Photo Credit: Tomas Munita for the New York Times
Five months after a truce was brokered between two of El Salvador’s most violent gangs – Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 – the nation, long plagued with one of the highest murder rates in the world, has experienced a sharp drop in violence. The New York Times reports on the tenuous peace today, and also includes a slideshow of stunning photos of the gang leaders and victims.
Both Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 have roots in Los Angeles, where they formed after young men escaping the civil strife in 1980s Central America settled in the U.S. When many of these men were later deported for crimes in the United States, the gangs formed large affiliates in El Salvador and neighboring countries. The New York Times article focuses largely on the details of the peace talks and the legacy of violence wreaked by these gangs, making only brief reference to some of the root causes, including “the lack of alternatives for young men in poor neighborhoods,” many of whom are recruited into gangs as young as 8 or 9 years old. Unfortunately, the government officials interviewed offer little in the way of solutions, aside from improving after school programs and community policing efforts.
Tellingly, it is the gang members themselves who seem to most eloquently articulate their needs. Barrio 18 leader Victor Antonio García is quoted as saying “We have shown good will. But now the government has to get involved. We need, like, an affirmative action law here for gang members who quit and need jobs.” Barrio 18 leader Ludwig Rivera also echoes the need to invest in rehabilitation programs, noting “It’s not that the truce is weak. We feel it is strong. But the lack of involvement of the authorities and the public could make it weak. They all think we are animals, but we have rights and we are taking a step so they should take a step.”