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Last Updated: 03/30/2012
War and Peace in El Salvador
Colette Hellenkamp

Colette Hellenkamp delves into the complexity of violence in El Salvador, touching on both obstacles and potential pathways to constructing a culture of peace. Her analysis highlights the challenges of outflow migration, socio-economic and power inequalities, governmental ineptitude in addressing root causes of violence, rampant gang activity and organized crime, as well as El Salvador’s history of military dictatorship and violent civil war.

On September 4, 2010, a third survivor of the migrant massacre in Tamaulipas, Mexico was discovered and identified as a Salvadoran citizen. This man’s life was somehow spared while 72 other migrants were brutally killed, including 11 other Salvadorans (Velásquez). The twelve Salvadorans who made the headlines that week were just a few among millions of other courageous people who have attempted the perilous journey north in hopes of finding a better life in the United States. Today, over 2.5 million Salvadorans live in the United States (“One Home, Two Nations”), compared to a mere 6.2 million who remain living in El Salvador (2010 World Population Data Sheet). Why are hundreds of Salvadorans per day so willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money to risk their lives travelling thousands of miles across harsh terrain – only to end up in a country that is frequently hostile towards immigrants? This mass emigration of people from their own motherland must be a symptom of a social illness in their own country; it is a striking phenomenon that warrants some explanation. To better understand this situation, we must take a closer look at the context from which these millions of migrants originate.

Violence in El Salvador

El Salvador is a tiny, beautiful country located in Central America. Unfortunately, this picturesque country is plagued with a pervasive culture of violence, which is manifested in every level of society in a multitude of forms. This culture of violence is partly the product of a long history of rule by military dictatorship and a twelve-year civil war – fueled by the two polar forces of the Cold War – in which over 75,000 people were killed and thousands more tortured and disappeared. The normalization of violence throughout the years planted deep seeds which facilitated the germination of a widespread culture of violence in Salvadoran society. Violence became the standard approach to conflict resolution, and generations of young people were raised in the context of war. Fear and death became the norm (Fari-a, Miller, & Cavallaro, 5).

The 1992 Peace Accords drew an official end to the civil war and promised hope for reconciliation and societal transformation in El Salvador. However, few of the agreed-upon steps for post-war reconstruction were put into effect in their entirety. In particular, the weak judicial system from before the war remained weak and susceptible to manipulation. This only perpetuated the prevalence of impunity in the country, preventing the acquisition of justice for so many thousands of Salvadoran victims of violence; and thus, giving the silent nod of approval to the pervasiveness of structural violence, corruption, violence and injustice in the country to those who have the means to manipulate the system (Fari-a et al., 12-17).

Several other sources of conflict that had led to the civil war remained unaddressed, as well. One of the greatest of these problems was the gaping socioeconomic disparity that existed in the country. Unfortunately, this issue was not adequately addressed in the Peace Accords negotiation process, and the few provisions that were intended to address these socioeconomic inequities were insufficiently implemented due to a lack of resources and lack of importance placed on the subject (Arnson, viii). To this day, a miniscule percentage of the population still possesses the far majority of the country’s wealth and resources, while the majority of the population can be considered victims of a historical and systematic economic violence – an economic exclusion that has been perpetuated by the wealthy few in the country for centuries. People born into poverty have very few opportunities and face endless obstacles to overcome their poverty. Public education is supposed to be free and accessible to all, but many people cannot afford the additional fees that are charged for uniforms, tests and graduation. And at times, children are even pulled out of school to help support their families economically. Unemployment and informal employment rates are extremely high. There are few opportunities for employment, and it is even difficult for people who are fortunate enough to have obtained a quality education to find decent jobs (“Muriendo para vivir”).

To further complicate the situation of violence in the country, soon after the signing of the Peace Accords, the United States government began deporting Salvadorans who had sought refuge in the US during the war. Many of these people had been living in Los Angeles and had formed or joined local street gangs, namely the 18th Street gang and Mara Salvatrucha. These gangs were far more sophisticated and violent than the common street gangs El Salvador had known in the past. When these new gangs hit Salvadoran soil with the first rounds of deportation from the States, they found the country a fertile place to take root and flourish for several reasons: many youth were seeking identity and “family” after having lost theirs to violence and emigration during the war; people were still frustrated by the great lack of employment opportunities; the country was flooded with weapons from having recently emerged from a violent civil war; the gangs were a direct product of the sexy ‘American’ culture, and the civil war (as well as the previous years of conquista and military dictatorship) had left a culture of violence as its legacy. The gangs took root in the country and spread like wildfire.

Today, nearly every inch of El Salvador is claimed as territory for one gang or the other. There are estimated to be between 20 and 40 thousand active gang members in the country, not including their family members and the informal affiliate networks of youth aspiring to be jumped into the gangs. Today’s gang violence is principally limited to turf-battles and inter-gang retaliation in revenge for past lives taken; however, they also engage in extortion and other violent acts in defiance of the government’s public policy towards the gangs. In the past ten years or so, the gangs have become a great source of notoriety for El Salvador. In fact, they have become the principal scapegoat for the high levels of violence in Salvadoran society (Fari-a et al., 49-106). And in a recent evolution, what once began as a war between two gangs is now simultaneously transforming into a violent resistance movement against the oppressive structures in existence – hailing a forceful message of justice and structural transformation for El Salvador.

While a certain percentage of the visible physical violence in El Salvador can be attributed to the gangs, much of it can also be attributed to gender violence, non-gang-initiated extortions, narcotrafficking, organized crime, extra-judicial killings on behalf of death squads and other disgruntled groups, and other generalized delinquency and robbery (“Violencia, un Problema de Exclusion”).

Although the Peace Accords were signed in 1992 to formally end El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war, the country remains ‘at war.’ The homicide rate in El Salvador climbed to 71 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009, raising it to number one among the countries with the highest homicide rates (Miroff & Booth). In addition, in September of 2011, the United Nations Development Program named El Salvador as the most violent country in the world based on its proportional rates of armed violence (“PNUD: El Salvador”). Many people claim that living conditions today are worse than they were before the war (“Muriendo Para Vivir”). This culture of violence is pervasive throughout all aspects of Salvadoran society, and at this point there is no sight of significant change in the near future.

Interests in Maintaining this Culture of Violence

If we take a closer look at these deeply interrelated phenomena of the culture of violence and emigration from El Salvador, we discover the linchpin that holds these complex social patterns in place. Today, citizen insecurity is a profiting business in El Salvador (when few other industries are able to truly thrive in the current economy). In recent years, El Salvador has been spending an average of two billion dollars per year on security (Pastrán). Upon investigation, it has been discovered that several of the people behind the arms trade in El Salvador (who are actively serving to fuel violence in the country) are also the owners of the five major private security companies in the country (Sanchez). There are a select and powerful few who are directly benefitting from this pervasive culture of violence – they both fuel the widespread panic and fear that has taken hold of El Salvador by ensuring that weapons are available like candy, and also provide people with the immediate go-to ‘solution’ of private security and barricading-in their homes to help ease people’s paranoia.

In addition, El Salvador’s greatest export today is people who emigrate from the country, and its greatest import is remittances sent back to El Salvador from Salvadorans living abroad. These days, remittances to El Salvador total approximately $2.5 billion per year, which equates to approximately 17.1% of the country’s GDP and is equivalent to 91% of the government budget. Remittances are keeping El Salvador economically afloat (“One Home, Two Nations”). It has been quite convenient for the Salvadoran government throughout the years to sustain this culture of violence and keep a steady flow of people fleeing the country. Fewer people in the country implies fewer ‘mouths to feed’ and a greater influx of money from abroad, which lightens the government’s economic burden.

It is also understood among many analysts and local activists that the Salvadoran government’s insistence that the youth gangs are the main perpetrators ofviolence in the country (including the most recent claim by several government officials that the gangs are to blame for 90% of the country’s homicides in 2011) is, in fact, an intentional act to divert the public’s attention away from the reality of the situation. Other experts, including the Salvadoran government’s forensics institute, several civil society organizations, and former police officials, report statistics reflecting that only 10-20% of the murders in the country can be attributed to the gangs. They assert that the majority of the violence in El Salvador is instead instigated by international organized criminal networks involved in trafficking arms, drugs and people, money laundering, and other unlawful activities ("Voices from El Salvador"). In making the gangs the scapegoat for the country’s problems of violence and keeping them in the daily headlines, the people who hold prestigious positions in the government and in the private sector – and who are also leaders in this illicit criminal activity (Arauz, Martinez, & Lemus)– are able to ‘conduct business’ behind a smoke curtain without threat to their dealings. Clearly, there are very high-up economic interests involved in ensuring that the current culture of violence is maintained as is.

Similarly, as has been the case in El Salvador for decades, the wealthy few in the country do whatever is necessary to maintain their riches and quench their thirst for comfort and power. Their status and wealth will not be threatened as long as they ensure that the masses remain uneducated and in chaos. Creating equal opportunity for education, jobs and resources is not a priority for those in power, nor is resolving the problem of violence in the country. I will only be convinced otherwise once I see a true commitment from those in power to work to eradicate the extreme inequity that has been so meticulously preserved throughout the ages in El Salvador.

Through this analysis, it is clear that powerful economic interests are working to perpetuate El Salvador’s culture of violence.

State Responses to Violence

As demonstrated above, the Salvadoran government is not whole-heartedly committed to working to reduce the violence and foment a culture of peace. This is further confirmed as we examine how the government has responded to violence over time. We see that, in fact, this culture of violence extends into Salvadoran public policy, as well, particularly in response to the problem of societal violence.

The previous administrations neglected to implement public policy to provide youth with opportunities for positive growth and development, and their active response to the gang phenomenon was one of systematic repression and violence towards the greater youth population. Since 2003, a succession of anti-gang laws have been implemented, which have given the police nearly free reign to arbitrarily arrest youth regardless of whether or not they have actually committed a true crime. Police brutality towards youth has become the norm in the streets. When officers detain youth, they also frequently beat them, threaten them and their families, and steal their money and phones. Prison conditions are exaggeratedly inhumane; prisons are currently at 300% capacity, and the pervasive impunity in the country has ensured that about 30% of those prisoners have never even been tried or convicted (Archibold). Also, there was a time in which it became a practice in the prisons to mix a smaller population of youth from one gang with a large population of youth from the opposing gang – guaranteeing massacre (Fari-a et al., 149).

 President Funes. Photo: AP

In the past three years under the current administration, military officers have also been deployed in the prisons and in the streets to accompany police officers as they patrol communities (“El Ejercito Salvadoreno”). In June of 2011, President Mauricio Funes announced a new measure to prevent the growth of the gangs, which involves mandatory military service for the 5,000 youth most at risk of joining a gang (Valencia, Labrador & Car'as). And most recently, President Funes removed the incumbent civilian leaders from the highest positions of leadership in the area of security in the country – both the Director of the National Civilian Police and the Minister of Justice and Public Security –, and replaced them with two army generals, essentially militarizing security in El Salvador (“Salvadoran President Funes Criticised”).

Despite the fact that the current administration is now led by a leftist party for the first time since the end of the civil war, there appears to be very little change in how the government approaches the situation of violence in the country. When President Funes was elected, people had hope that true change would finally come, yet he has only proven to maintain the same reactionary, short-term approach, continuing to respond to the violence with repression and more violence. Again, this reflects the government’s systematic disinterest and lack of commitment to addressing the root causes of the violence.

Civil Society Responses to the Violence

Despite civil society’s desperation for peace in El Salvador (as they are commonly the people most directly affected by the violence), organized efforts on behalf of this sector to address the situation of violence in the country have been minimal. Understandably, the majority of people are afraid to get involved in the issue because of the personal risk involved. In addition, the government has shown overwhelming apathy towards supporting community initiatives. And funding is scarce because there have been few quantitatively proven methods for reducing gang violence.

There are several organizations, however, that have chosen to dedicate themselves to initiatives involving violence prevention and reduction, peacebuilding, inclusion and active support of marginalized populations (youth, women, the queer community, indigenous communities, etc.), education and activism, among others. Many of these organizations are working effectively, bravely and tirelessly for peace in their communities. The problem is that among all of these organizations, there is generally a great lack of coordination, sharing of best practices and communication. This means that the work being done, in the end, is disjointed and isolated. In the past few years, there have been a few instances of initiatives that have attempted to unite and coordinate networks of organizations working in similar fields; however, great long-term fruits are yet to be borne, as they are still in their initial phases of organization.

Opportunities for Peace

Violence in El Salvador hit a high between the months of June and September of 2010. On June 20, 2010, a small bus full of passengers was stopped in an urban district of San Salvador, doused in gasoline, set on fire and gun-blasted. Seventeen people were killed, and many others were critically injured. Among many theories, it was believed that this act could have been attributed to gang violence. In response to this event, President Funes introduced an anti-gang bill in September, making it illegal to belong to a gang in El Salvador and punishable with up to ten years in prison (“Salvador bans gang membership”). In reaction to the proposal of this new policy (which mirrors the same repressive policy of the past administrations that the current government had so ardently criticized), the two gangs united and imposed a nation-wide curfew and a 72-hour stoppage of the bus routes across the entire country, threatening to kill anyone who defied this mandate. Towards the end of this 72-hour curfew and bus stoppage, the two gangs held press conferences and issued official statements calling for policies of inclusion and opportunities for youth, as well as better living conditions and personal development opportunities in the prisons. In addition, the gangs proposed to enter into dialogue with the government to together address issues of violence in the country (Llarull). However, the gangs’ proposal was met with flat rejection on behalf of Salvadoran officials. Vowing not to cede to “blackmail,” President Funes signed the proposed anti-gang bill into law the very same week (“Salvadoran signs”).

Youth gang members – one of the social groups centrally involved in and affected by the violence – were open and willing to dialogue because they saw that the country had arrived at a critical moment, yet President Funes firmly rejected moving forward into dialogue. He imprudently shut the door on a rare opportunity to begin an essential conversation with key participants in the process of creating a true peace in El Salvador. Considering the current pervasiveness of violence in El Salvador and President Funes’s position, it is clear that the country is facing a crucial moment in which it is essential to give a voice to the youth and other traditionally ‘invisibilized’ sectors of society regarding their proposals on how to bring about peaceful change. El Salvador can no longer afford to continue ignoring its people’s experiences, needs and visions for peace.

There are several ways to begin transforming this culture of violence into a culture of peace. First of all, to better understand this phenomenon of violence and reveal constructive paths towards a sustainable peace, it is crucial to conduct a deeper conflict analysis to reveal the root causes of the violence. To ensure a comprehensive and integral analysis, it would be essential to facilitate and contemplate the responses elicited through extensive dialogue among all sectors of Salvadoran society. A truly long-term, sustainable solution must come from the people who know the problem most intimately. It must be dreamed and designed based on the vision of a collective voice – a voice that includes perspectives that have historically been silenced or left in the margins, as well as those who have had the most intimate experiences with violence.

According to the analysis of a rural Salvadoran health worker, the principal cause at the heart of the current violence is the structural violence that actively works to marginalize the large majority of the population and maintain grave wealth disparities in Salvadoran society. She reflects:

“[It] is concerning because the measures that the government wants to implement to combat [the violence] are not real solutions…What good does it do to put military officers in the streets or force kids into barracks for military training – if in the end, there is no desire to resolve the real problem – the economic inequality? Many people blame the gangs, family disintegration, parents poorly educating their children – but that really isn’t so relevant; the mother of everything is the lack of decent employment and the great economic disparity.”

This conclusion is echoed by several other Salvadorans I have had the opportunity to speak with regarding their understanding of violence in their country. Another woman who works as an educator and psychologist in an urban center for marginalized youth expressed the following:

“If we’re going to speak of a culture of peace in all of its dimensions – not only at the level of youth – we need a government that is inclusive. The situation of inequities will not change from one day to the next; it’s a very long process… And if the government and society don’t want inequity, we ourselves have to become truly equitable. Not just at the basic level of sharing my bread with you, but also in how we live day to day – how I treat you, how I act justly or not, how I live interior peace or how I live interior violence.”

If it is indeed true that inequities are the root cause of the violence, it will be crucial for all people to come to understand that a happy, healthy society benefits all, and that there exists great individual and collective power to make societal change. Perhaps above all, we must find a way to cultivate a renewed sense of solidarity and commitment to each other’s wellbeing and realize that each person’s participation in this cultural transformation is integral to its success.

[Note: After this piece was written, a local Salvadoran newspaper reported that the government had very recently negotiated with the top leaders of the two principal gangs in El Salvador (the MS-13 and the two factions of the 18th Street gang) to reduce homicides in the country. The details of the deal are still not confirmed, but it has been established that the top leaders of both gangs have agreed to order their members to stop killing, in return for their transfer from the country’s maximum security prison to the normal prisons of lower security. It is also rumored that the government has agreed to pay these top leaders’ families significant quantities of money, as well. In the days since the agreement was settled, the daily homicide rate has significantly dropped (Mart'nez et al.).

While it appears positive that the government has finally come to terms with the importance and potential of opening dialogue, many questions have been raised about this tactic: Will this just be a temporary band-aid response to the real problems at hand, versus a solution that addresses the roots of the gang violence? How long-term can this solution actually be? How will other regional factions of the gangs receive this information (considering that the groups from Honduras, Guatemala and the United States are already questioning what has happened)? How will the gang populations respond if the claims are proven true that the government is paying-off gang leaders? And once again, noting that the officials continue to place their emphasis principally on gang violence, what will be done about the other prevalent forms of violence in the country that are not being talked about? This new turn of events could prove to be quite consequential to the situation of violence in the country and deserves to be closely monitored.]


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Colette Hellenkamp studied at the University for Peace in the ‘UBUNTU’ 2011 International Peace Studies program. She developed a deep interest in issues of violence and peacebuilding in El Salvador throughout the years she spent there living and working with youth at risk of violence. She can be contacted by email at