The Truth About Salvadoran Gangs: A Guest Post

Please say hello to a new guest blogger, Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia. You may remember him as the grad student who embedded himself with a Chicago crack gang, which we wrote about in “Freakonomics,” and you may also remember this blog Q&A. On Jan. 10, Venkatesh will publish a memoir about his research, Gang Leader for a Day, and we’ll also post another Q&A with him. For now, welcome him as our newest guest blogger.

Fox News had an interesting piece last week about Salvadoran gangs. It states that gang leaders are now recruiting from the middle classes, exchanging their bandanas for blazers, in an effort to stay ahead of law enforcement.

While the details of the report may be correct, the piece overall offers a skewed and incomplete portrait of the gang scene. A more accurate portrait can be found in the work of Elana Zilberg, at the University of California-San Diego, who is writing a book on Salvadoran gangs. Reading her work, one sees that gangs began simultaneously in both L.A. and El Salvador. In the 1980s, when they first got off the ground, gangs had deep connections to political movements that wanted to organize youth in an effort to keep them away from crime. As such, gangs were part of a coalition of left-leaning social service agencies and political activists struggling to cope with the effects of migration and globalization on Salvadoran families.

At this time, social workers recognized that families were broken up and that gangs were filling an emotional void for youth. One parent typically worked in the U.S., sending money back to El Salvador; meanwhile, children often shuttled back and forth between households in the two countries, their lives interrupted as a consequence. In this context, gangs became a refuge for alienated, under-employed youth with no hope in either country — either they worked illegally and for menial wages in the U.S., or they lived legally in El Salvador but with few work prospects. In fact, at this time, gangs had very low crime and delinquency rates, even though (as Fox correctly states), they were hanging out in public spaces, and acting as a nuisance.

What Fox fails to make clear is that it was the U.S. that forced El Salvador and other Central American nations to institute tougher sanctions against gangs. Conservative American administrations adopted the “War on Drugs” initiative by telling foreign governments to reduce what is commonly known as the “social work” approach — in other words, the U.S.’s advice was, don’t use social services to reduce gang crimes, just lock gang members up. At the same time, the U.S. government was sending more and more Salvadoran gang members out of the U.S. and back to their home country. To receive American aid and support from international N.G.O.s, El Salvador’s government had to continue its punitive approach, filling prisons and detention centers with young people. At some point, the Salvadorans (like other Central American states) simply had no more room in these institutions, so youths just sat on the streets with no hope, no social services, no education, and so on. Many kept trying to return to the U.S.

As such, around 1985 or so, marginalized Salvadoran adolescents began to become marginalized Salvadoran adults. Only now, these adults had the need to earn an income, meet family responsibilities, etc. In this context, gangs attracted those with entrepreneurial zeal. Young people saw others benefiting from gangs and became lured by the (false) hope of large profits. In this context, the recruitment of the middle class is neither here nor there. It is, in all likelihood, just a side venture by a few ambitious gang leaders.

Why Fox focuses on this recruiting strategy is unclear. It is such a small part of the overall story — and so incidental. Still, I’m not surprised that the newsmakers fail to implicate the U.S. in what’s happening in El Salvador; who among us wants to admit that U.S. policies are contributing to these situations around the world?

(Hat tip: Cyril Morong.)

David Corbett

Like Jeanne Rikers, I was puzzled by the 1985 reference. I think 1995 would make more sense, given what I know of the situation.

My most recent novel, Blood of Paradise, is based in El Salvador. The sin of omission I find most galling about American reportage about the "organized crime" problem in Central America is the steadfast refusal to state clearly that the most serious organized crime groups are composed of ex-military men, many of them former officers who enjoy a level of impunity the gangs can only dream of. This is even more true of Guatemala than El Salvador, but the problems are similar in both countries. And the organized crime units of both countries are heavily infiltrated by members of the very groups they should be attacking--but instead, with US assistance, they almost solely focus on street gangs (and political protesters).

It was the head of the Guatemalan organized crime unit, remember, who was responsible for the execution of Eduardo d'Aubuisson and two other Salvadoran dignitaries early this year, in a drug connection gone wrong. And it was the Salvadoran organized crime unit that took over the investigation into the murder of Gilberto Soto, the American Teamster killed in Usulutan in November 2004--they tried to pin culpability on the victim's mother-in-law and two gang members who were tortured during their interrogation.

Sadly, even good and responsible people I know watching this problem from within the FBI and the US Southern Command seem almost singularly focused on the maras, not the more socially and politically connected crime leaders. The mareros have been the humps for the real OC gangsters for about ten years. There are indications, however, that the mareros no longer intend to play second fiddle, and are making their own political connections--and, yes, making inroads into a higher social strata and even controlling certain towns through straw men elected with the help of their money. But this is new, rare, and has nothing to do with the vast majority of street kids who find the gangs alluring. But the fact it's only newsworthy when the powerless turn to crime, or assert their newfound clout, continues to grate. Why aren't we seeing news articles about former military men involved in drug and human trafficking? You have to read Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder (or my book) to get that story.


Bijan C. Bayne

History repeats itself. Groups such as Dr. King's SCLC attempted to re-direct and politicize gangs such as the Blackstone Rangers, Vice Lords, and Young Disciples in late 1960's Chicago (under Operation Breadbasket). By the early '70's a few such gangs had received gov't grants for community development and job training.

Tyler Durden

I'm also very interested in speaking with Sudhir Venkatesh, about the time he spent with crack gangs in Chicago. This is something I'm interested in adapting into a feature film. Please excuse my psedonym, it's necessary at this point. Once I'm in direct contact with you, I can show you my work, and share my intentions. Hope to hear from you soon.


Tyler Durden

I am a filmaker from Los Angeles and I'm currently working on a documentary film about this exact subject. The people from El Salvador are not having their story told in the proper context, and I'm going to put all my resources into getting the story told right. If you have any poignant stories, or access to gang members or goverment officials, please contact me and share whatever information you have. I'm also looking for those willing to do interviews on camera. I'm looking for all different viewpoints, so feel free to contact me not matter what your opinion is. My name is Tyler and I can be emailed at Hope to hear from you soon.


umm i thik ppl shouldnt be talking smack its all about MS X3


There are a lot of lessons to learn from the Salvadoran gang problem. To me, the most interesting question is: why do some kids join gangs and others reject them? I think Venkatesh is right when saying gangs fill a void left by families that have been broken up.

It seems to me that the most important relationship to a young man is his bond with his father. I don't want to diminish the mother-son relationship, but a boy learns to become a man by emulating dad. My guess is that a community with no or poor father-son relationships is going to have not only a lot of gangs, but a lot of other social problems, too.

Finally, I've given up on asking why the media choses to focus on the things it does. The most important issues in life, and the solution to most of life's misery, are things like your relationship with your spouse, your love for your family, the service you give to others, your communion with God or the peace you feel with your place in the cosmos. The media (probably thankfully) is not good at packaging these issues in way conducive to selling advertisements.