Violence has ripped open a gaping wound on the body of the American continent, right in its gut in Central America. Homicide rates in El Salvador and Honduras are similar to what they were during that region’s civil wars. The current civil war is an undeclared one involving rival gangs (most notoriously, Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13) as well as police and military forces from across the Americas.
I was recently a legal observer in Tijuana among a group of LGBT+ people coming north with the Great Exodus from Honduras. That border city’s infrastructure is stretching at the seams as it acts as a holding tank for refugees, as Trump illegally restricts their access to enter the US and ask for asylum. The transgender and lesbian women that I was with in Tijuana had faced grotesque crimes at the hands of gang members, partners, and state and security forces in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Sexualized violence is so pervasive in these societies that the LGBT contingent also faced harassment in the greater caravan that they travelled with, and they decided to split off and travel on their own.
Many people assume that gender-based violence is the logical result of a culture of machismo, but femicide and the rape culture that it begets was a conscious tool of social control imposed on Central American communities in the eras of dictatorship and civil war.
For many women (cis- and transgender), sexual violence — or the threat of it — has become the central component of what it means to live in gang-controlled territories governed by repressive states. In Central America today, state repression, gang violence, and gender-based violence are inseparable from each other. Transgender women from the Northern Triangle are caught at the very center of this web.
The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Tijuana has its roots in the mass incarceration and counterinsurgency policies of the United States. Just as state-sponsored use of rape as a tool of social control during Central America’s civil wars brought the widespread use of sexual violence to the Northern Triangle, so too is it that the policies of mass incarceration across the Americas explain the levels of gang violence in the region. Both types of violence have roots in state policies.
Mara Salvatrucha was molded, shaped, and grown in US jails. After about a decade of incubation in the penal system of California, US authorities deported gang members to the petrie dish of El Salvador, which had no functioning security apparatus at the time. MS-13 and Barrio 18 flourished and morphed there, and their power has come to rival that of failing states.
By calling young Salvadorans “animals” last spring, Trump stoked the racist paranoia that all young brown people coming from the south are gang members or terrorists. The sad irony is that almost all of the adults and children who have fled El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are running from gang violence and state repression. Recent studies from North American institutions show that for many Central Americans, it is impossible to escape gang violence without leaving their countries of origin.
In July, then–US attorney general Jeff Sessions announced that people targeted by domestic and sexual violence in their home countries, as well as people targeted by gang violence, are no longer eligible for asylum in the United States. While domestic violence as the basis for asylum has been hotly contested since the late 1990s, Sessions’ announcement reverses important gains won by women in the 2014 case Matter of A-R-G-C, which established that Guatemalan women who could not leave abusive relationships were indeed eligible for asylum.
The assumption underlying this change in policy is that the US need only consider cases where refugees have been targeted by “political” violence at the the hands of the state. Domestic violence, rape, and gang violence, according to this logic, are private acts of violence. Private violence does not warrant asylum.
But when the history of gang and gender-based and sexual violence in Central America are considered, it becomes clear that the governments of Central American and the United States have shaped and created the forms of sexual and gang violence that we know today. There is no private violence that does not have deep historical roots in state-sponsored violence and repression.
1960s–1980s: Counterinsurgency, Executions, Rape
Guatemala’s civil war (1960–1996) was Central America’s longest and bloodiest. Two hundred thousand people were killed, and over a hundred thousand additional women were raped and tortured. Ninety percent of the victims of sexual violence were indigenous women in rural areas.
Rather than just an expression of the excesses of individual soldiers, rape was used as a systematic and conscious tool of social control. The certainty with which army and paramilitary units would use rape in rural campaigns struck a particular kind of fear into the hearts of rural communities, men along with women.
The strategy of the Guatemalan army, many of its units trained by the US, was to terrorize whole communities into compliance with the state out of fear of what would happen to the community’s women if they did not. For the military, compliance was not enough — they wanted intelligence, and they were willing to use any method of terror to get it. Pervasive violation of the female body was one of their methods.
At the tail end of the civil war, the Guatemalan military invented the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PACs) to fight guerrilla infiltration. Participation in the committees was compulsory for rural indigenous men. In addition to gathering information on the primary enemy, communist insurgents, the patrullas also policed the behavior of women and enforced gender norms and chastity.
Today in Guatemala, “security committees” modeled on the PACs are in operation — but rather than communist insurgents, the targeted enemies are suspected gang members. And today, like during the civil war, the security committees police women’s behavior and activities.
Next door, El Salvador’s civil war (1979–1992) killed 75,000 people. The United States spent $6 billion on this war, trained Salvadoran troops, and provided them equipment and intelligence. The war ended with a peace treaty signed in Chapultepec, Mexico, which dismantled both the police and the armed forces, and established a Truth Commission to study the war crimes committed. The Truth Commission found that 85 percent of the deaths could be attributed to the armed forces of El Salvador and the death squads affiliated with them.
One example illustrates the nature of warfare carried out by US-trained forces. In El Mozote, Morazón Province in northeastern El Salvador, the Atlacatl Battalion murdered between seven hundred and nine hundred villagers. The soldiers were methodical; after locking everyone down for almost a day in their houses without food and water, the men were dragged out and executed. Women and children were herded into a church, where they were dragged out a few at a time, raped, and then killed with machetes, bayonets, or gunshots.
The Atlacatl Battalion was trained by the US military, and its commander, Domingo Monterrosa, was being groomed by the US at international warfare academies. Right-wing paramilitary death squads, most notoriously ORDEN in El Salvador, were given hit lists and intelligence by that country’s armed forces. Back then, lists were typewritten and communication was relatively slow. Today, death squads that include police officers, military officers, and right-wing civilians use WhatsApp and Facebook, and rather than targeting suspected communist insurgents, they target suspected gang members.
Throughout the civil wars of the 1980s, Honduras’s right-wing government allowed the US to use their country as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” The Soto Cano Airforce base, in particular, was used to wage irregular war on the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Thirty thousand deaths are attributed to the Nicaraguan Contras and the US military that supported them; their presence in Honduras also destabilized that country.
More than one and a half million Central Americans fled to the United States during this time, with their children. Many future members of Mara Salvatrucha arrived in the United States as children traumatized by the violence they had seen. Smaller numbers arrived as perpetrators of such violence, and given their training in systematic torture techniques, it is not surprising that some of those people became notorious gang leaders.
Ernesto Deras, for example, arrived in the Pacoima California in 1990 after having fought in a US-trained Rapid Response battalion. He arrived at the height of gang tensions in Los Angeles and also at the height of the crack epidemic. His penchant for machetes as a weapon of choice, signature beheadings, and tactical know-how garnered from a war zone soon landed him at the head of the Fulton Street set of Mara Salvatrucha. This set was known for widespread use of rape and torture.
While the ink on El Salvador’s peace treaty was still drying, the US Department of Justice began sending planes loaded with gang members to San Salvador. Four thousand such gang members were deported to El Salvador at the close of their civil war. From the end of that war until now, more than eighty-one thousand criminals have been deported from the United States to El Salvador. Prior to these deportations, Barrio 18 and MS-13 did not exist in El Salvador. (There were smaller and unaffiliated street gangs.) Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 infected El Salvador first and then spread to the rest of the Northern Triangle.
Upon returning to El Salvador, these deportees entered a society suffering intense PTSD. In 1993, almost a year after the United States began pumping gang members into El Salvador’s feverish but recovering corpus, the Salvadoran Parliament gave blanket amnesty to all perpetrators of war crimes during the civil war. No one, from the highest ranking military officers to the guerrilla forces of the FMLN, would be held accountable for any crime. Thus began the culture of impunity that has a major impact on gang violence today.
1980s and 1990s: Mass Incarceration and the “Managerial Revolution” in Gang Structure
In the collective memory of Angelinos who were young in the 1980s, the rise of mass incarceration started during the 1984 Olympics, when street sweeps began to clean Los Angeles of undesirable youth so that Ronald Reagan could project a positive image of this city of the future that would shame his Cold War rivals. Under the leadership of Sheriff Wes McBride, Los Angeles had begun keeping gang lists of hundreds of thousands of young people. Prisoners were segregated by gang affiliation, effectively giving different gangs “coercive jurisdiction” over prison units, in the words of Benjamin Lessing.
In the infamous Operation Hammer in 1988, one thousand extra-duty police officers, SWAT, and anti-gang units arrested almost 1,500 suspected gang members on the same day in South Central Los Angeles. Only thirty-two of the arrestees were ever charged; there was insufficient evidence in the other cases.
The same year, 1988, California began a campaign to conflate membership in gangs with membership in terrorist organizations. The Street Terrorism and Enforcement Act (otherwise known as STEP) stated that “the legislature hereby recognizes that street gangs are involved in terrorism.”
This same law stipulated sentence enhancement for gang members, so that membership in a gang (as defined by the state, when a young person meets several of the criteria that the law lays out for gang membership) in and of itself became a crime. The state had begun to define gang membership and keep rosters for sets and cliques. The role of the state in reifying gang structures has intensified ever since.
While the repression on the streets during the 1984 Olympics may have captured the public imagination, the rise of mass incarceration had quietly begun earlier, in the mid-1970s. Best documented by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, this insidious movement in American society was the ruling class’s backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty that resulted from it.
Through the “war on drugs” and frantic prison construction, elites sought to maintain systems of white supremacy by blaming poverty and struggle on crime, and then locking up a generation of working and underclass people to pay for those crimes. Incarceration rates in the United States increased tenfold between 1973 and 2013. Less well known is the leading role that liberal California politicians played in constructing this carceral state.
The 1980s in California also brought, in the words of Mike Davis, a “managerial revolution” in gang organization. The main cause of the revolution in the structures, size, and activities of gangs was the rise of mass incarceration in the US in the 1980s. The American prison system shaped the gangs that we know today, especially Mara Salvatrucha, into the mirror image of its hierarchical and authoritarian structure.
In California’s prisons in the 1980s, the Salvadorans learned the organizational ropes from the Mexican Mafia, which had been using the prisons as their base of power since the 1950s. In addition to learning codes, rules, and structures in prison, informal youth gangs consolidated themselves into a federation using the name Mara Salvatrucha, and added the number thirteen after the “MS” in deference to the Mexican Mafia (“la Eme” or number thirteen in the alphabet).
Before being locked up, the maras were loose cliques of young Central Americans in the Los Angeles area who needed to protect themselves from the much more organized Bloods and Crips as well as the established Latin street gangs. Their main activities were hanging out and engaging in petty crimes. They dressed like rockers and tried to hold on to a modicum of Salvadoran pride, while still assimilating to the US. All of their members were minors.
In prison, however, everything changed. They became a professional organization. Jaime Martinez, who came to the US from El Salvador as a teenager in the late 1970s and served a thirty-year sentence for gang-related crimes, told me, “Prison is like college. The higher level you go, the more you learn about criminality.”
In “Inside Out: the Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations,” a study written for the Brookings Institute in 2016, Benjamin Lessing looks at prison systems in Central America, Brazil, and the United States and concludes that incarceration has the bizarre effect of making gangs more powerful. In California and in El Salvador, prisons “help prison gangs establish authority outside of the prison.” Because of the near-certainty that a gang member will do jail time, common sense dictates to a gang member on the street that he follow the orders of imprisoned gang leaders.
Copycats in Central America
In 2003, the year that Mano Dura (“Iron Fist”) policies began in El Salvador (modeled on tough-on-crime legislation in the US, to heighten repression of gangs) the prison population jumped from four thousand to eight thousand. Now prisons in El Salvador hold 39,302 prisoners. That’s a 450 percent increase since the beginning of this century (almost exactly the same incarceration rate that we have in the United States).
The Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) and the US State Department report that El Salvador’s jail system is crowded to four times its intended capacity. Infections are rampant. Inmates have to take turns sleeping because there is insufficient floor space and blankets.
The Supreme Court of El Salvador has ruled that prison overcrowding is at unconstitutional levels, but the conditions have not been alleviated. The mercurial rise in incarceration rates in El Salvador, while two decades behind the same trend in the United States in general and California in particular, has run a parallel course.
In two reports, “How Mano Dura is Strengthening the Gangs,” and “El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for MS-13’s Soul,” Insight Crime reporters Steven Dudley and Juan Jose Martinez describe the way that prisons provide fertile recruiting ground for new gang members, protect gangs from their rivals because they are segregated from gang affiliations, and provide the structure and proximity needed for gangs to develop their business models.
Extortion, not drug sales, is the major activity of MS-13 and Barrio 18. According to the Salvadoran attorney general, 84 percent of all extortion operations run from inside the prison system. In addition, inmates are required to register their gang, clique, and rank with the penal system. Just like in the United States, where gang lists are kept by law enforcement officials, the Salvadoran state has become involved in the business of officially recognizing gang structures and members. This official status has the unintended consequence of legitimizing the status of gangs as the enemy of the state and hardening gang structures.
As they begin to rival state power, the gangs also mirror it; in El Salvador gangs operate much like the paramilitary death squads that they are forced to learn from. Former gang member, Salvadoran gang expert, and peace worker Alex Sanchez explains, “The gangs are being pushed to become more organized, to adapt and to survive. They are learning to become more invisible.”
In both El Salvador and Honduras, prison management is controlled by the gangs because the state does not have enough resources to control the inmate population. Inmates are often armed and patrol the roofs of the prisons, for example. They provide a place from which gang leadership can organize.
In 2016 and again in 2018, “extraordinary measures” were passed by the legislature, stripping both citizens and prisoners of constitutional rights, like the right to be accused in a court of law, barring international organizations access to prisons, and increasing the use of solitary confinement.
Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, who travelled to El Salvador in early 2018, describes a “low intensity conflict” (reminiscent of the 1980s counterinsurgency wars) on the streets between police and suspected gang members. 591 suspected gang members were killed by security forces in 2016 alone. Forty-five percent of gang members report having been attacked by police. Other asylum-seekers have noted that they are nearly certain that if they are deported they will be targeted by the Sombra Negra death squad. In August 2017 the Salvadoran attorney general announced investigations into death squads such as the “Extermination Group” and “Lourdes Hitmen.”
There is a process of “social cleansing” taking place by which the state in El Salvador criminalizes youth and targets them for extrajudicial punishment. Gangs cannot exist absent an enemy; the police and military, as much as rival gangs, fill the role. In return, gangs justify ever-increasing foreign funding to intensify the efforts to militarize the police and arm them to the teeth.
Gang violence, and high levels of repression against young people, always goes hand in hand with sexual violence against women. Every nineteen hours, a woman is killed in El Salvador, and every three hours a sexual assault happens. Seventy percent of the victims are children. Gang members are often the perpetrators, and police across the Northern Triangle rape women with impunity.
But in cultures shaped by recent memories of femicide, domestic rape and violence are also pervasive, and perpetrators go unpunished. In Honduras, for example, 95 percent of sexual violence goes unpunished.
Mano Dura policies have stayed constant even though El Salvador has been democratically ruled by opposing sides of the civil war and, theoretically, of the ideological spectrum. (From the end of the civil war to 2009, the country had been ruled by ARENA, the same party that was created and ruled during the civil war. From 2009 until the present, it has been ruled by representatives of the former rebels, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, FMLN.)
Nowhere in the Northern Triangle is there a simple conflict where security forces line up on one side and gang members and drug dealers line up on the other. Many government officials and members of the police and military are deeply involved in both the gangs and the drug trade (gangs and drug cartels overlap and collaborate but are two different entities).
Central American deportees report that by the time they reach home, rival gang members and cartels have been informed about their imminent deportations. This can only happen because government officials collaborate deeply with the gangs and cartels, while simultaneously waging a war of “social cleansing” against some gang factions and against young suspects.
As the US was intervening in Central America by encouraging client states to adopt repressive social policies that they invented in the belly of the beast (“tough on crime” policies in English, Mano Dura in Spanish), they leaned on their history of counterinsurgency warfare in the region to support an outright coup d’etat in Honduras in 2009.
Advised by John Negroponte, one of the architects of US policy in Central America during the civil war years, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed the ouster of Honduras’s democratically elected leader, Manuel Zelaya. The current regime of Juan Orlando Hernández is infamous for its execution of Lenca indigenous water protector Berta Cáceres.
No Escape, Except “al Norte”
Many progressive Hondurans stayed in the country to fight for justice and democracy. But 2017, according to the Honduras Solidarity Network, was a turning point at which people decided that the country had become unbearable, and they had to leave. In that year, Hernández declared victory in an election that many believe was stolen, and his victory was cemented by support from the Trump administration.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Violence already rules everyday life in the country, it is very difficult if not impossible for parents to send their children to public school, and with another stolen election hope for change had vanished.
Especially for victims of both sexual and gang violence in Central America, it is impossible to escape by moving from one location in their home country to another. When women attempt to leave abusive partners, there is nowhere for them to go, and many are stalked and dragged back to the partner to face worse abuse or death. Punishment for domestic abuse and sexual violence goes almost entirely unpunished. Forty percent of unaccompanied minors coming to the US in the 2014–2017 exodus were girls escaping sexual violence or the threat of it.
Similarly, young people who are targeted for forcible recruitment from gangs (the average age for joining a gang is fifteen) cannot escape by running away to relatives in neighboring villages. The gangs’ intelligence networks, which involve military and police forces, are too far-reaching.
To quit a gang in El Salvador, or “calm down,” requires a sort of permission from the existing leadership. Gang members, especially as they get older, can “calm down” and become less involved in criminal activity but maintain affiliations and identity. The only way of obtaining such de facto permission in El Salvador is to join and become active in the evangelical church.
Florida International University released a critical study in January 2017, “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador,” based on surveys with 1,196 gang members from Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 Sureños, and the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios. The study illuminates choices that gang members do and don’t have to escape gang life, and the police repression that goes along with it.
Those gang members that do not choose to become active with the evangelical church have to leave the country if they want to escape gang life entirely. Otherwise, they will be affiliated for life, even if they “calm down” and become less active in a strange form of retirement. Some of the floods of people running north may have been former perpetrators of violence; they have only two routes for going straight — in the evangelical church, or to find a way north at great peril.
Those refugees heading north are escaping either direct physical violence inflicted on them, the threat of great bodily harm, or societies deeply traumatized by civil wars and the ensuing interlocking webs of violence. Perpetrators of violence operate with impunity in those countries, and they can only do so because of deep collaboration with the state.
It is therefore inaccurate to see any act of violence as a “private” act. Structures have been set up to inflict the violence, and these structures, like all human creations, have architects. Some of these architects are artful in their design of violence as a means of social control, and most of them are employed at the highest levels of government.