For most people in the United States, and for Catholics especially, the small Central American country of El Salvador is synonymous with instability and bloodshed. Indeed, civil war engulfed the nation for more than twelve years, beginning in 1979 and ending only in 1992. (Archbishop Óscar Romero’s shocking assassination, which followed his public denunciation of the atrocities committed by the government death squads against Salvadoran citizens, happened in 1980.) Less well known are the complex, long-term consequences of the Salvadoran conflict. It didn’t just result in the loss of more than 75,000 lives, with many more “disappeared.” The end of the war also set the stage for greater state repression, increased U.S. involvement, and the emergence of violent street gangs—the most notorious being Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13.
Before it became a right-wing talking point, MS-13 began as a loosely organized, mostly ad-hoc Los Angeles neighborhood gang in the 1980s. It offered protection to the waves of immigrants then arriving from El Salvador, fending off the incursions of other more established LA street gangs like the Crips and Bloods. In the same years, the Reagan administration began aggressively deporting Salvadorans of all stripes, both MS-13 members and asylum seekers alike. The policy merely shifted the problem across the border. MS-13 continued to spread throughout Central America, and quickly began transforming itself into a sophisticated, highly organized, and well-connected criminal organization.
But what about its status today? In State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence, journalist William Wheeler provides a corrective to the overly simplistic (and often outright racist) narratives that proliferate in contemporary American politics. The book makes clear that MS-13’s rise is complex, the result of several overlapping factors, including the generational trauma wrought by the civil war, the failures of interventionist U.S. foreign policy, and the Salvadoran government’s own corruption. There’s also the rise of violent international trafficking networks that transport drugs, guns, and humans—all destined for the United States—through Central America. Throughout his analysis, Wheeler embeds personal accounts from former and current gang members, politicians from both El Salvador and the United States, and Salvadoran police and military personnel. Readers are left with a nuanced portrait of MS-13’s rise to power in a nation mired in corruption and soaked in blood.
Though the civil war officially ended in 1992, violence has persisted ever since. In 2019, El Salvador ranked first in the world in violent deaths per capita, with nearly sixty-two homicides for every one hundred thousand citizens. As recently as last February, President Nayib Bukele ordered soldiers to storm parliament in order to force assembly members to approve a $109 million bill for new security equipment, including a helicopter for his personal use. In line with his campaign promises, Bukele’s current “territorial control strategy” calls for more crackdowns on gang violence. The strategy is hardly anything new; similar measures have been tried many times before, most recently in Francisco Flores’s 2003 Mano Dura (Iron Fist) policy.
As Wheeler makes clear, these repressive tactics usually have the opposite effect, consolidating gang membership and setting off massive spikes in violence. In 2003, Flores had modeled his zero-tolerance gang-abatement approach on similar policies in New York City and Los Angeles. Craving public admiration for being “tough on crime,” he exponentially increased the prison population in El Salvador. Somewhat ironically, consolidating gang members in a central location only made it easier for them to eliminate “snitches” through in-prison homicides. What’s more, the state’s open aggression alerted gangs to the need for greater anti-state organization. Gang members in turn devised plans to control entire neighborhoods, and even to infiltrate the government itself.