Peace and Conflict Monitor

Violence and Poverty Entangled in El Salvador
Paula LeRoy
April 16, 2012
In the first of a two-part series, researcher Paula LeRoy discusses several ways in which poverty and violence interact in El Salvador. Of particular emphasis in this analysis is the inadequate fulfilment of the 1992 Peace Accords. The companion article (forthcoming) will assess the viability of potential responses to the issues discussed here.

Extraordinarily high levels violence in El Salvador is both a product and cause of rising poverty exacerbated by an ample supply of armaments. Total poverty in El Salvador is calculated at 37.8%. Clean water sources are not provided for 24% of the country. This rural inequity contributes to severe illnesses and an under-five year old mortality rate of 6%, much from preventable conditions such as diarrhea and water born diseases. Unemployment is figured at 59% (WorldBank, 2011) although it can be assumed that there is a fair percentage in the informal sector including criminal activity.

My research points to the insufficient application of the 1992 Peace Accords as a major culprit in the poverty-violence nexus. The Peace failed to change the deep social and ethnic divisions and the institutional weaknesses that gave rise to the wars in the first place. Had these mandates been truly invoked, the economic development plans and security sector reform could have built an enriched El Salvador and helped avert more decades of violence, trauma, and poverty.

Instead of peace, seven major fountains of violence fuel the fires of interlaced violence: economic desperation, arms supply, organized crime, gang violence, state sponsored violence, banditry, and domestic violence. Solutions to these seven factors are suggested as remedies later in a companion paper

The 1992 Peace Accords: Chapultapec Agreements

The 1992 Peace Accords offered pregnant possibilities and on paper were promising. Indeed, El Salvador was considered the model for many years. The main aspects, beyond cessation of hostilities, were as follows:

1) Dismissal of the military and treasury police. These forces were to be replaced with an integrated, newly trained National Police force comprised of 20% former police, 20% former opposition combatants, and 60 % new recruits. The Police were officially separated from the Military and given different functions. Forced recruitment became illegal.

2) A new independent Judiciary was created to insure justice. An ombudsman and Truth Commission offered citizens a chance to report human rights abuses and address grievances.

3) Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Programs were initiated by UN forces and funded with international resources.

4) New elections allowed participation of opposition candidates. Candidates were allowed to have access to the media and the right to protection during campaigns.

5) The United Nations oversaw the elections, transitions and implementation of programs.

6) Political prisoners and exiles were granted ‘right of return’.

7) Poverty alleviation programs included land distribution to rural poor. (USIP, 2001).

The Violence Profile: Armed to the Hilt

Implementation weaknesses, purposeful negligence and global economic phenomena all contribute to a very different picture than was envisioned in 1992. Presently, the level of violence in El Salvador surpasses civil war levels and is among the world’s highest. In 2010, 4000 homicides were counted. Violence ensues with an abundant supply of armaments left over from the war, many stolen from government caches and sold, plus the continuation of arms trafficking along the supply routes established during the war. The 2002 Small Arms Survey documented that in El Salvador there were an estimated 400,000 firearms in civilian hands, of which only 170,000, or 42.5 per cent were registered (Cruz and Beltrán, 2000). Ownership of grenades was already particularly high in El Salvador and military assault rifles spread throughout society. Grenades are now a multi-purpose armament used to hold up buses and commit robberies. “US sources indicate that commercial retail sales of firearms and illegal black-market sales have surpassed government-to-government deals in terms of quantity and value” (Small Arms Survey 2002).

Despite the creation of a national police force, part of the responsibility for continued state-sponsored violence lies with the post conflict government. Two tenants of the Peace Accords were severely undermined soon after the new administration took its seat. The Treasury Police and the National Guard were ordered to be abolished. However, they were “instead transformed by the government into Military Police and Frontier Guards, respectively” (Godnick, Laurance 2000).

After declaring gang membership illegal, San Salvador used military and police forces to round up thousands of youths based on their appearance, prominent tattoos, associations, or addresses. Although most of these arrests have not held up in the courts, the rough tactics have stigmatized many poor communities, increased resentment of the military and police, and may have accelerated gang recruitment, according to academic studies (Dudley, 2011) and eye witness reports available on the Internet”(Embracing Crisis, 2011). Although police training involves community policing techniques, during operations many of police seem to resort to military style and hierarchical attitudes about power. A corrupt promotion system has sabotaged the true transformation of military and police forces.

Judicial Reform: Hampered by Lack of Security and Integrity

Judicial and Security Sector reforms were a centerpiece of the 1992 Accords, but the integrity of the implementation faltered. For Salvadorans who had experienced government as ‘a place to grease the wheel’ more than to deliver justice, it was difficult to change perceptions.

Justice sector reforms were attempted. Unaligned justices were promoted and trained while the independence of the Judiciary was expected. However the security sector was and is still unable to protect judges from retaliation. Insufficient witness protection programs and constitutional questions have influenced the Justices to overturn convictions of alleged violent criminals arrested by the police. This may have increase paramilitary assassinations to take matters into their own hands.

Although over 75% of the people do not trust the justice sector, the neutral, international ombudsmen available at the end of the war were considered effective and accessible by a majority of Salvadorans. (, that office came to an end with the end of UN involvement and the justice does not able engender trust.

A major negotiating point for the opposition (FMLN) was that none of their soldiers would be tried separately for human rights abuses; the new government offered amnesties to most government officials and the majority of abuses went untried. These “self amnesties” set a permissive tone towards violence. Until the last few years, almost no high level official has been tried for any crime, while it is widely known that many are collaborating with organized crime.

Disarming and Rearming

The disarmament program in 1992 was valiant and innovative, however, both sides dodged significant levels of disarmament, turning in their broken or less valuable arms and keeping the best. The police and military turned in their arms to the same institution that had armed them to begin with, not unexpectedly, these arms were returned to ‘their rightful owners.’ Depositories were not well secured. Paramilitaries did not disarm and maintained their secretive identities. Both the government soldiers and the opposition forces (FMLN) had been proficient in arms smuggling and that did not halt. The new government, that was essentially the same as the pre civil war government, continued to receive generous military assistance from the United States, flooding the country with new high military grade weapons.

Data on the availability of weapons shows that although the action of disarmament may have happened, the commitment to living in a disarmed society did not. After many collection efforts, including a “Goods for Guns” exchange, a large percentage of arms were collected, but more were bought through legal channels soon thereafter. (Godnik, Laurance 2000)

Nor are the arms concentrated in any particular city or region which makes the entire country somewhat of a no man’s land. Ironically, during the war it was easier to understand the violence since armed actions were connected to the goals of taking political and military control of particular regions. Agricultural, union and civic leaders were specifically targeted and their villages chosen for destruction. In general, one was an enemy or ally, and the attacks had defined reasons. Nonaligned citizens got caught in the crossfire, but by enlarge there was one side against another.

In post war El Salvador, alliances are blurred and violence serves many purposes from retribution to obtaining food, so that delineating battle lines is a preposterous task. The unpredictability of violence increases the sense of insecurity and the desire to be armed. Gangs have arisen in the security vacuum. Some gangs will give protection to those in their neighborhoods for “la renta” or “fees”. Of course, those protected are also targeted by the rival gang. Femacide, the ritual killing of a woman, is used to humiliate the rival gang, and the cycle of revenge ensues, leaving more and more women brutally murdered. With so many of the men incarcerated more of the responsibilities are assumed by the girl friends and wives, which jeopardizes their safety astronomically, as well as the safety of girls who are mistaken for those involved. Many families do not send their daughters to school due to fears for their safety. Hannah Stone of the LA Times reports that femacide comprises 15 % of the deaths last year (Stone, 2011).

Reintegration Only Partially Succeeds

Part of the 1992 Peace Accords was an extensive reintegration program for ex-combatants. Creative Associates International thoroughly studied the Reinsertion of Ex-Combatants in El Salvador. It appears that the majority of the reintegration resources involved FMLN ex-combatants. An extensive combination of household packages, vocational training, toolkits, or land, and agricultural credits, possibly reached 80% of the FMLN ex-combatants. Most expressed satisfaction yet it was not all successful, especially with less educated ex-combatants. 40% of the FMLN scholarship recipients were not meeting their program requirements. Especially of the 20% not participating in reintegration programs, most likely some joined gangs or organized crime.

The agricultural credits and training turned out to be insufficient to teach farming skills and build a successful farm especially where agricultural infrastructure was gone and fields were filled with landmines. Many of those receiving these packages gave up within a few years. Meanwhile, possibilities for employment in other sectors did not increase, because the Salvadoran government did not invest resources to serve the rural and poorer sectors. (CAI, 1994)

Globalization has had a negative effect on the Salvadoran economy, especially since it stagnated in the last 2 decades. The agricultural sector continues to depend on global markets for coffee and sugarcane exports, with some diversification into horticulture crops, (Background notes on El Salvador, 2011) Small holdings are highly inefficient and undercapitalized. Flooding due to poor levee upkeep destroys farms almost yearly. Export crops deplete the soil nutrients while pesticides and fertilizers deplete and contaminate village water supplies, increasing rural poverty by debilitating subsistence agriculture. The Peace Accords mandated little in the way of appreciable rural infrastructure.

Gang Membership replaces Demobilization

Many experienced fighters from both side of the civil war have joined gangs and organized crime, drawing upon their talents and previous training. Recently deported criminals from the US originate from two rival LA gangs that now jockey for power in El Salvador, drawing youth into the bloodbath. The Mara Salvatruchas (M-13) vie for power with the Main Street Deiciocho (M-18). Although of Salvadoran heritage, many of these gang members do not speak Spanish, do not have strong family ties and are emboldened by the respect they receive as US gang members. They brought with them a sophisticated level of organization characteristic of US gangs. The US deportation of Salvadoran members of LA gangs has taken gang activism to a new level of professionalism and threat. On average, one hundred gang members are deported each month. Despite levels of incarceration that have packed the jails to inhumane conditions, a steady stream of fresh blood continues.

There is increasing collaboration with other gangs such as Los Perrones and the Texas Cartel. The Zetas from Mexico are finding El Salvador an ideal place to operate especially as the heat is turned up in Mexico. In the El Salvador case, organized crime is so lucrative that money is no object and guns are purchased and trafficked easily (Godnick, Laurance 2000). The US dollar is also the currency of El Salvador so money laundering is easiest here. Sixty percent of the cocaine destined for the US transits through Central America, to a tune of $100 billion (es.noticias 2011). Drug addiction within El Salvador provides a significant market as well.

Being in a gang is no longer a temporary situation. Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics, studied the economics of crack cocaine. It is incredibly lucretive, consequently, the older gang members did not leave the leadership role, but expand their franchises and became virtual CEO’s. Increase violence comes with increased profits, increased purchases of arms, and increased attachment to territory. Younger aspiring gang leaders ingratiate themselves to the older gangs. Killing is the main ticket to fame; it demonstrates loyalty, talent, and daring. There is terrific pressure not to leave the gang as the older members are privy to many secrets, and younger members are more and more necessary to build the gang to compete with the other gangs (Levitt, 2008).

Previously unaligned street gangs are swept up into the violence. They usually do not reap the economic benefits of the drugs, arms, human and sex trafficking, yet are cajoled into participating in the gang violence either by threats or by the allure of raising themselves out of poverty to positions of power. Again, impoverishment makes joining a gang an easy decision for most youth, particularly from the class of rural poor who fled the countryside during the war and receive few services and substandard schools in the mostly ungovernable and ungoverned slums of San Salvador.

Particularly youth are highly influenced by gang culture. The heroes and role models for youth are gang members; the fashions, music, and lifestyles of gang culture seep into all corners of society. What is most important to understand is the depth of commitment to the gang life, the status it carries, and that for most it is an affiliation they are proud of, not a life they are looking to leave. Thus, economic changes must be strong, protection must be adequate, and suppression also effective to entice youth to leave or avoid gang membership.

Insecurity and War Trauma Continue

Most Salvadorans over thirty years of age waged war and/or were victims of war full of human rights abuses, another imprint that perpetuates violent responses. Those under 30 have lived in pervasive violence. Chris Hedges, war journalist, contends that the adrenaline, fascination, sexuality, and urgency forged by violence are etched deeply in the consciousness and that violence is addictive. (Hedges, 2002) After prolonged immersion in violence, one can feel lost without it. “53% of the populations reported they had the right to take justice into their own hands if the government cannot insure their security, and almost 62% regard the armed force patrols as inefficient” ( 2010).

Bill Godnick, who was active in the DDR process, praises the security sector reform for being “much better than its predecessor,” Unfortunately, as he goes on to say, failed economic reintegration is one of the key legacies of the peace process which probably contributes to 20% of the violence (Godnick, 2011).

Setting La Diabla Free, a study of post conflict women’s literature shows the prevalence of disillusionment, pessimism, and violence. In recent literature, Salvadorans portray Salvadorans most frequently as criminals, drug addicts, abusive and/or lazy. This depth of despair is a significant symptom.

State Sponsored Violence: Still A State Secret?

Although the media and the government blame the gang violence for the majority of the violence, there is ample evidence that state-sponsored violence and paramilitary activity has continued. During the war, ‘death squad’s were off duty military and treasury police who were hired by elites to extinguish the rebels that wanted land reform and greater equality. The continued “cleansing” activity is now directed toward gang members either to rid the community of these “problems” that are diminishing the business climate or to be rid of rivals in organized crime. Many of the killings are carried out with the signature mutilations and symbols characteristic of the death squads operating during the civil war (Ayala, 2010). An extensive investigation published in Nowhere to Hide claims that 60% of the violence is generated by paramilitary. Most deaths are not investigated and have involved collusion by police and military forces, which is illegal according to the 1992 Peace Accords (Farina, 2010).

At the end of the war a Truth Commission was convened. Their analysis was that 85% of serious acts of violence were carried out by state agents and under the direction of the state, in public places or displayed in public places and clandestine cemeteries. (Wood, 2003) If the political state did not change significantly, could it be expected that this aspect would change?

Which organization is responsible for the most violence is in dispute. Recently, the government negotiated to move many gang members to lower security prisons in exchange for a decrease in violence, which did in fact occur. This co-ordination also shows that the gang network is ominous. Geoffrey Ramsey reports:

“If negotiations with just 30 gang leaders can bring about an immediate and drastic drop in homicides, this suggests that the gangs are responsible for a large percentage of murders in the country, as the government has claimed. It would also mean the gangs may be more hierarchically organized than previously thought. This would lend weight to claims that the gangs recently adopted a nationally-coordinated campaign against security forces, carrying out hits against members of the army and police. If this is all true, then in addition to threatening citizen security, these groups could pose a dire threat to El Salvador's institutions (Ramsey, 2012).

Security necessitates Economic Security

Economic reforms were not strongly mandated in the Accords; hurried elections put the former government back in power that catered to neo-liberalism economic policies. Land reform was negligible; government resources benefitted the rich. The military-industrial complex remained intact. The corruption and inadequacies of the land reform program is a topic of a paper in itself, but obviously it did not make a dent in the poverty problem.

In the treaty only two sentences were dedicated to improving social welfare. “The Government of El Salvador shall seek to strengthen existing social welfare programs designed to alleviate extreme poverty. Additional external resources shall be sought for this purpose” (Chapter 5, The expectation that external sources would provide aid essentially alleviated the government of this responsibility.

Along with natural disasters, destroyed infrastructure from the war, and business downturn, poverty increased drastically leaving many to resort to crime, strengthened with guns and grenades. The economic mandates of the 1992 Peace Accords included substantive land reform and democratic elections. Although elections were certified, the infrastructure of democracy was feeble. The experience of El Salvador proved Paul Collier’s point that ‘having elections does not guarantee democracy of social services and government priorities’ (Collier, 2007).

A glaring area of inadequacy was services for disabled people. The official estimate was that 300,000 (4%) became disabled as a result of the war. Landmines continued to take limbs while malnutrition, poor maternal health, and violence contribute to at least 10% of the population having mental and /or physical disabilities. 1984 and 2001 disability laws requiring employed of disabled workers were passed, but the government does not enforce them. There is a National Council for Disabled Persons (CONAIPD), a government agency responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, and an Instituto de Rehabilitacin de Invalidos (ISRI) responsible for the rehabilitation of disabled individuals. Yet, lack of facilities and location of facilities make access to services very difficult for survivors of conflicts and those with other disabilities whom reside in both rural and urban areas (Hotra, 2009).

Governance Matters

Mayors returned to power that had left the rural areas during the civil war when they loss control of their land. They had previously employed the local population paying exploitative wages for export crop production. As the rural areas came under greater control of the FMLN many of these elites turned to urban industrial businesses, but maintained titles to the land. With no electoral reform such that the nearest polling place was 70km away for many, no time to vet candidates, and lack of polling places, many of the former majors were elected and did not prioritize economic development for their rural constituents.

The FMLN organized into a political party and won 25% legislative seats, yet the executive and legislature remained under the control of ARENA and Christian Democratic Parties, representing the same political base as the civil war era governments. Thus, during the post war decades, an elite controlled the legislature. Sufficient funds were not allocated to effectively meet infrastructure needs such as levees.

With patience, candidates representing the FMLN political party won more and more mayoralties over the past 20 years and recently won the Presidency. Mauricio Funes, a journalist and moderate, of the FMLN Party was inaugurated in 2009, along with his Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceres, a Marxist. Now priorities have turned toward the poor and rural areas. Changes will take a while to have impact.

Meanwhile, poverty continues almost unabated. Not surprisingly, people in abject poverty with few viable options for survival turn to robbery and illegal activity. The plethora of arms makes these activities all the more successful. There are solutions, and an amazing ability to cope, organize and advocate for change amongst Salvadorans. The companion to this article: Progress Can Prevail in El Salvador offers solutions, some of which are already in progress. Disentangling each source of violence and poverty is the part of the process which will save El Salvador.


Avila, Olga, Briceno-Leon, Roberto, Camardiel, Alberto (2002) El derecho a matar en América Latina, Violencia, Sociedad y Justicia en America Latina,  Argentina

Ayala, Edgardo (Feb 17, 2010) El Salvador: Killings Bear Hallmarks of Death Squads, Interpress Service, San Salvador,

Background Notes on El Salvador ( March 30, 2011)  Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, US State Dept, (Diplomacy in Action) DC, USA

Cepeda, Alice, Kaplan, Charles, Valdez, Avelardo (2010) Getting Past Suppression, Street Gang Interventions, Small Arms Survey #9,

Collier, Paul (2007) New Rules for Rebuilding a Broken Nation, Sept 7, 2007, TED Talks.

Conflict and Fragility, Armed Violence Reduction, Enabling Development (2009) Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development Assistance Committee. OEDC, New York.

Creative Associates International, Inc. (February 1996) Reinsertion of Ex-Combatants in El Salvador: Impact Evaluation, USAID, Washington, DC.

El Salvador Country Assistance Strategy (2010-2012), accessed 9/15/2011

Embracing Crisis (2011) Central America: Security Buildup Risks Bringing Back Old Problems (24 October 2011) Open Source Works for the US intelligence and political community, OSW-11-03636.

Farina, Laura, Spring Miller, James L. Cavallaro, (2010) No Place to Hide: Gang, State, and Clandestine Violence in El Salvador, International Human Rights Clinic, Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School, USA

FMLN member (November 2011) Interview with Paula LeRoy, CA. (anonymity and location maintained for security purposes)

Funes y Zetas buscan armas en el Salvador (July 2009), retrieved 11/19/2011.

Godnick, William (2011) Answers to questions posed by Paula LeRoy, Nov, 14, 2011, private email

Government Working Jointly to Protect the Most Vulnerable (Feb 23, 2011) San Salvador, World Bank Group.

Hedges, Chris, (2002) War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, First Anchor Books, USA

Hoisington, Maria (2009) Gangs, Security and Criminalization, Experiences of Violence in El Salvador,, retrieved March 12, 2011

Hotra, Larissa (July 2008) A Recent History of the Disability Rights Movement in El Salvador, Upside Down World online journal,, retrieved March 14, 2012

Laurance, Edward J. and Godnick, William H. (January, 2000) “Weapons Collection in Central America: El Salvador and Guatemala,” Bonn International Center for Conversion, GDR.

LeRoy, Paula, (1983) El Salvador: A Victory We Have All Won? manuscript, Yale University, CT, USA

Levitt, Steven (2008) The Economics of Crack Cocaine, Ted Talks, 2008.

Padilla, Yajaria M (Sept 2008) Setting La Diabla Free, Women, Violence and the Struggle for Representation in Postwar El Salvador, Sage Publications,

Peace agreements: El Salvador (April, 2001) United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC

Pegelatrin, Duke (2008) A Prisoner’s Tale, El Salvador Prison Story parts 1-4,

Pico, Juan Hernandez (August 2009) Labor Unrest and Organized Crime, Revista Envio, El Salvador,

Police corruption and government measures to fight corruption (June 14, 2010) Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada,,

Ramsey, Geoffrey (March, 15, 2012) Is El Salvador Negotiating with Street Gangs?

Stone, Hannah (May 23, 2011) El Salvador Sees Epidemic of Violence Against Women, Insight-Organized Crime in the Americas,

Small Arms Survey (2002) Counting the Human Cost, Geneva, Switzerland,

Wilkinson, Tracy (March 22, 201) El Salvador becomes drug traffickers ‘little pathway’, Los Angeles Times, LA, USA

Wood, Elisabeth Jean (2003)  Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Paula LeRoy is a graduate of Monterey Institute of International Studies specializing in Central America and Fragile States. She hosts a radio show called Policy Pace found at