Ganging Up: El Salvador Is Central to Washington’s Border Dilemma
June 21, 2019
A version of the article was originally published by the National Peace Corps Association’s WorldView magazine as part of its Summer 2019 edition.
Five decades ago, my wife and I and some 40 other very nervous Peace Corps Volunteers walked down the stairs of a PanAm twin-engine plane that carried us to El Salvador’s Ilopongo airport just outside the country’s capital city.
After two years there, we were deeply committed to our San Salvador barrio, San Juan Bosco, despite its dirt roads and irregular electricity and periodic calls to fill the pilas—our sinks—because a revolution or a coup was coming. The country always seemed on the brink of an explosion given inequities, dysfunctional governance, and exploitation. Every step toward democracy had its own two steps backward with the reactions from a traditional elite partnering with security forces.
An apparent win in 1972 by opposition Christian Democratic candidate, Napoleon Duarte, who had been the mayor of San Salvador, was the country’s first competitive presidential election in a decade. It ended with a military take-over, Duarte beaten and exiled to Venezuela.
A decade later in 1979, the call for an end to repression came from different corners including Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero and a short-lived civil-military junta promising elections. That, too, was soon ousted by traditional conservative military factions, the killing of reform leaders and finally the assassination of the now-sainted Monsignor Romero as he was celebrating mass.
And so began the tragic civil war that tore the country apart for a dozen years, with 75,000 lives lost, another unknown number forcibly disappeared and vast internal displacement and refugee outflow reaching the United States. The U.S. role varied from unwise support of the military to standing against peace talks with the guerrillas for much of the 1980s, to advocacy for human rights, to leadership in support for and helping achieve a negotiated peace accord and to funding post-conflict reconstruction and the truth commission.
I had a unique vantage on these historical events, as staff to one of the few senators in the 1970s interested in Central America, Senator Ted Kennedy, then helping direct the new State Department Human Rights Bureau of Jimmy Carter, and during the war and the peace negotiations, traveling to El Salvador with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), attending most of the Esquipulas Central American peace talks and later serving as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Latin America bureau during the country’s post-peace accord reconstruction and finally back as Peace Corps director.
Origins of the Mara
More than 1.2 million Salvadorans remain in the United States as a legacy of the conflict; another 200,000—with their 192,700 U.S. citizen children—still hold temporary protected status, or TPS, stemming from earthquakes and hurricanes in this century. The current administration’s attempt to remove that status has been blocked by the courts.
However, the United States has a significant part of the responsibility for the migration crisis facing the United States today, with its calls for walls, closing the border, and most recently cutting off all aid to Central America. In the 1990s, our government began to massively deport young Salvadorans, some from gang backgrounds in East Los Angeles and other U.S. communities where MS-13 and Barrio 18—the two dominant gangs, or maras —originated.
During the Obama administration, more than 1 million migrants were deported including hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans were deported. Initially, they were sent with virtually no assistance offered to the receiving governments. These governments were still fragile from the conflicts of a decade earlier. Most often they were deported with only minimal information on their criminal, scholastic, or family background. Not surprisingly, the deportees re-established their gangs in their “homelands.”
These deportees are now the source of much of the violence that, a few years ago, placed the three countries of the Northern Triangle among the most murderous countries in the world that were not involved in a declared war.
One recent study found that in El Salvador, homicides boost migration by 188 percent and economic informality by 27 percent. A similar pattern was found between violence and the migration of minors in all three countries of the Northern Triangle.
What should be a source of great pride for the United States is that over the past three years, as part of a conscious attempt to support development, security and governance in these Northern Triangle countries, there has been measurable progress. Since fiscal year 2015, one key program has been supporting El Salvador, its government, civil society, and private sector in trying to understand and respond to the violence by targeting the 50 most dangerous municipalities with a comprehensive response and they have had measurable success.
Incorporating rule of law, community policing, youth engagement, job training, actual new jobs, and transparent governance, with broad civil society participation, they point to a 61 percent reduction in homicides and similar downturns in extortion. That record was 50 percent better than a still impressive 42 percent drop in homicides nationally. That is argued why El Salvador during those years, alone of its Northern Triangle neighbors, saw continuing reductions in unaccompanied minors and families showing up as illegal migrants along the southwest border, according to U.S. Border Patrol.
Given the concerns regarding rule of law, corruption and transnational crime in the Northern Triangle, USAID, State, and Justice have been targeting the justice sector to combat impunity. It has included helping to fund the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Mission to Support the Struggle against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), the former through the UN and the latter through the Organization of American States. It would be remarkably counter-productive to halt those programs or those that assist civil society organizations pressing for more equality, opportunity and democracy.
So looking ahead, one has to ask: “wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to sustain the success in those violence prevention programs in El Salvador’s 50 most dangerous municipalities, and expand them to more cities and to Honduras and Guatemala rather than cut off aid to the three countries?
Mark Schneider served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1966 to 1968 in urban community development with the Municipal Government of San Salvador. He later served as legislative assistant to Senator Edward M. Kennedy and held senior positions in State, USAID, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization and was director of the Peace Corps from 1999 to 2001. He has since served as senior vice president at the International Crisis Group and is a senior advisor in the Americas Program and Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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