U.S. political and media attention descended two years ago on what clearly deserved the label “crisis”: the notorious summer of living dangerously, when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America’s Northern Triangle of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala flowed across the U.S.-Mexico border. Those numbers eased on account of increased enforcement and deportations by Mexican authorities and the Obama Administration’s controversial use of detention centers as a visible deterrent to future immigrants.But unbeknownst to most Americans, another surge of Northern Triangle families began in late July 2015. By December, over 17,000 migrant families had been caught along the border, double the number during the same period in 2014.Case in point: In early January Karla Rodríguez, aged thirty, was apprehended at the border with her four-year-old daughter. She explained to a reporter her reasons for fleeing her native El Salvador, where violence in the countryside and against women has spiked over the past year. Expressing a belief often echoed by the Central American media and Central Americans living in the United States, Rodríguez said: “I heard this country gives protection to single mothers with children.”Rodríguez described her work as a manager at a chic hotel in San Salvador. Armed men scoping kidnapping targets told her that they would take her daughter if she did not provide them with the roster of guests. Rodríguez and her daughter passed the first screening interview with a U.S. asylum officer in Texas; within days they attempted join Rodríguez’s father at his home in Delaware, and to continue the asylum odyssey. The New York Times’s Julia Preston interviewed Rodríguez at a San Antonio migrant shelter, finding her relieved despite the heavy monitoring device on her ankle: “I trust in God, who brought us this far.”She is wise to trust in God, because the U.S. government is not a reliable ally in her situation. Even since the fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter-century ago, the U.S. opinion of Latin America has tended to be “no news is good news.” More to the point, U.S. media only become interested in anything happening south of the border when it merges with a salient issue in U.S. domestic politics—immigration, drugs, trade deficits and outsourcing, gang violence. Otherwise, with Cold War-era revolutions, dictatorships, and economic instability still etched in the collective American memory, along with U.S. interventions of one sort or another in Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the region’s relative peace and quiet today seem a welcome respite. We can afford not to care—or can we?Central America’s peace and quiet is at best relative, and examined more closely actually doesn’t exist at all. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama are relatively stable, but Guatemala, Salvador, and Honduras—the Northern Triangle nations—are anything but. The Rodríguez family’s desperate migration story is but one data point in an overlooked yet deeply significant foreign and domestic policy crisis. It’s not as bad as Syria, but it is ugly—and it’s a lot closer. This crisis on our doorstep is certainly similar to Western Europe’s relationship to Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa; desperate people are crossing our borders and theirs in substantial numbers, creating a similar array of moral and logistical challenges in the host countries.Today, the Northern Triangle is mired in a deep gangland crisis as pervasive and violent as the worst days of revolution and counterinsurgency during the 1970s and 1980s. The media and public opinion, such as it is, do not pay it much attention, but thankfully our distracted and marginally dysfunctional foreign policy apparatus does. It is aware of the Northern Triangle’s devolution into a gangster hellhole and it has been increasingly active in trying to do something about it. Indeed, while you wouldn’t know it from reading the news, in recent months the U.S. government has been busy conceiving and trying to implement significant new policies.What are these new policies, and what chance do they stand of working? As always, the proof will be in the pudding, and the pudding won’t be cooked for the few years it will take to find out if new approaches are succeeding. Announcing programs that promise to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a crisis du jour is easy and appealing, but healing the region’s social and political crisis will take patience, perseverance, and a recognition that many of the factors driving the crisis, such as immigration policy, originate inside the United States.Alas, the new approach seems not very new at all. In January, the Obama Administration announced its budget request to nearly double its aid to the Northern Triangle to $750 million, in support of the region’s multibillion-dollar Alliance for Prosperity Plan. Days later, in a further demonstration of the Administration’s determination, Vice President Joe Biden published an op-ed entitled “A Plan for Central America” in the New York Times, in which he correctly stated that the “security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked to our own.” But on closer inspection, there was not much “there” there in either the announcement or the op-ed.This was still arguably an improvement on previous efforts. At the height of the unaccompanied youth surge in July 2014, President Obama met with his Northern Triangle counterparts at the White House and acknowledged a “shared responsibility” for dealing with drug trafficking and the flow of firearms. But not much followed this pretty sentiment. Instead, the Administration focused on stopping, detaining, and then returning tens of thousands of children to what amounted to war zones. It then enlisted the Mexican government to the same end, essentially getting others to do our dirty work for us. Tears must have fallen from the eyes of the Statue of Liberty onto Emma Lazarus’s famous poem inscribed below.What the White House’s January statement and Biden’s op-ed also did not mention is that between 2008 and 2015 the United States gave just over $1 billion through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), as an extension of the George W. Bush Administration’s Mérida Initiative to support Mexico’s war against drug gangs. As far as any objective observer could tell, the difference between Bush and Obama Administration approaches to the problem were nonexistent.American foreign policy—and the half-century-old drug war in particular—tends to operate without a rearview mirror. Was there something about CARSI’s makeup that prevented it from succeeding? If CARSI failed, why is the Obama Administration basically promoting a new and costlier program that is effectively CARSI Plus? One touted development is enlisting the UN to operate screening centers for migrants hoping to reach the United States, thus offering an alternative to the arduous journey out of their native lands and through cartel-infested Mexico. So far, the jury is still out as to whether these sorts of conceptually appealing programs will make an ounce of difference.I’m reminded of the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, which slammed Central America in the fall of 1998. The Clinton Administration subsequently spent “a billion dollars for Mitch” so the disaster could be turned into an opportunity for lasting reform and development. Yet within just a few years it was apparent that much of the Mitch relief funding had been wasted. Nothing more happened because the media and official Washington had long forgotten about Mitch and the devastation it caused, and had stopped asking whether Washington was doing anything about it.What problems is the new U.S. approach trying to solve? Does the U.S. government have a theory of the case that is even remotely applicable to the challenge? To answer that question, we need to review some local history, starting with El Salvador.While a fully accurate history is tough to provide in a short space, the basic story behind MS-13’s terrifying ascension is clear enough. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans (and a majority Salvadorans, in particular) fled the ideological violence of the 1970s and 1980s. Often at the mercy of predatory gangs from other Latin American countries, Salvadoran youth in Los Angeles organized the first MS-13 iteration, which later expanded across the United States. Today, MS-13 comprises a few thousand North American members and is one cog in the regionally distinctive criminal gang phenomenon.Unfortunately, moving a problem around is not the same as solving it—but that’s what U.S. policy has amounted to for years. Since the 1990s, though, the continued deportation of MS-13 criminals from U.S. prisons back to El Salvador is at the core of the “reverse Mariel boatlift” crime surge in the Central American nation. U.S. authorities deported around 20,000 criminals to Central America between 2000 and 2004. Originally a first- and second-generation Mexican gang in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, MS-13’s blood rival, the 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18), experienced a similar deportation-driven evolution from a regional ethnic gang in the United States to a regional scourge in the Northern Triangle.The statistics are numbing but bear repeating. Over the past three years, slightly less than 50,000 citizens were murdered in the Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, making the Northern Triangle the most violent non-war region in the world. Over this same span, the three countries achieved convictions in 2,295 cases, or about 5 percent of all homicides. El Salvador’s homicide rate of 105 inhabitants per 100,000 was the world’s highest; Guatemala and Honduras ranked in the top five. Latin America has just 8.5 percent of the global population, but 27 percent of its murders. Thirty-four of the fifty most violent cities in the world are in Latin America. In 2011, there were more murders in tiny El Salvador than in all of Western Europe. At one point, 14 of the country’s 262 municipalities were considered under effective mara (gang) control.A confounding factor in confronting these problems is that there are upwards of 300,000 people—almost 6 percent of the population—who are dependent on the estimated 72,000 gang members in El Salvador, many of whom belong to either MS-13 or Barrio 18. The problem, in short, has infiltrated the economy and become a business. Girls as young as eleven are taken as jainas, or sex slaves, and boys are forcibly recruited into the gangs. As Dagoberto Gutiérrez, a former commander of the Marxist FMLN insurgency, lamented in a recent interview: “We are living in the worse war of our history, but no one wants to acknowledge it as a war.”Terrifying gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 are by no means the only criminal elements contributing to the Northern Triangle’s crisis. Mexico’s bloodthirsty Sinaloa and Zeta cartels are also active in the region and collaborate with the maras, or gangs, to traffic drugs, persons, and weapons. Easy to gloss over in a world where al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS, and myriad other transnational organizations have lowered the bar on savagery, the scene in the Northern Triangle is nonetheless quite arresting. In El Salvador, an astounding 10 percent of the population is involved in gang activity.Influenced by upcoming presidential elections and a population clamoring for action, the conservative, Amherst College-educated Salvadoran President, Francisco Flores, launched Plan Mano Dura in July 2003. The plan escalated police and military sweeps, criminalized gang membership, and allowed suspected gang members to be arrested on the basis of their physical appearance alone. The hardline approach led to the capture of many gangsters, but the gangs then simply appropriated the prisons as recruitment centers. Over the next four years, the number of imprisoned gang members doubled from 4,000 to 8,000. Close to half of El Salvador’s gang members are already in prisons that are at an alarmingly high 300 percent of capacity.Not surprisingly, the high concentration of gang members in prisons has actually made it easier to run organizations from behind bars. Thanks to frequent visits from lawyers and lovers, the open use of cell phones, and a general lack of intervention from prison guards, illegal activity has flourished in many of these penitentiaries. Prison has become just another place to do business. Flores’s successor and fellow conservative Antonio Saca unveiled Super Mano Dura, an approach intended to complement the hard fist with gang prevention and rehabilitation programs as well as legal and institutional reform. Yet the genie was already out of the bottle: The gangs ruled with near impunity both inside the prisons and over a growing part of the country.Given that Central America is a stopover for roughly 80 percent of all the drugs entering the United States, the region’s gangs are up to their ears in illicit revenue. Thus politically and financially empowered, the gangs have achieved unprecedented reach into desperately vulnerable Northern Triangle communities. In July 2015, a faction of Barrio 18, in an effort to influence its truce negotiations with the government, forced the bus drivers in San Salvador to go on strike; the ensuing paralysis endured for four days. Eight drivers who defied the ban were murdered. The following month Barrio 18 conducted an “internal purge” by stabbing 14 inmates to death at a prison.Life in gang-run regions is a daily horror. The gangs recruit children in elementary school and extort protection payments from businesses that frequently bankrupt them. Terrified parents do not permit their children to leave the house alone. An estimated 300,000 Salvadorans were forced from their homes in 2014.Recent reporting confirms the gangs have become “vicious occupying forces” in much of the Northern Triangle. In seasoned reporter Douglas Farah’s description:
the scruffy, rag-tag teens of years past were violent, brutal, and often stoned, but could only afford homemade pistols and the rare AK-47 or hand grenades left over from the 1980s. Now many of the clicas, or neighborhood gang organizations, have assault rifles, vehicles, safe houses, and encrypted satellite phones. Some factions are even able to deploy drones to monitor the movements of the police or rival gangs.
Today, the gangs are at war on three fronts: against the state, civilians, and one another. This is not your father’s MS-13 or B-18.The gangs have also demonstrated an increased willingness to take their war directly to the state. Gangs attacked the Salvadoran National Police 400 times in 2015, compared to 200 in 2014 and 140 in 2013. Mareros have attacked police stations with grenades, assassinated over twenty off-duty military officers, and used IEDs against public agencies, including a car bomb outside the Treasury Building in September 2015. Gang-control police wear balaclavas to conceal their identities—hoping to keep themselves and their families alive. And the situation only appears to be worsening. In the first 73 days of 2016, 1,688 people were murdered in El Salvador, more than twice the number from the same period last year.El Salvador’s gangster woes have their surreal aspects as well. One is the booming business in coffin-making and funeral homes. San Pedro Perulapán, verdant, nondescript town in the Massachusetts-sized country, is located not far from El Salvador’s capital. Intrepid reporters have investigated the town’s funeral home bonanza. According to one, business is booming: “coffin made, coffin sold.” Funeral home workers even have a verb—“muertean”—meaning to search the streets for dead bodies, even if the corpses lie in gang-run areas. A funeral home employee in San Pedro Perulapán going by the pseudonym of Rogelio told a reporter, “We are selling coffins like hot bread!” Given the surging demand, Rogelio was accustomed to the particular challenge of preparing bullet-riddled cadavers. One gang member’s body arrived at the funeral home with 23 gunshots in his chest, five in one hand, and several more in the face. Rogelio attributed the spike in business to the violence that permeates his town and the surrounding countryside, where locals live at the whim of “the mara of the letters and mara of the numbers”—referring to the shorthand of “MS” for MS-13 and “18” for Barrio 18 respectively.A combination of ignorance and apathy complicates Washington’s ability to positively influence the Northern Triangle crisis. Even the summer of living dangerously in 2014 proved ephemeral in terms of media or political attention. And as a result, Americans do not realize that their problems are also our problems and that we are all connected in this, like it or not.To give a sense of this interconnectedness, between 2010 and 2012 alone, U.S. authorities repatriated approximately 100,000 criminals to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Given the inability of the Northern Triangle states to absorb this deluge of criminality, it is no coincidence that violence spiked. To complete the feedback circuit, the ensuing surge in gang violence led thousands of Northern Triangle parents to send their nearly 100,000 unaccompanied children between October 2013 and July 2015 on a desperate attempt to enter the United States.Urged on by a Washington eager to see an allied government lend a hand, Mexico apprehended 70 percent more Northern Triangle migrants in 2015 than the previous year. Mexico’s more muscular stance has likely accounted for the precipitous drop in Northern Triangle apprehensions along the U.S. border. However, the “push-pull” dynamic set in motion by the deportation of criminals is still at play: A new wave of 17,000 Northern Triangle minors hit the border in the summer and fall of 2015. All told, since 2010, the United States and Mexico have apprehended more than one million Northern Triangle immigrants, deporting 800,000 of them, including 40,000 children.As of 2013, there were as many as 2.7 million people born in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador living in the United States—up from about 1.5 million in 2000. That is, around 10 percent of the Northern Triangle’s thirty million citizens have departed, largely for the United States. Some of these immigrants will be arrested, inducted into MS-13 or Barrio 18-like gangs in U.S. prisons, and then repatriated home, where the cycle will predictably begin all over again. Other immigrants will have children who will be American citizens. Compared to the political furor surrounding the resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees in the United States, the Northern Triangle deluge is strangely absent from our domestic political debate despite its cultural, economic, and geographic relevance.As these extraordinary and seemingly inexorable immigration and drug flows indicate, the Northern Triangle’s (and Mexico’s, for that matter) stability is our stability. That is, beyond the narrow humanitarian imperatives, Washington has a selfish interest in ensuring peace in the region. It’s also an inescapable reality that we have an insatiable demand for drugs (mostly cocaine) from Colombia, which are shipped through Central America and then Mexico and/or the Caribbean before being consumed by overcompensated Wall Street executives, or sold on desperate street corners in Baltimore and Charlotte. Finally, if the Northern Triangle continues to unravel—and soon enough becomes a trio of failed states—the fleeing masses are coming here, where many have hopes of jobs thanks to already established relatives. It will happen whether we build a massive wall or not.It is a truism that solutions to the Northern Triangle horror story will likely take hold if local governments and citizens own them completely. In El Salvador, the leftist FMLN government under former guerrilla leader cum President Salvador Sánchez Cerén is under intense pressure to crack down on the maras. The President’s spokesman told the press in August last year, “We will not speak to or reach any kind of agreement with these criminals.” Days later, the Supreme Court ruled that the gangs should be considered terrorist groups, laying the political and legal groundwork for legal actions against them. The former director of the national police force, Rodrigo Ávila, soberly indicated, “We have to cut the cord that connects the kids to the gangs.” Ostensibly funded by a tax on cellular phones and cable television, the Salvadoran government’s hallmark $2.1 billion five-year initiative, “Secure El Salvador,” is intended to highlight security and development through boosting the state’s presence in the country’s most violent towns and regions, bolstering public institutions including prisons, and ensuring better treatment for crime victims.Like the Obama White House’s CARSI 2.0 strategy, the Salvadoran initiatives will be far more difficult to implement than to design. At the beginning of 2015, Sánchez Cerén’s government transferred high-level gang leaders back to maximum-security prisons from which they had been relocated as part of the prior government’s truce dialogue. As security analyst Evan Ellis has written, this hardline initiative precipitated a bloody wave of violence that continues today.Despite this setback, the government continues to explore various approaches, such as capturing key gang leaders not already in prison while more effectively isolating those already incarcerated. At present, the mareros use smuggled cellphones in order to continue their gang activities behind prison walls. This in turn allows them to bribe prison workers and threaten their families. In the seven prisons in which gangs are concentrated—out of the twenty penal facilities in El Salvador—the government installed new devices to block cell phone signals. San Salvador also plans to build three new minimum-security prisons that would relieve the intractable overcrowding through the transfer of 10,000 low-risk non-gang member prisoners.For the past several years I’ve had a hard-working and, as is typical of her compatriots, loquacious acquaintance here in Davidson, North Carolina who happens to be an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. She is in her early middle age, and let’s call her Sonia. For all of this time, I assumed that the young girl in her early teens (say, Maria) who resembled Sonia was her daughter—an assumption bolstered by the fact that Sonia often referred her to as “mi hija.” or “my daughter.” Then a few months ago Sonia off-handedly mentioned how difficult it was for Maria to live in the United States without her mother.So it was that I learned that Maria was Sonia’s niece, and that her mother had been killed five years ago by the maras. As a bus driver, Maria’s mother was particularly vulnerable to gang extortion—in which non-compliance is often certain death. Sonia explained how relatives in El Salvador worried about Maria’s safety arranged through coyote traffickers to get her to the Mexico-U.S. border. Maria and other family on this side then helped the girl get to North Carolina. Needless to say, it was harrowing for all those involved. “Fue muy duro, muy muy duro,” Maria told me.The Obama Administration has initiated a response that we can only evaluate with the passage of time. We read about terror and displacement in Aleppo and Mosul, but far less often do we read about the once-bucolic San Pedro Perulapán. Sadly, it will likely take far more stories like Maria and Sonia’s to force us to wake up to his horror right in our very own geopolitical barrio.