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El Salvador: the economic roots of violence

By: 
Craig Frayne

March 19, 2016

We drove out of San Salvador admiring the beauty of the sun rising over the mountains. The driver, Ponce, and other passenger, Ana María, were taking us to visit an adult literacy project in a rural community. They are both ex-guerrillas who fought in the civil war in their youth. After the Peace Accords in 1992, they joined a worker’s organization where they now lead projects to advance the cause of the rural poor in El Salvador.   

The morning clam was interrupted as Ana María suddenly broke down in tears. She recounted how she was robbed and threatened at gun point by three young men on the bus the night before. Her tears were not from shock, but the sense of futility and defeat towards what has become routine violence in her country. “In many ways it’s worse than during war”, she said fighting back tears, “at least then we could defend ourselves…and at least there was some cause to fight for.”

Later that day, I asked Ana María if she recommended any topics for an article on El Salvador. “The situation of the youth” she said without hesitation, “violence, migration, and challenges they face.” What follows is an attempt to address this complex theme.

Intoxication of Force           

In 2012, on the 20th Anniversary of the Peace Accords that ended the Salvadoran Civil War, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon referred to El Salvador as “an example for the world” for overcoming differences through peace. When he returned last year, the hopeful tone was absent when Ki-moon bluntly stated, "We're very worried at the levels of insecurity and violence across Central America and El Salvador."

Less excusable distortions about post-conflict El Salvador have been made. In 2004, Dick Cheney referred to “75,000 people dead” at the hands of a guerilla insurgency and a population “denied their right to vote.” Today El Salvador is a (whole) of a lot better because we held free elections.… And (that concept) will apply in Afghanistan. And it will apply as well in Iraq.” Commentators were quick to note what Cheney omitted: 75,000 people were murdered by US-backed government and paramilitary forces, not the guerilla insurgency; the elections Cheney refers to were “recognized as a farce” held in the shadows of murdered candidates and manipulation.  

Were it not for the déjà vu, Cheney’s remarks could be dismissed as bygone ignorance. However, in 2004, faced once again by a guerilla insurgency in a foreign context they knew little about, the US applied the “Salvador option” in Iraq). Cheney and others who spearheaded “dirty wars” in Central America throughout the 1980s, applied similar tactics of torture, secret detention, and murder to their operations in Iraq. 

The rest is not history and the consequences are apparent today. In both regions, the impacts have been unforeseen and tragic. Violence has morphed into new monstrosities, entangling both its victims and perpetrators. This is perhaps what Simone Weil meant by the dehumanizing essence of all force. Following the 1940 occupation of her native France she wrote, “Force is as pitiless to (those) who possess it…as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates.”

Exporting Violence  

With an average of one murder per hour, El Salvador has been called the most violent country in the world outside an active conflict-zone. This is blamed on youth gangs which are said to have over 70,000 members. These gangs are the primary source of income for about 10 per cent of the population and the average age of initiation is 12-16, with some taking part at the age of 7-8.

Mainstream media covering gang violence often reads as entertainment, featuring images of tattooed young men caged up like animals, omitting any analysis or critique. Attributing social problems to gangs serves as a distraction from the larger crimes inflicted by agents of imperialism and transnational capitalism. It deflects attention from structural problems of uneven development, inequality, and exclusion. Rather than stigmatizing and villainizing adolescents, we can consider how externally imposed war, poverty, and migration helped create today’s violence.

Current violence in El Salvador can be placed in the context of the Civil War (1980-1992). On the surface, the conflict was between the military-led government and a coalition of leftist revolutionary guerrilla groups under the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). But like much of the region at the time, what began as a movement of national liberation against longstanding poverty and repression, became a Cold War proxy. As the former US ambassador to El Salvador Robert White stated, “US policy toward Latin America can be summed up in three words: fear of revolution.” 

Throughout the Salvadoran conflict, US aid to government and paramilitary forces was an estimated $6 billion for weapons, armoured vehicles, military training, and intelligence. Vietnam War tactics of “scorched earth” and “draining the sea” were applied to eliminate the insurgency by eradicating its support base in the countryside. This meant the primary target was the civilian population, through displacement, torture, and killing. While the terror affected all sides, according to a UN Truth Commission report 95 per cent of human rights abuses were perpetrated by government/military forces.          

However, the repression was not confined within national borders. The intoxication of imperial force is not only imposed on foreign populations, but takes root in the host country. Militarized borders, racism, poverty, and the prison system are all part of the system of empire.        

As violence and repression in El Salvador escalated, so did migration. Over a million people—25 per cent of the country’s population—fled during the war and often ended up in US inner cities such as Los Angeles. The Salvadoran population in the US increased from 94,000 in 1980 to 465,000 in 1990. After fleeing repression of their home country, many Salvadorans found themselves marginalized as immigrants. To gain protection, identity and livelihood, young people joined gangs.    

These gangs began as self-defence groups to protect themselves from rival gangs divided by national-ethic origins. The two notorious Salvadoran gangs—Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18—originated in Los Angeles, not El Salvador. The turning point was in 1996 when, under the pretext of getting tough on “illegal immigration,” the US began deporting those who had committed minor criminal offenses or simply violated immigration law. Tens of thousands were sent back to El Salvador by the planeload. Many found themselves in a country without infrastructure, jobs, or social support systems. Weapons, however, were abundant.  

It is no surprise that violence in El Salvador continued after the war. Nor is it surprising that the gangs or maras are made up of young people from the poorest sectors of the country. The question is why today—a full generation following the conflict—youth remain entangled in the cycle of poverty, migration, and violence. To help answer this, we can consider how global political-economic structures that led to the conflict in the 80s, persist today.                

Neoliberal Exclusion          

The revolutionary movements of that emerged in Central America in the 1970s are commonly attributed to long-standing poverty and social exclusion, largely in rural areas as a result of land concentration. If the root cause was indeed poverty, then it may seem contradictory that the Salvadoran conflict followed nearly three decades of economic growth. However, rather than structural reform or inclusion, this growth accompanied state repression on behalf of the capitalist class.              

El Salvador’s economic modernization process starting in the 1950s meant that historically rooted social asymmetries became more deeply embedded. As Peñaranda and Barón explain in Economic Liberalization and Political Violence, modernization “became an opportunity for the economic elite to spread its control to new production fields (sugar, cotton) and other activities (banking, industry), ending up with a virtual monopoly on the economy.”

By the 1970s, El Salvador had become one of the world’s largest coffee exporters, but just 15 family businesses held 80 per cent of coffee processing and less than 1 percent of landowners held nearly half of the arable land. As coffee exports grew, wages were kept exceedingly low. Geoffrey Paige noted how this gave the coffee elite the power to dominate the rest of the economy, including banks, real estate, tourism, and manufacturing. In the 1970s the ten largest companies controlled over 60 percent of total exports.              

The 1973 oil crisis worsened inequality and led to increased unrest. In response, President Molina enacted the country’s first ever land reform measures, calling for redistribution of large landholdings. But the reforms were thwarted by opposition from the elite and, in 1977, the election of military General Carlos Romero amid blatant fraud and voter intimidation. In the years that followed, military and economic elites used state and paramilitary death squads to crush attempts at land redistribution, cooperative formation, or any popular organization. A coup on October 15, 1979 led to a national crisis and was the turning point towards civil war.  

The conflict—prolonged and devastating due to US funding—destroyed much of the national economy. GDP fell by about 25 percent and there was a massive flight of capital and people. By the war’s end immigrant remittances were by far the main source of foreign revenue. What’s more, beginning in the 80s and 90s, the Salvadoran financial elite implemented the most extensive neoliberal reforms of any Latin American country. The newly privatised banks used remittance deposits to secure loans from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank. The financial elite implemented neoliberal structural adjustment, which entailed privatization of services and ratifying of trade agreements. Although land reform—a key factor in the conflict—was part of the Peace Accords, structural adjustment meant the removal of all agricultural subsidies, meaning land beneficiaries were left without financing or technical assistance. The World Bank and Heritage Foundation glowingly praised El Salvador for ranking “at the top of the Latin American free-market reforming countries and one of the freest in the world.” As in the decades leading to the war, market liberalization following the Peace Accords led to economic growth for the elite, but the most of the population remained cut off.

Today’s violence in El Salvador no doubt has material roots in inequality and exclusion. Migration did not stop with the end of the conflict, but increased with poverty and crime. Demobilised combatants and youth deported from the US faced widespread unemployment and poverty. Indeed, in the vacuum left by neoliberalism, many embraced the only opportunities available to them by becoming “entrepreneurs” through extortion, drug trafficking, and other criminal activities.      

Attributing the gang problem solely to poverty, however, may be a simplification. One could question why Nicaragua—a country that has worse poverty rates and also went through a civil war—has been spared from the violence that plagues El Salvador and other Northern Triangle countries. To answer this, we can consider how elite narratives and repressive policies have fuelled the violence.

Fearmongering and Repression    

Just as exclusionary economic structures remained in place after the war, so did repressive legal institutions. Given the abuses of state power before and during the war, peace negotiations included provisions for the creation of a new civilian police force and criminal code. However, the US-endorsed right wing ARENA party that ruled El Salvador through the 90s and early 2000s implemented a regressive “law and order” agenda. Mano Dura (“heavy hand”) policies included militarized police operations in violation of the Peace Accords. Mass arrests were made under legislation (later ruled unconstitutional) that permitted immediate imprisonment of suspected gang members based solely on physical appearance and association. There was also a ballooning of private security firms, which by 2001 employed more officers than the National Civil Police (PNC). These zero-tolerance, neoliberal crime policies coincided with the dramatic rise of violence. 

Political elites and oligopolisitc media have used Mano Dura policies to gain popularity and power. Discourses are framed in terms of the neoliberal view of all problems as the individual’s responsibility with no consideration of societal or economic factors. This has a dual effect of (i) gaining cross-partisan public support based on fear, and (ii) deflecting attention from systemic political-economic issues. With no evidence, gangs have even been associated with international terrorist networks including Al Qaeda. Through media analysis, researcher Sonja Wolf has shown how “gang members (are) typecast as an extremely criminal and violent minority, dehumanized, and turned into legitimate targets for extermination.” Commentators have stressed how, in a society with a long history of authoritarianism and repression, this discourse compounds the problem by reinforcing divisions and fear.

In this context, spending billions on market-driven aid and security packages is misguided. For the 2016 budget, the Obama Administration announced $1 billion for the “Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle” to address migration and insecurity. The El Salvador based organization Voices on the Border notes how “Alliance for Prosperity” contains many of the same elements as past policies: “Income inequality and violence are the driving forces behind youth seeking refuge in the US, but its hard to imagine how more neoliberal economic policies, which many cite as the reason for inequality over the past 25 years, will do anything except ensure the region’s rich will remain so.”

As history shows, implementing economic liberalization and security policies without significant structural change with only make the problem worse.

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