US role in ending a Central American war

Gangs are so big in El Salvador that the region is in a virtual war that has spillover effects in the US. The solution lies in keeping young people out of the gangs.

Members of the MS-13 gang are detained near the crime scene where two men were killed as they rode a motorcycle on their way to work, in San Salvador, El Salvador Jan. 26, 2016.

For both Europe and the United States, foreign wars these days are not so foreign. A flood of refugees from Syria’s war has pushed the European Union to become more active in solving that conflict. In the US, meanwhile, the revival of civil war in El Salvador between powerful gangs and the government has led to a new flow of children and women across the US border. The exodus is forcing the US to look for better ways to help curb violence in that Central American country.

For the US, walls, fences, and other security measures have done little to stem the flow. In the last three months of 2015, more than 10,000 children and 12,000 families, mainly from El Salvador, were caught near the US-Mexican border, similar to a spike of unaccompanied minors in 2014. In recent weeks, Congress has taken up the issue.

The reach of El Salvador’s gangs into the US was also brought home on Jan. 29 with federal indictments of 56 gang members in Boston. Most of those indicted were either Salvadoran nationals or Salvadoran-Americans. They were charged with various crimes of violence. The FBI noted how one gang, known as Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13), has been recruiting many young teens in the Boston area.

The US has lately felt some urgency to end gang-related violence in Central America. In November, Congress approved a $750 million package to improve social and political conditions in the so-called Northern Triangle of countries (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador). The US also asked for help from the United Nations in screening potential immigrants for refugee status in the US or elsewhere.

El Salvador’s own attempts to either fight the gangs or dissolve their appeal have so far failed. A truce that was negotiated in 2012 fell apart by 2014. Another truce is not being contemplated as the two big gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, used the truce to evolve into sophisticated crime syndicates and move into the international cocaine market.

Since 2012, the US has labeled MS-13, which has an estimated 30,000 members, as a “transnational criminal organization.” El Salvador regards such groups as terrorists and estimates that 10 percent of its 6 million people are connected to gangs.

The US has an admirable track record in helping Colombia curb its drug cartels and an insurgency. Dealing with gangs in El Salvador needs a similar focus. Many US cities have a good history of breaking up gangs, usually by enlisting local community leaders to keep young people from joining gangs.

The ultimate solution in El Salvador is to win over gang members who have not committed violent crimes with legal opportunities in politics, education, and the economy. The war on gangs is not working. And the spillover into the US is a signal for the country to step up its role.

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