociopaths ever seen. This government-coordinated messaging in the media shut down questions about root causes and limited people’s capacity to think about how to end the terror they live. It’s hard to overstate the tragedy of that.
Now I’ll turn to the various forms of transnational belonging that swirl around gangs. I’ll start with the straightforward kind: gangs themselves as a site of belonging.
This is no less true for the amount of times you’ve heard the story: a gang member was a kid with few life options who joined to replace family, to find identity, for protection from aggressors, to survive materially (e.g. food, income.) On a basic level, gangs were people from a population considered disposable that chose to improve their lot by organizing. (A more recent way we see that tactic is the migrant caravans.) So: kids seek belonging in gangs that they aren’t offered elsewhere. The corollary is that the solution to gang violence is to offer kids better forms of belonging.
But it’s more complicated than that. In subtle but bedrock ways, gangs don’t actually question certain tenants of power in Salvadoran society, and that is another form of belonging that gangs offer their members. They offer the chance to rebel against a crappy life, while also remaining a faithful mirror of society, in ways that matter. For instance, although decentralized, Salvadoran gangs reify vertical structures of power. They follow the good vs. evil version of the world. (They freely accept the label of bad guy.) They replicate violence as power. Machismo and homophobia as power. We colloquially think of extreme violence, machismo and homophobia as characteristics of the gangs, not as reflections of Salvadoran and U.S. societies, but that’s because mano dura made gangs the lens through which everything else must pass.
So, although gangs position themselves as anti-society, they enjoy a certain belonging to society by not questioning those tenants. This is not a negligible attraction of gangs. Getting to belong to the prevailing logic of your time is a centering, sense-making force in life. Questioning it, or being forced outside of it, is exhausting and disorienting.
Gang members leave their gangs for various reasons, as Dr. Brenneman discussed this morning. And when they leave, given that the gang pulls some of the same levers of power that society as a whole does — and given that sometimes it’s those very levers that led the young people to want to leave the gang, like the idea of violence as power — the process of deciding who you are after the gang, who is the new you in the same old society, can be tough.
The young man at the center of an article I published late last year, who I called Benjamin, left Barrio 18 after ten years in the gang. He was 21 years old. He did so through an evangelical church that he chose carefully. The church helped him in significant ways. But his first real friend in his new ex-gang life, a neighbor in his apartment complex, was a lesbian feminist artist who taught art therapy to women victims of domestic violence. I called her Zelda. The problem was, the church that Benjamin had joined, like most evangelical Christian churches in El Salvador, drew on the same claims to power via homophobia, machismo and a good vs. evil interpretation of the world. (I.e., A feminist lesbian didn’t fall into the category of “good.”) So Benjamin was forced to start to shed those comfortable layers of belonging that had made sense of his life and bound him to multiple systems — state, gang, church. He had no choice, because he couldn’t deny that his life became fuller and more colorful with Zelda’s friendship. The cognitive dissonance this caused was painful and disorienting, although the process was simultaneously brightened by the joy of friendship.
Here’s another bright spot of beginning to lose your belonging to power: When it shuns or tries to control you, the state (or church or gang) awards you a certain knowledge, an understanding you only get through being ostracized. The state unwittingly reveals itself and its limitations by defining what it cannot tolerate, and by trying unsuccessfully to control that thing. If the thing is you, your population, then you live in the skin of the feared, and you can look down at your hands and your feet and you can say, but I am not what they say I am. You have nuance you can shine back at the state, and shine around it, to illuminate context.
This is a clarity that the Salvadoran state gave Benjamin, and Daniel Aleman, and their families, and thousands of youth wronged by mano dura.
Listening to them and sharing their stories is one way to unfreeze the public discussion around gangs.
Another kind of belonging that’s enabled by our frozen idea of gangs & security policies is this: Northern Triangle governments have gotten to belong to the U.S. sphere of influence by adopting mano dura.
The narrative of Salvadoran gangs as organized criminals, drug runners and terrorists, was first created by the United States. It happened throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, with the rise of zero tolerance legislation and policing throughout the U.S., led by the likes of Rudy Giuliani and William Bratton. It was cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles where mass incarceration and abusive policing were unfurled as anti-gang policies. In this time, Los Angeles defined gangs as “terrorists” by municipal ordinance, an example that the Constitutional Court of El Salvador followed in 2015. None of this is news to any of you, especially those of you who come from L.A. and have swam upstream in these waters for years.
The zero tolerance fad coalesced with the waning of the communist boogeyman to justify U.S. federal presence in, and funds for, work in Central America. The new geopolitical targets are drugs, immigration and, globally, terrorism. So, throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and continuing today, U.S. federal agencies like the FBI, ICE, INL and Homeland Security methodically classified Salvadoran gangs in ways that made them more closely fit the current geopolitical lens. There are potent legal tools like the RICO act, a Nixon-era law designed to attack the mafia but that was a useful way to get the justice system thinking of Salvadoran gangs in accordance with the zeitgeist. There are gang databases, libraries filled not with books but with the names and biometric data of people the U.S. believes are in gangs. Which is all to say: the U.S. response to Salvadoran gangs from the beginning has been an intelligence-hungry, all-hands-on-deck drive to elevate the gangs to a unique type of evil.
El Salvador absorbed this narrative along with deported gang members, long before there was a crisis of gang violence in the country. It goes without saying that there was never interest in, or room for, looking into the root causes of the violence.
Of course, there are material benefits to the Salvadoran government of following the U.S.’ lead. Millions of dollars for police and military equipment — everything from air conditioning units to pick-up trucks to trainings upon trainings. Trainings to give polygraph tests, about international human rights norms, about survival in the jungle, about narcotics interdiction, about terrorism. The training is sometimes given directly by U.S. officers, but increasingly it’s just paid for with U.S. taxpayer money but given by Colombian police and military, who have their own history of being trained by the U.S., and their own pockmarked human rights record.
It’s important to note that the U.S. government is dipping a tentative toe in the waters of tertiary violence prevention, beginning to fund some of the work that organizations like Catholic Relief Services have been doing for years. This is a game-changer. It’s also a debt the U.S. owes to Central America, given history. If the willingness continues — and if the government grows less secretive about it, and more willing to embrace the risks inherent to tertiary prevention — it’ll become easier for Salvadoran civil society to do its work.
My third and final point about belonging is this: We’ve all been fed mano dura. It’s the prevailing logic of our time. It’s what we belong to until we start to question it. And it has made thinking about the problem of gang violence in El Salvador very difficult.
Mano dura severed the analysis of gangs from the neighborhoods they belong to — because, again, for years the media trumpeted the government’s story that gangs are residents of nowhere, product of nothing. Here I’ll refer not to an interview subject but a friend, who I’ll call L. She’s a teacher in El Salvador and was born and raised in a rural community. Her neighbor, Miguel, joined MS-13. L remembers Miguel as a toddler. She feared him as a gang member. In 2017, the police killed Miguel in the style common especially post-2015: they arrested him, took him to a field outside the neighborhood, tortured him. Still alive, he laid there all afternoon – after the torture he had no teeth, one eye, an arm out of its socket – while the police stood guard so his mother couldn’t come to her dying son’s aid. The next day the officers patrolled through town, unafraid and unashamed. My friend L told me that it took everything she had not to scream at them, asesinos. She said that no one went to Miguel’s wake because they feared being tagged as gang allies by the police.
At the time that this happened, L’s boyfriend was suffering awful recurring attacks at the hands of the gang clique that ran his neighborhood. That’s to say, it isn’t that L didn’t understand how terrible gang violence is. L knows that what the police officers did to Miguel is similar to what gang members do to many victims – including the law enforcement officers they increasingly target. The point is that when mano dura separates our thinking about gangs from the neighborhoods they come from, it adds suffering to suffering.
In a recent interview with an FMLN leader who has worked with the police and security apparatuses in various ways since the end of the war, he said that yes, he sometimes feels uncomfortable with security policy as it stands. “I’d like it to be humane,” he said. But something heavier weighed on the other side of the scale, something he tried for several minutes to name but couldn’t. So he described it: when he read files on the details of murders committed by gang members and heard the cries of citizens persecuted by gangs, he said, he felt “something deeper than humane.” A need to stop gangs by any means necessary, a sense of ultimate moral rightness. His words were a sort of throwing up of hands: it’s not perfect, but what else can we do?
Mano dura led a great many of us to throw up our hands, it turns out. It makes it hard for us all to think.
That has been true even among the traditional solidarity communities in the U.S., so active during the Salvadoran Civil War in creating sanctuary cities and lobbying against U.S.-funded brutality. But the political elements of the solidarity narrative of the 1980’s have changed with neoliberalism. The Salvadoran government is no longer a rightwing dictatorship. And gangs aren’t expressly political; their violence is aimed not at taking the state and turning it left, but, at least at the level of foot soldiers, at individual survival, and at using fear to wrench free a bit of power. Salvadoran gangs are a schizophrenic non-political project that responds to political realities.
The confusion this created among the solidarity movement was particularly visible beginning in 2015, when the Sanchez Ceren administration’s un-admitted policy of social cleansing via extrajudicial murder of alleged gang members became clear. The revelation was met by remarkably little outcry from solidarity communities, like U.S. NGOs in El Salvador that engage in political advocacy and had been critical of abuses by former ARENA governments. (Even much of Salvadoran civil society remained mum.) It was as if all we could do was throw up our hands, the gangs are so awful that it doesn’t seem we have a choice. It was unclear how to think deeper.
Mano dura stifles who-knows-how-many points of analysis. For example, if we stop funneling everything through the gang lens, we’re freed to realize that it’s pretty likely that gangs speed up emigration processes that would happen anyway, but on a longer timetable. People can languish under economic violence for years before they finally give up and emigrate. That economic violence is usually perceived as not political — even though Central America’s poverty is the fruit of geopolitics. Even though we know that late-stage capitalism concentrates wealth enormously. That climate change diminishes the ability of agricultural workers in the global south to stay afloat. That the international financial system frequently prescribes development projects that create conflict and embolden local corruption. Etcetera. Yet the phrase “economic migrant” often has an undertone of choice, as if it were an adventure the immigrant were after, not a flight to increase their chances of survival. If a gang threat intervenes in the middle of those years of languishing under economic violence, it short-cuts the emigration process and we’re distracted, again, from discussing root problems. (Or from the fact that migration is a human right and has never not been a part of the human experience, and specifically the Salvadoran experience, as Amparo Marroquín Parducci has explored in her work.)
The struggle to think deeper about gang violence has also been an issue for much of the U.S. press, particularly in immigration coverage. During the unaccompanied minors crisis, for instance, almost every piece in mainstream coverage included a one-line explanation stating that most children were fleeing gang violence. If there was information about the causes of gangs, it mostly focused on their foundation in Los Angeles and arrival to El Salvador via deportation. But it normally stopped there. Rarely did we in the press recognize that gangs were not the problem but a symptom of problems. Like the fact that U.S.-supported security policies made gangs bigger, and continue to systematically criminalize youth.
That’s despite domestic experience that could lend itself to clearer thinking. In the wake of the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, of Laquan McDonald and 12-year-old Tamir Rice – the list goes on – we have a robust national debate about models of justice in the Americas, about racism and police abuse. In a way, this is us pushing against the prevailing logic of security to which both the U.S. and El Salvador belong.
I’ll end now, first by returning to the Aleman family. Daniel’s mother Meira is illuminating not only because her son was judged innocent. The many mothers in her position tell us something that’s independent of whether their children are or aren’t gang members. They are a modern version of the mothers of the wartime political prisoners, because their sons and daughters were taken by a state that says it hunts their children to protect society — without caring about what actually causes violence.
And as for the gangs and the sense of belonging they create: we’d wish that the expression of resistance would look different, and that upon realizing their oppression, masses of kids would seek belonging by creating a movement that’s expressly political, that doesn’t use cruelty and violence as levers to pull for power. We wish for a movement that, in other words, doesn’t reflect the world we live in. But that’s the least likely thing to come from the raw material we’ve given El Salvador’s youth. If we want a different response we need to make that sort of dreaming possible.