A Nation Held Hostage

˙ Voces

Late afternoon on Sunday, July 26, bus drivers across San Salvador began to hear the same chilling message. Letters and phone calls—many from inside the walls of high security prisons—as well as passing threats by strangers in busy bus terminals said one thing: suspend all service for four days, from Monday to Thursday. A paro, a strike. The consequences of disobedience were implicit.

By that night the news spread across the country on social media. Photos circulated of two empty buses set on fire. By the morning of Monday the 27th, 22 major bus lines had ceased operations—at that point still only a fraction of San Salvador’s bus system. But then, tragically, the threats were carried out. Six drivers were fatally shot over the course of the day. On Tuesday morning 101 bus lines were not running, and by Wednesday (the worst day of the strike) 142 lines were out of operation, including almost all the major lines in San Salvador. In total, over 1500 individual drivers heeded the strike, according to the transportation owners association. The northwestern and southern regions of the San Salvador metro area were the most affected. In gang strongholds, up to 98% of all public transportation was shut down for most of the week.

All evidence suggests that the forced strike was engineered by one of El Salvador’s maras, or gangs—the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, a particularly brutal faction of the broader Barrio 18 mara. However, El Faro, a major online newspaper specializing in investigative journalism, reports that the other two major gangs in El Salvador—Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 Sureños—supported the threats on the first day, but then backed down later in the week. Uncharacteristically, the gangs provided neither the government nor the transportation workers and owners with a rationale for the paro. They issued no public statements, made no formal demands, and offered no negotiating terms.

The broader impacts of the shutdown were colossal. The nation was, in no uncertain terms, held hostage by the gangs. The paro was deliberately designed to be highly visible, spread terror, and expose the underlying weakness of the government. In total, at least eight bus drivers were brutally executed for defying the order. Over 1.3 million passengers were affected by the shutdown, including 54% of the San Salvador metro area and approximately 20% of the country’s population. Beyond public buses, many other means of transportation, such as taxis and school buses, also ceased operations out of concern for security. The few vehicles that did operate—mostly pick-up trucks with passengers crowded into the back—charged extremely inflated fees.

Luis Cardenal, president of the Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce, estimated daily losses for businesses during the paro at $20 million. According to the Salvadoran Association of Bus Entrepreneurs, the industry lost $3.2 million during the strike. Many schools and universities—both public and private—canceled all classes, while many street vendors and small businesses operated on a limited schedule.

Perhaps the most pervasive consequence, though, was fear. Rumors of a gang-enforced curfew—although ultimately unsubstantiated—shut down entire neighborhoods around San Salvador as citizens locked themselves indoors. Meanwhile, neighboring Honduras reinforced its borders to prevent gang members or refugees from entering the country illegally. These fearful reactions point to a troubling conclusion: the gangs are even stronger—and the government is even weaker—than many previously thought. That the maras can so easily sow chaos, and that the government is so powerless to prevent it, puts in stark contrast the relative power of the two groups. This also leads to a second conclusion: that El Salvador is in dire need of greater outside assistance, engagement, and support to overcome this imbalance. In the short term, the proposed US $1 billion aid package to the Northern Triangle countries now being considered in the US Congress under the Alliance for Prosperity would be an important start.

Response by the Government

In all likelihood, the shutdown was some time in the making. Members of the government knew about the impending strike starting at least on Sunday night, and some leaders in the transportation sector claimed to have informed the National Police that a strike was likely as early as five days before it materialized. In an attempt to restore order, the government deployed military and National Police forces to the streets of San Salvador. Although no formal announcement was made, heavy military transport vehicles patrolled the streets and covered suspended bus lines starting on Monday.

During the first three days of the strike, President Salvador Sánchez Céren, a former leftist guerrilla leader, avoided the public eye. Initial reactions from officials—spread primarily through social media—blamed right-wing groups for attempting to destabilize the government. Several government figures referred to the event as a “boycott,” downplaying any gang involvement or implications.

Then, on Wednesday night, Sánchez Cerén broadcast an emergency message on national television. He addressed the paro and announced government plans to restore order. It was later revealed that the message was pre-recorded from an event earlier that day—Sánchez Cerén had since left the country for Cuba to receive medical treatment. Also on Wednesday, a press conference was held jointly by the Minister of Defense, the Vice Minister of Transportation, the Vice Minister of Public Safety, and the Director of the National Police.

Starting on Thursday, the government announced that bus owners would face a monetary fine if they continued to obey the paro. Earlier, the government claimed to identify the three leaders behind the shutdown—all Barrio 18 Revolucionarios. Two were being held in Izalco prison and were transferred on Tuesday to the high security prison in Zacatecoluca. The third was captured in Apopa. Tellingly, one of the three had been a central figure in the failed 2012 government-sponsored truce between Barrio 18 and MS-13.

Amid persistent reports that the shutdown was a negotiating power play, government officials have stated repeatedly that they will not reenter talks with the gang members. This decision was ratified by a meeting of the National Public Safety Council last Thursday.

Dark omens for El Salvador

Perhaps the most troubling implication of the transportation shutdown is what it reveals about the relative power of the government vis-à-vis the gangs, particularly in operational capacity and authority—i.e. the ability of each side to make credible guarantees.

First, in terms of operational capacity, the balance was hugely skewed. While one faction of one gang seamlessly engineered a four-day public transportation shutdown with minimal logistical or tactical effort, the government was unwilling or unable to prevent or interrupt the strike, even as it mobilized its armed forces, isolated gang leaders, and captured those directly responsible for the strike. Second, the maras were also able to respond much faster than the government. They ordered bus operators to join the strike on Sunday evening: less than twelve hours before the shutdown began. In contrast, the government scrambled to react, failing to announce and implement a cohesive response strategy until Wednesday afternoon, almost 72 hours after the strike had begun.

Third—and perhaps most importantly—the disparity in authority between the two groups’ declarations was staggering. At its core, the transportation shutdown was a question of which side to trust: while the gangs threatened to violently punish those bus operators who disobeyed the strike order, the government assured operators that they would be protected from harm by the armed forces. The unwillingness of most bus operators to resume their services, even as the military was deployed onto the streets of San Salvador, is a clear indication of which group’s vows carried the most credibility. Even further, the ripples of fear, evident in school shutdowns and self-enforced curfews, showed how easily many Salvadorans will jump to obey any rumor of gang threats.

Fundamentally, the inability of the government to combat the gangs is a resource problem. El Salvador is among the poorest countries in the hemisphere, and lacks the capacity to fight the gangs head on. For example, the national police has approximately 20,000 active members, compared to an estimate of at least 70,000 mareros. Similarly, El Salvador’s prisons, often described as “graduate schools of crime,” are among the most overpopulated and understaffed in the hemisphere. The impact of these resource limitations is tangible: though the government knew of the impending transportation strike as early as two weeks ago, it was unable to implement a widespread prevention operation. Instead, it was reportedly forced to wait until the shutdown materialized in order to identify the affected areas and triage a less resource-intensive response. If longer-term solutions can be found, they will almost certainly be expensive and beyond the country’s current financial means.

And though public transportation is in many ways a gang stronghold, the maras also exercise considerable influence over other key arteries of Salvadoran society, including small businesses, the street-based informal economy, hundreds of public schools, and entire neighborhoods and municipalities.

Finally, what makes this shutdown even more alarming is that it was enforced by only a single faction of El Salvador’s maras. Especially if the gangs are able, even temporarily, to overcome their divisions and act as a cohesive actor, they could pose a serious challenge to the stability of El Salvador’s political system and Salvadoran society.

Likelihood of more crises to come

Each of El Salvador’s last four governments has faced a critical public safety decision: whether to confront the gangs or to negotiate with them. At the core, this question is a trade-off between short-term conflict and risk of long-term violence and instability.

Negotiations may enable the government to broker a short-term peace: in 2012, for example, when the government of Mauricio Funes orchestrated a truce between the major street gangs, violence slowed to a trickle. But in the long-run, the substantial concessions involved in such an arrangement—recognition of the gang’s territorial authority over entire municipalities, for example—may have only strengthened the maras and have led to greater violence. In early 2013, when the Funes-sponsored truce started to collapse, the gangs had become bigger, stronger, and more violent than ever.

On the other hand, confrontation has consistently exacerbated violence in the short-run. In the early 2000s, when two successive right-wing governments implemented mano dura or “strong hand” anti-crime policies, overall levels of gang violence nearly doubled. And since January, when the current government reversed course and intensified its efforts to dismantle the maras, violence has surged to epidemic, civil war-era levels: El Salvador—a country of 6 million people—has witnessed over 3,000 gang-related killings in 2015. But in the long-run, if the government were to succeed in pushing back the maras and strengthening the rule of law, confrontation is likely to result in lower levels of violence—at least in theory.

In this context, the motives behind last week’s strike become clear. By demonstrating their ability to undermine the government and destabilize Salvadoran society—indeed, to hold a nation hostage—the gangs hope to force the government back to the negotiating table. (This logic was, in essence, confirmed by El Faro last week in conversations with members of Barrio 18.) And the dispiriting conclusion is that, as long as the government continues to pursue confrontational anti-crime policies and as Salvadorans become increasingly desensitized to astronomical body counts, the maras are likely to continue leveraging highly public and highly disruptive “non-violent” tactics such as “strikes” and night-time curfews. The shutdown, which can only be described as a hostage situation, was in essence an attempt to assert dominance over Salvadoran society. So long as such power plays continue to work, they will only become more common.

The need for international support

Last month, US State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon argued that El Salvador should “seek international help” in its war against violent crime. His words have a ring of truth. For practical and political reasons, sustained international engagement may be the only way the country can win this war.

First, El Salvador lacks the economic resources needed to wage a successful long-term war against the gangs or to transform the structural conditions that fuel them. The country’s police force is small, under-financed, and under-equipped; its prisons are among the most overcrowded and under-staffed in the world. Economic growth is negligible, and the “public security tax” being considered by the Sánchez Cerén government would face an uncertain fate in the legislature. To ameliorate its dire resource deficit, the current government has relied on international loans, a strategy that is neither sufficient nor sustainable.

If passed in full, the Alliance for Prosperity aid package could help support relatively comprehensive policy solutions, beyond just security assistance. However, at present it seems likely that the US Congress will pare down the final aid agreement considerably below the $1 billion amount, and will focus primarily on security. This would be short sighted. In addition to better equipped police, judiciaries, and prisons, El Salvador also needs the tools to strengthen its own political institutions and economy. The weakness of the state is both a funding and an organizational problem. This can be seen in the troubling reports emerging of extrajudicial killings and other abuses by police forces. Ultimately, the goal is for the country to be able to wage its own battles with the gangs and effectively promote the rule of law—something that is less likely to be achieved if assistance is only for security.

Beyond providing financial and material resources, comprehensive aid partnerships can also give Salvadoran politicians the political and institutional support they need to face the gang problem head-on. The coming years will require the government to withstand intense levels of violence and instability in the short and medium term, storms that will be much easier to weather politically if senior Salvadoran authorities have the visible backing of foreign governments, NGOs, and other international actors.

This is a war that El Salvador cannot fight unaided. Nor should it have to. After all, most maras were originally formed not in San Salvador, but on the streets of Los Angeles. The growing war has broad international components and consequences—from international drug trafficking to the 2014 child migrant crisis that it helped spur. Just because Salvadorans are the only ones bleeding does not mean they should face the battle alone.

Manuel Meléndez Sánchez is a degree candidate in government at Harvard University. He writes on conservative party structures and schisms in El Salvador.

Ben Raderstorf is a program assistant in the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. Follow him on twitter @braderstorf.

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