|Fred Ramos/El Faro for the New York Times|
In collaboration with The New York Times, El Faro, a digital newspaper based in San Salvador, sought to pierce the secrecy surrounding the finances of the gangs that terrorize El Salvador, which is experiencing a level of deadly violence unparalleled outside war zones: 103 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, compared with five in the United States.
With an estimated 60,000 members in a country of 6.5 million people, the gangs hold power disproportionate to their numbers. They maintain a menacing presence in 247 of 262 municipalities. They extort about 70 percent of businesses. They dislodge entire communities from their homes, and help propel thousands of Salvadorans to undertake dangerous journeys to the United States. Their violence costs El Salvador $4 billion a year, according to a study by the country’s Central Reserve Bank.
And yet, the reporting determined, MS-13 and its rival street gangs in El Salvador are not sophisticated transnational criminal enterprises. They do not begin to belong in the same financial league with the billion-dollar Mexican, Japanese and Russian syndicates with which they are grouped. If they are mafias, they are mafias of the poor. El Salvador has been brought to its knees by an army of flies.
MS-13’s annual revenue appears to be about $31.2 million. That estimate is based on information in the 1,355-page file of Operation Check, to which El Faro got exclusive access. Wiretapped conversations reveal that the gang’s national leadership ordered its 49 “programs,” or chapters, to turn over all the money earned in a single, typical week, which happened to be in April. It collected $600,852.
It sounds like a lot of money. But if divided equitably among the estimated 40,000 members of MS-13, each gang member would earn $15 a week and about $65 a month. That is half the minimum wage of an agricultural day laborer.The entire article is well worth your time. A few things jump out. First, the government still can't find the appropriate mix of tactics through which to approach gang violence. The most recent one seems to be direct confrontation with the gangs. As a result, many gang members have died in questionable confrontations with the authorities.
Prior to this head on policy, and somewhat overlapping temporally, was a government policy to drive a wedge between foot soldiers and leaders. Police communiques strategically emphasized how gang leaders were living lives of luxury while those on the street were living in squalor.
In the first place, that does not appear to have been true. Considering the costs of satisfying 60,000 members and their families (perhaps 600,000 in total), Salvadoran gangs did not make that much money. Most gang leaders are in prison and there is little evidence that those on the outside were living the life.
Whether true or not, this message would have needed to have been delivered more than once or twice to have been effective. They would have needed to have made this a consistent communications policy over months, if not years, to really have any effect. Finally, I'm not sure that driving a wedge between leadership and foot soldiers was going to lead to any desirable final outcome. How then does the government respond to the greater decentralization of gang power.
While the authors throw some water on the characterization of these gangs as criminal transnational organizations, I would have liked to have seen some greater discussion of the links between gang members in the US and in El Salvador. There is something there even if it is not the strong links portrayed by US authorities.
Just over one year ago, El Salvador and the international community announced a new, more comprehensive policy towards security, Plan Seguro. Has Plan Seguro been effective at all? I'm not sure that it has, it's only been one year, but what about other programs designed to make the poor of El Salvador safe from gangs? As seen in the readings, poor young kids join the gangs because they have few choices.
The article is well worth your time this morning.