Gangs, Security and Criminalization: Youth Experiences of Violence in El Salvador

Police in El Salvador

As a result of ever-increasing rates of violence, number of gang members, and citizen insecurity, the government of El Salvador implemented a series of ‘zero tolerance’ policies in 2004, known as Mano Dura, or the Iron Fist. However, the gangs are not understood as the product of social and economic factors that leave youth with little opportunity for alternatives to crime.

Police in El Salvador

As a result of ever-increasing rates of violence, number of gang members, and citizen insecurity, the government of El Salvador implemented a series of ‘zero tolerance’ policies in 2004, known as Mano Dura, or the Iron Fist. Estimates put the number of youth gang members in El Salvador between 15,000-30,000. The dramatic increase in their numbers can be attributed to mass deportations of Central Americans from the United States. The youth gang has been sensationalized as the primary threat to public security in El Salvador and in the region as a whole. The gang is not understood as the product of social and economic factors that leave youth with little opportunity for alternatives to crime, but rather as a manifestation of organized crime and terrorism. Because these issues were seen as transnational, the solution was constructed through coordination between the governments of the United States and El Salvador. The Mano Dura approach focuses on exerting massive police force, extended prison sentences, and criminalization of illicit activities to eradicate the problem of gangs. As a result, the number of police arrests, arbitrary detentions, and jail populations skyrocketed.

Not only have these policies been unsuccessful in gang abatement, police repression and targeting of youth has, in effect, criminalized the act of being young. In the past five years, there have been constant outcries from non-governmental organizations, human rights groups, opposition party members, and civil society denouncing repression and calling for alternative solutions. I spent April and May of 2009 in El Salvador researching one of these alternatives; a violence prevention program implemented in 2006 by the local government in San Martín, a municipality located outside the capital city, San Salvador. San Martín has historically been one of the most violent municipalities in the country, but has enjoyed substantial success in lowering its crime statistics and providing opportunity for youth during the past three years. The manner in which the local government in San Martín discusses and treats youth issues is drastically different from that of the national government, and directly affects how local youth view their own opportunities and participation in society. A key aspect of the program, known as Plan ‘San Martín Seguro’, or ‘A Safe San Martín’, is a soccer league for youth ages six to eighteen. My investigation focused on the experience of young men who participate in the league. Our discussions centered around the marginalization of communities due to gang presence, the soccer league as a tool for violence prevention, and their experiences of police repression.

Youth Soccer League: Strategy for Gang and Crime Prevention

The soccer league consists of seven levels for youth ages six to eighteen, and one elite team for ages eighteen to twenty-six. The teams compete against eight other municipalities in the department of San Salvador. Edgar, the league coordinator, identified continual gang warfare and rivalry as the principal factor affecting the population’s mobility, yet believes that the comradeship gained through involvement in athletics helps to diminish their isolation and polarization. He says:

The youth come from all sectors and don’t see each other as rivals. They are growing up as brothers. So, what do we gain? That from very young they hang out together, they don’t speak bad words, they have good behavior, and when they see each other in the street, they don’t see each other as rivals, they aren’t enemies, although they come from different parts of the municipality.

Building this sense of comradeship and community is essential for combating embedded distrust and insecurity, which are products not only of gang violence, but also years of civil armed conflict and government repression. Instead of reinforcing individualism and suspicion, the soccer league serves to create connections and personal relationships between people, and to slowly break down the barriers that isolate them.

The soccer league has one other very basic function, which is to keep the kids occupied. Rogelio, age 18, has played in the league since 2007. He lives just minutes away from the soccer fields and studies mathematics at a university in San Salvador. He told me his thoughts about the program:

I feel that it’s a good program because for kids of my age, it distracts us, we don’t think about other bad things. So, this program is excellent. I think that the best thing that has happened to me…is comradeship. We all know each other and everyone gets along.

The manner in which the futbolistas speak about distraction is an acknowledgement of how easy it is to fall into a violent lifestyle or get involved in gangs. Because of the obvious presence of gang members in their communities, the lack of after school programs for youth, and the absence of adult supervision, it is no surprise to the boys I’ve spoken with that so many other kids choose that lifestyle. They frequently use the language, ‘no caer en la delincuencia (to not fall into delinquency)’, as if it were a gaping, growing crater that must be actively avoided.

Marginalized Communities and Perceived Violence

A reoccurring theme in my interviews with the futbolistas was the marginalization of communities due to constant insecurity and perceived violence. The gangs are present in every community, although certain zones are perceived to be calmer and less affected by inter-gang violence. The two dominant gangs in the area are Mara-Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and the

18th Street

Gang (Calle-18). The majority of people are very aware of which one dominates their community and can identify many of its members. Therefore, even if one has never had an encounter with the gangs themselves, their presence is ingrained in their knowledge of the community and inseparable from their sense of security.

The situation is even more precarious for young men over the age of twelve. Many of these boys feel more secure within their own community because the gang members, or mareros have known them since they were small, and therefore do not see them as a threat. Yet, once young men venture into a neighboring community, it is more likely they will be mistaken for a member of the opposing gang. David explained to me how in San Martín, he has to be careful where he goes. He explained:

It’s pretty complicated, including leaving the neighborhood where one lives. There are quite a few kids, of my age more than anything, that when someone says to them, ‘let’s go mess around in ‘X’ community’, and their answer is ‘no, do you want them to kill us?’ And things like that. And maybe they aren’t involved in anything, they aren’t gang members or anything, but it comes from the same fear.

Rogelio echoed this lack of mobility and bluntly stated, “I’m not involved in anything, but only for going somewhere I shouldn’t go, it could be that don’t leave alive.”

Youth Experiences with Police Repression and Mano Dura

The demand from the broader society to produce results is the base of the repression and excess of power that characterize tactics of El Salvador‘s National Civilian Police (PNC). It is very common that the police enter communities at night and arrest ten to twenty suspected gang members. Though the local government has shifted its focus away from repression and toward prevention, the police continue with the same policies prescribed by the national government and police headquarters, which do not respond to the specific local context. Therefore, in San Martín, the local government and PNC are experiencing a clash between local and national responses to the same problem.

The policies of Mano Dura, specifically the Ley Antimaras, or Anti-Gang Law, have directly affected the lives of the young men on the soccer team. The law prohibits ‘illicit associations’, or groups of two or more minors found in public or abandoned spaces who are intimidating, being disrespectful, inappropriate, carrying or selling arms and drugs, drawing graffiti, wear tattoos, and more. In theory, the law gives police the right they had previously lacked to arrest suspicious groups of gang members, which most citizens support and view positively. In practice, it gave them the justification to harass and arrest any group of minors just for the simple state of ‘appearing’ to be a gang member, and has more specifically resulted in the targeting of young males. Not surprisingly, the law against illicit association has shaped the behavior and mobility of the young men I spoke with in San Martín.

David, age 17, studies education in San Salvador, and lives in one of the most dangerous communities in San Martín. I spoke to him one afternoon before practice. We were sitting on the cement stadium stairs next to the soccer field. He described his reality as a young man in San Martín:

One can’t be like we are right now, talking between two or three young people, because the police arrive and without saying anything, they arrest you, and they say it’s because of illicit association. They imprison you for three of four days. Or maybe they invent things.

Rogelio described the contradictions of political rhetoric and police activity: “If they see a group that seriously is gang members, they don’t detain them, they only sit there watching, and pass by. So people that aren’t doing anything wrong are the ones that they stop.” Therefore, not only the presence of gang members in the communities, but also fear of police patrols and harassment limit the mobility of young people in San Martín.

Several of the futbolistas have told me anecdotes about their encounters with the police. The most common occurrence is that they are mistaken for a marero who has committed a crime. José Luis, age 16, was arrested one day on his way home from high school. He told me that the police had confused him with a marero who looked like him, so they stopped him and handcuffed him. He was never brought into the police station, because several people, including some teachers from his school, attested to his innocence. They accounted for the fact that he was in class at the time of the crime, and assured the police he did not belong to a gang. José Luis was only able to prove his innocence through the support he received from community members. This illustrates the reality in which the police hold all power and there are few ways for youth alone to prove their innocence. He learned to be much more careful after that day and is painfully aware that at any moment, just for appearing suspicious, the police could arrest him again.

Several of the futbolistas commented on the ineffectiveness of Mano Dura policies, explaining that mareros don’t fear the police or respect the laws that they enforce. José Luis explained in order to enter the community where he lives, the police must be in a group of at least five or six officers. If they enter alone, they will be killed. Because of the frequency of arbitrary arrests, the majority of those brought in for questioning are released within days. Enrique, age 16, says he doesn’t see government policies as ‘strong fisted’ because,

When they take the guys in, they always get out. They release them and they start to create disorder again. [Mano Dura] hasn’t worked. The government needs to give them more time. It’s not fair that they commit crimes and days later are walking free.

I spoke with a police officer in San Martín who acknowledged this same ineffectiveness and explained to me how there is a constant cycle of the same kids getting arrested and released. Eventually, the kids get sick of being thrown in jail and learn to hide from the police whenever they enter their community. The officer suggested that this was a result of society’s demand for tangible results, such as more patrols and arrests.

Even though many of the futbolistas have had negative experiences with excessive police power and avoid certain activities that put them in vulnerable positions, they recognize that the police play a crucial role in providing safety and controlling gang activity. Alejandro, age 16, suggests,

The problem with the police is maybe that they are a little badly orientated in terms of their job to protect. Because they, as a body of security, should, before beating up someone, is talk to them. But what they do is say, ‘I’m going to register you’, and because of this the kids go running, because even if they weren’t doing anything, they hit them. And already because they’ve run from them, the police have a pretext to bring them to jail.

Rogelio mentioned that it is often the community members themselves who call in complaints, but instead of being resentful, he understands why they do it. “There is so much violence,” he told me, “and people are distrustful.” Therefore, it is evident that youth don’t perceive the problem with the police to be the patrols or the questioning of suspicious people. For the most part, there is an understanding that the police must do their job. The problem is the assumption of guilt, which results in fear and avoidance even when kids know they aren’t doing anything wrong. Juan Carlos even mentioned that he would like to see more police patrols so that “people can walk safely where they live, without fear that something is going to happen to them.” Their reality is one of constant insecurity due to violence. The impunity of both mareros and every-day criminals creates an atmosphere of fear, distrust, and frustration.


El Salvador has a serious violence problem that can be attributed in part to youth gangs, high levels of extreme poverty, and the legacy of armed conflict. The national response to date has been characterized by Mano Dura policies that focus on the arrest and detention of suspected gang members and a discourse that has, in practice, criminalized a generation of young men. I found that the manner in which the youth in San Martín perceive violence and insecurity is deeply personal and inseparable from their own experiences. Therefore, their lifestyle, habits, and politics are a direct manifestation not only of contemporary challenges, but also of the historical legacy of violence and distrust in Salvadoran society. Limited mobility, loss of friends and family, police harassment and government discourse have all shaped the way in which the futbolistas interviewed view their own position and participation in society.

Plan ‘San Martín Seguro’ is a local initiative intended to address the greater issues of endemic violence, gang activity, ingrained insecurity and distrust, and the lack of viable opportunities for youth. Through its programs of vocational training, civic activities, renovation of public spaces, and the municipal soccer league, the local government has shown its dedication not only to providing economic and political opportunities for youth, but also to valuing recreation and expression of youth energy and passion. These local efforts have challenged the idea that the young people are by definition delinquents, rebellious, unproductive and all expressions of their culture, lifestyle and criminality must be repressed. They combat the assumption of guilt that is perpetuated by Mano Dura policies and police repression. Alternatively, a new emphasis is being placed on the experience of being young, which is to say, on building character, comradeship, leadership, friendly competition, and the simple act of having fun. It is evident in from my interviews with the nine futbolistas that their participation in the municipal soccer league has significantly impacted their lives. My discussions with youth from San Martín reaffirmed the importance of local violence prevention programs and illustrated the way in which policy, discourse, and violence directly affect the lives and experiences of youth. It is evident that both actual and perceived violence are very real factors that influence lifestyle, discourse, and personal politics. Ultimately, these personal experiences and perceptions of violence must be taken into account in order to heal divides within society and design prevention programs and government policy. 


Maria Hoisington is a student of Latin American Studies and Human Rights at the University of Washington. She is currently living in San Salvador, writing her thesis on local violence prevention programs. Photo from Flickr by LShave