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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.)