How can a nation whose history is steeped in war and repression break free of violence?

Salvadoran Army soldiers patrol in the La Campanera neighborhood in Soyapango, El Salvador, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. In March 2022, El Salvador suspended some constitutional rights in reaction to an explosion of violence.

Salvadoran Army soldiers patrol in the La Campanera neighborhood in Soyapango, El Salvador, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. In March 2022, El Salvador suspended some constitutional rights in reaction to an explosion of violence. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

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In 2015, gang-related violence made El Salvador the murder capital of the world. Currently, whole days go by in the small Central American country without a single homicide, at least according to the government of President Nayib Bukele.

Bukele is 15 months into an intense and controversial crackdown on El Salvador’s criminal gangs that seeks to break their power for good.

For many Salvadorans, his mano dura or iron-fist policies are praiseworthy. Yet for others, they are the latest turn in a long-running cycle of repressive violence and trauma, each fueling the next.

Bukele, 41, was elected in 2019. Since declaring a “state of exception” and suspending constitutional protections in March last year, his security forces have arrested upward of 60,000 people in the crackdown on criminal gangs, known as maras.

That’s about 1% of the roughly 6 million population in a country the size of Massachusetts.

Taking a hard line approach to curb violence

Bukele has inaugurated a new mega-prison to hold many of the detainees in draconian conditions. The human-rights group Cristosal has denounced arbitrary arrests, torture, degrading treatment of prisoners and at least 150 deaths in custody since the crackdown came into force.

The anti-mara drive has focused on young, poor people living in high-crime communities, Cristosal said in a report on the first year of the campaign. It added: “The terror of the gangs has been replaced by the systematic violence of the State.”

Bukele is a social-media-savvy populist with a tech-bro demeanor (he has big plans for bitcoin). His hardline approach has attracted favorable comment throughout Central and South America, for example in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru and Chile.

It is a model that might spread. But at what cost?

Breaking a long cycle of violence

In September 1990, I was living in El Salvador, covering the country’s civil war for the international news agency Reuters, when I visited the country’s main mental hospital.

El Salvador was a poor nation, despite pockets of great wealth, and I was expecting that my visit to the state-run National Psychiatric Hospital in Soyapango, a satellite town a few miles east of the capital San Salvador, would be a grim experience. The Salvadoran state at that time was perhaps better known for overtly and covertly killing its own people than for any particular success in safeguarding the defenseless.

A U.S.-backed right-wing government was fighting a leftist guerrilla movement, the FMLN, in a conflict that was rapidly becoming a Cold War relic but refused to die. (A United Nations Truth Commission later said the testimony it gathered on extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture and other acts of violence during the war blamed agents of the state in 85 percent of cases.)

I found darkness at the National Psychiatric Hospital, but also a window into the violence racking the country. Distressed souls of many kinds were treated there. One patient’s therapeutic painting, in particular, expressed the agony of 10 years of conflict in a haunting image of three black figures huddled together in the scarlet interior of a church. The work, I wrote at the time, was painted “in the colors of blood and mourning.”

“We all have the war within us,” Dr. Ricardo Méndez Flamenco, the hospital’s chief resident psychiatrist, told me back then. “One hundred percent of Salvadorans have been affected by the war to one degree or another.”

I asked what that meant for the future, if the peace talks then underway would eventually stop the killing. “Peace will generate even more pathology,” he said. “If people remain armed, there will be mass murders.”

War causes trauma that perpetuates violence

Dr. Méndez’s words spoke to a generational cycle of violence that not only followed the war but also preceded it.

Before the 1979–92 civil war, which ultimately claimed some 75,000 lives, there was La Matanza – the massacre. In 1932, perhaps 30,000 impoverished Salvadoran peasants, many of them Indigenous people, were killed by the forces of military strongman General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez following an uprising in the west of the country.

La Matanza has echoed through the generations since. During the civil war, the five rebel groups making up the FMLN named their movement after one of the uprising’s principal figures, the communist leader Agustín Farabundo Martí. A far-right death squad meanwhile named itself after Hernández.

In his 2020 book “Unforgetting,” Roberto Lovato, a Salvadoran American writer and academic, traces a straight line from the national trauma of La Matanza, through decades of military dictatorship, to the civil war and the present day.

“Unforgetting” is an exploration of unrelenting cycles of violence, which he examines through the lens of his own family and the country’s history. His father witnessed La Matanza, and couldn’t discuss it with his son until almost the end of his life.

Who are El Salvador’s maras?

Such trauma expresses itself today in the violence surrounding the maras, whose members Lovato has described as not only disadvantaged but “a walking, talking trauma that’s unresolved.”

The maras are street gangs that rose to prominence in El Salvador after the end of the civil war. The most prominent are MS-13 and Barrio 18. Bukele’s crackdown, begun in March last year, followed a surge in gang-led violence that claimed 87 lives in just three days before he announced his move against them.

No one disputes the maras use violence, as do security forces against them. It was gang-related killings of one kind or another that gave El Salvador the world’s highest murder count in 2015. But it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, the maras originated in the United States.

After El Salvador began to tip toward civil war in the 1970s, thousands of Salvadorans started to flee their homeland and make new lives in the United States, joining smaller communities that had been there for decades.

Faced with violence and contempt from Mexican and other gangs, young Salvadorans in Los Angeles formed their own groups to defend themselves, smoke pot and listen to heavy-metal music. The MS-13 mara began as the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners, according to Lovato and other experts.

The United States exacerbates the problem.

In time the maras expanded and hardened, becoming ever more powerful in the United States. Then in 1992, El Salvador’s civil war ended, and U.S. authorities, wittingly or not, dropped a time bomb on the fragile, underfunded peace that followed.

They deported as many mara members as they could, back to a land traumatized by 12 years of bloody conflict. El Salvador was trying to rebuild even as thousands of former soldiers and guerrillas were out of work, many knowing only basic agricultural skills and how to kill. Weapons were everywhere. Crime rates soared. Within a few years, the maras ruled the streets, and gang-related killings led to a death rate that at times outstripped wartime.

Nearly 33 years after my visit to El Salvador’s National Psychiatric Hospital, I got back in touch with Méndez for this article. His prediction about the future effects of the war’s trauma had indeed proved true, I noted. I asked Méndez, now at the University of El Salvador’s Faculty of Medicine, what he thought about the mass arrests of alleged mara members since Bukele’s state of exception came into force.

He said that like many Salvadorans, he was happy about it.

“It seems right to me,” Méndez said. “The population is content with what Bukele is doing. There’s a climate of security.”

A war between government and gangs

Méndez, a critic of the country’s former military dictatorships, called the two parties that held power between the end of the civil war and the rise of Bukele corrupt and incompetent.

“The gang members and their families unfortunately learned to live on extortion and with the power given them by the two parties,” he added, referring to the right-wing ARENA party and the postwar FMLN, which won the presidency in 2009 and 2014.

New neighborhood facilities, Méndez added, would now allow young people to get training and have better prospects in life. “This long-suffering people, just as in the war, has juggled just to survive and now is taking decisions and using elections to put things in order,” he said.

Bukele’s approval ratings are around 90%. Across the country, many people say they feel safe and free of extortion and gang violence for the first time in years.

After weakening El Salvador’s other branches of government, Bukele plans to run for re-election next year, even though critics say the constitution prohibits it. Many of those arrested in his crackdown, meanwhile, face decades in prison.

El Salvador’s name in Spanish means The Savior. There has never been a shortage of self-styled national saviors in the history of the region. Classic populist caudillos or strongmen, who typically confuse their own ego with the state, include Argentina’s Juan Perón, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and countless far-right military dictators, including El Salvador’s own Maximiliano Hernández Martínez.

Is Bukele, with his tech-populist authoritarianism, a model for future caudillos? In my opinion, we should all hope not. Latin America, like other regions, is best served by modest but effective institutions, not messianic individuals.

But many, at least in the short term, may disagree.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why do many people in El Salvador accept repressive government policies to control violence?
  2. How have United States policies towards El Salvadoran refugees affected El Salvador’s cycle of violence?
  3. Do you think a cycle of violence can be broken without violating human rights?

Martin Langfield was born in England and first lived in Latin America in 1985 as a graduate student in Mexico City. He subsequently served as a Reuters correspondent in El Salvador and Mexico from 1990 to 1997, with reporting and training assignments to Chile, Nicaragua, Peru, Cuba and Argentina through 2008. He was a Latin America columnist for Reuters Breakingviews from 2015 to 2019, based in New York. He is also a published novelist and occasional drummer.

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WorldAmericasDecoder: El Salvador’s wheel of violence turns and turns again
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