Volume 5, Number 127
17 July 2005

Globalization of Crime:

The Case of El Salvador

Dear Friends,

I am writing this letter from a hotel in San Salvador, the capital city of the Central American republic of El Salvador ("The Savior"). This past week it has been a privilege and an honor to attend the annual "NationLab" national strategic seminar, at the Colegio de Altos Estudios Estratégicos (College of High Strategic Studies). Although nominally a part of the military education system, the student body of this college is equal parts civilian, military, and national police. Reading the roster of student names is like reading a list of up-and-coming political and diplomatic leaders. My role, as always, is to lend a steady hand while the seminar explores alternative pathways into the future of the nation.

One theme that kept coming up throughout the week long seminar is a trend that has come to be known as "the globalization of crime," for which El Salvador is a primary exemplar. This essay presents what I have learned about how this came to be.


If you travel south through Mexico, along the Pacific coast, you will pass through the Mayan province of Chiapas and into the highlands of Guatemala. The next stop south is the tropical paradise known as El Salvador, a small but beautiful nation of cloud forests and volcanos, white beaches and green mountains, tucked in between Guatemala and Honduras.

El Salvador was once the great pre-Colombian nation of Cuzcatlán, whose people spoke a dialect of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. They called themselves the Pipil, and their ancient language still echoes in the sonorous place names of El Salvador, from Chelatenango to Usulután. In recent centuries the domain of the ancient language of the Pipil has retreated to just a few communities in the western highlands near Guatemala.

The conflicts of today's El Salvador are not cultural, they are instead political, social, and economic. Many grew out of the twelve-year-long civil war, which ended with the peace accords of 1992. The civil war began in 1980, when a right-wing military coup d'état was answered by an armed left-wing rebellion under an umbrella organization known as the Frente Faribundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). The war was preceded by extreme and growing concentration of land ownership and wealth, increasing political polarization, government corruption, and failed promises of land reform.

The Civil War

To the extent that Americans know anything at all about the Salvadoran civil war, most today appear to believe that the US stayed out of the conflict. The truth was different. Under President Reagan, the US poured $6 billion into the Salvadoran armed forces, and built a forward airbase in Honduras, from which gunships are said to have departed nightly to support the combat. (I stayed at this airbase for a week in 1996, while attending a somewhat surreal Central American military exercise in UN peacekeeping.) The civil war ended in 1992 in stalemate, with neither side able to defeat the other militarily.

The tough negotiations that led to the end of the civil war under a comprehensive peace accord have been praised for the quality of the peace that ensued. Under the terms of that accord, the FMLN converted itself into a political party which could realistically contest elections at every level of government. The essential core of the agreement concerned the soldiers on both sides, most of whom had only known a life of armed combat. The hated Guardia Nacional was disbanded, and a new national police force was formed from decommissioned combatants of both sides, giving these men and boys gainful employment and training at a time when the nation's economy could not come close to providing jobs for all who wished to work.

Salvadoran Diaspora

The people of El Salvador are known throughout the hemisphere for their extraordinary work ethic and exceptional honesty and integrity. These traits served them well during the long years of the civil war, when hundreds of thousands of displaced Salvadorans arrived in the United States looking for employment and security. They found jobs and began sending cash back to their families in El Salvador. Today over a million Salvadoran citizens are working in the USA, and their cash remittances amount to an astonishing 16% of the gross domestic product of El Salvador. As others have noted, this pattern of remittances is arguably one of the most successful forms of international aid that has ever been invented: the program has zero cost to taxpayers, it has zero governmental overhead, and it channels billions of dollars in aid directly to families who need it the most, in return for hard work by some of the best workers that can be found anywhere in the world.

Sadly for the Salvadorans who brought their families to their newly adopted home in the north, the patterns of life in post-industrial America are not conducive to healthy families when both parents work very long hours. Traumatized by the violence of the civil war, deprived of nurturing extended families and village life, left alone and unsupervised on the streets of Los Angeles, the latch-key youth of the El Salvadoran Diaspora were attracted to criminal gangs. Many ended up in prison, where their horrific experiences solidified their identification with these gangs.

The Seeds are Sown

In 1992, US immigration authorities decided it was time to relieve overcrowded prisons by deporting foreign gang members to their countries of origin. Thousands of the most violent and dangerous were deported back to El Salvador. This program was intended by its authors to increase the safety and security of US citizens by ridding the country of a large category of violent criminals, and making room in our prisons for people convicted under such laws as the infamous "Three Strikes" rule of California. As far as I have been able to determine, no one at the time foresaw the paradoxical consequences for hemispheric security.

Can you think through the consequences before reading the answer?

Reaping the Wind

Here is how it has worked out so far. Brutalized and raped repeatedly in Uncle Sam's "correctional" facilities, trained by prison inmates in the use of extreme violence to solve all conflicts and disputes, skilled in the distribution and sale of underground drugs and weapons, owing passionate allegiance to their gangs as the only savior they have ever known, these young men were summarily dropped into the cities of El Salvador and half a dozen other Latin American nations. Should anyone be surprised when they immediately formed a network of gangs and underground criminal enterprises throughout the region?

With command-and-control linkages going all the way back to key individuals in California prisons, this network has graduated from simple street gang activity to coordinated international gun-running, narcotrafficking, and Mafia-style protection rackets.

The homicide rate in El Salvador skyrocketed, becoming one of the highest in the world. Much to the shock and dismay of the parents of El Salvador, LA-based gangs have proven attractive to homegrown youth. The entire nation is now going through a searching public reappraisal of their child-rearing concepts, their policing methods, their correctional programs, and their relationship with the USA. Theories abound, and everyone has an opinion.

El Salvador Responds

An early response of a previous government was a get-tough police program known as La Mano Dura (the iron fist). When this failed to stop the growth of gangs, hardliners recently replaced it with a get-even-tougher program, Super Mano Dura. Yet at the same time, public attention has focused for the first time on the question of epidemic domestic violence and the mental health of Salvadoran families — and this seems to be just as true for the law-and-order conservatives who designed Super Mano Dura as it is for liberals and progressives. As elsewhere in Latin America, psychological insight and psychotherapy are rapidly gaining in areas that were once bastions of misogyny and machismo.

Meanwhile, gang members from El Salvador are filtering back into the USA, where immigration authorities have launched yet another round of deportations in response — despite the disaster of the first round for El Salvador and other nations in the region. I question whether the regional security consequences of this policy have ever been considered in official Washington. Even more seriously, I question policies that rely on sending youngsters into "correctional" facilities that in reality are little more than institutionalized programs of rape and brutalization. El Salvador is the bleeding symbol of the grotesque failure of imprisonment and deportation.


The Quaker Economist announces with pride and pleasure the online publication of A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why Some Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by Jack Powelson.

Originally published in 1994 by the University of Michigan Press as Centuries of Economic Endeavor, this new electronic edition is now available to the public at no cost. Click here to see the Table of Contents.

Despite all of these problems, the winds of profound change are blowing through El Salvador, and to me the future looks very bright. The government is one of the least corrupt in all Latin America, and the workforce is bright, hard-working, honest, and flexible. Despite setbacks in the struggle against criminal gangs, Salvadoran society has demonstrated deep commitment to adapting to a rapidly changing world. They have emerged from their nightmare of a civil war in decent shape, with surprising economic strength, and excellent prospects for dealing with the wrenching adjustments caused by the worldwide globalization of industry, capital, labor... and crime.

Sincerely your friend,

Loren Cobb

Want to read more? Click here for a superb essay by photojournalist Donna DeCesare.

Readers' Comments:

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Much of your observations describe sorrowful paths of El Salvadorans coming to the US and those remaining in their home country. Then your final paragraph (and conclusion?) El Salvador has a bright future because of their deep commitment to a rapidly changing world. Strange.

Is the worker gaining/earning more income? Are the people on the street (as opposed to the rich) able to purchase land, houses, better products? Are their exports able to acquire fair prices? Is the country's income building their infrastructure? Is the country (the mass of people) becoming more self sufficient? Elaborate, please.

— Samuel DiMuzio.

Reply: My final paragraph was an attempt to place the gang problems in a larger perspective. Taken in the full national context, the problems with gangs are a setback, but nothing like a fatal blow to the Salvadoran economy and society. Overall, the future of El Salvador is indeed bright. I expect real GDP to grow at an average annual rate of 3% over the next five years, rising to perhaps 5% if and when CAFTA is approved. Transportation and telecommunications infrastructure is visibly improving. Democracy seems to have taken hold firmly, and I believe that it is now strong enough so that the country will thrive even if the next president is from the FMLN. Political leaders from all sectors are serious about improving the country's competitiveness in the world market. Foreign direct investment is healthy, and increasing. Against this backdrop, the problem of increased crime caused by gang activity requires attention, but it is far from devastating. — Loren

This is a very intransigent problem, one occurring on a global scale and not confined to El Salvador. And thank you so much for your optimistic assessment. I am unsure that the Salvadoran society can respond, as these trends are not of their immediate making.

You noted that the war in the 1980s was preceded by concentration of wealth, corruption, polarization, and failed land reforms. I believe that the issue of wealth concentration is the same today as it was in 1979, and is the result of the historic latifundia system initiated after the Conquista in the 1500s. As El Salvador became more industrialized than other Central American countries in the mid 20th century, this concentration shifted from a domination of agricultural assets to incorporate the industrial and financial assets. But these resources remain under the control of the same families that controlled them 100 years ago. This leaves little room for individual initiative, and thus leaves no outlet for the deported US gang members, so they continue with their criminal activity or engage in new criminal ventures.

As for the underlying global forces creating this idiotic situation, I would note that there is essentially a single cause: the War on Drugs. As a Friend, I have been called to oppose War in all its forms. The commonplace suggestion among the so-called "drug warriors" of the DEA and others is that the organized criminal activity surrounding illegal drugs has something to do with the drugs and those (wicked) people who use them. Much to the contrary, organized crime is solely about income. Keeping some recreational drugs illegal creates huge economic rewards and usually very low barriers to entry. In our day, as in the days of Prohibition of alcohol, these economic rewards entice and support organized crime.

As you might guess, my suggestion is to work diligently to reform the US War on Drugs. Decriminalize most use, and legalize some outright. Our own tax dollars can be spent on working with addicts and antisocial users, while the "demand" dollars spent by these users will be reallocated to more productive activity. El Salvador can do little about this, as the War on Drugs is a creation of the US Government through enormous allocation of tax dollars.

As to land reform, this is difficult internally. El Salvador has struggled with the issue of concentration for several centuries. I believe the most effective response on the US side of the border would be effective immigration expansion and work permit reforms. There is enormous benefit for both societies, as we in the US have labor demand and opportunity while El Salvador has excess labor and limited capacity for economic growth.

— Christopher Viavant, Utah Information Systems Project, Wasatch Homeless Health Care, Inc.

A very interesting article. However one sentence in it caught my eye: "...the FMLN converted itself into a political party which could realistically contest elections at every level of government."

What I heard on the web at the time of the last election was that voters were told that if the FMLN won, the US would create restrictions so that workers in the US would be unable to send money back to El Salvador. And that (true or not) this so frightened people there that the FMLN could not realistically contest the election, since as you say, this transfer of funds is immensely important to the country.

— Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett MA (near Amherst).

Reply: The Final Report of the International Observer Mission is available on the web. It contains the verbatim statements actually made by US officials during the campaign. I suggest that you read that report and form your own opinion:


In my view, the FMLN snatched defeat from the jaws of near-certain victory by choosing a politically inept candidate, Schafik Handal. Supporters of the FMLN deserted their own party's presidential candidate in droves in the election, which had very high voter turnout. In the end, Handal was too much of an old-school orthodox communist for the vast majority of the voters to stomach, even within the FMLN. Had the FMLN selected their candidate in free and fair internal elections, they would almost certainly have abandoned Handal for a younger, more modern socialist, who could have swept to victory in a walk. — Loren

It has been my privilege to work with Salvadorans intensively twice in my life — first in El Salvador with the AFSC doing my alternative service, and then from 1990-96 in Arlington, Virginia, with a Catholic-sponsored immigration services organization assisting the Salvadorans who are the dominant immigrant group in the Washington area. I agree with you about the industrious, law-abiding nature of almost all Salvadorans. Some of the AFSC volunteers from fifty years ago are still assisting community development projects in El Salvador, and the assimilation of the Salvadorans in northern Virginia has gone remarkably well. There have been only isolated incidents of Salvadoran gang violence here. But I would like to clarify a bit the practice here of deporting Salvadorans.

Undocumented aliens are always subject to deportation, but to this day only those who are in trouble with the law are actually deported. Before 1992, local officials complained loudly that they were letting active criminals return to their local communities because the US immigration services never came around to deport them. The terrible conditions you refer to were in local and state prisons and jails, rather than federal prisons. Starting about 1992 the pressures forced the old INS to set up a system of identifying incarcerated persons who were subject to deportation, and coming to get them when their sentences were up. No thought was given to the impact on the home country of deporting these criminals; all the emphasis was on getting them out of the local community and on enforcing the law.

Aliens convicted of "aggravated felonies" are subject to deportation, even if they are permanent legal residents or are otherwise legally in the US, and the same pressures to deport undocumented criminals have also been applied to them. In 1996 Congress greatly increased the list of "aggravated felonies" so now young Salvadorans convicted of drug and other crimes are being deported despite their legal status in the US Again, no thought has been given to the impact on the country to which the criminals are deported.

Finally, if a Salvadoran or other alien returns to the US without inspection after being deported, he has committed a federal crime, and will be convicted in federal court and serve time in a federal prison before being deported again. The best we can say is that he will have better treatment than in a local or state prison or jail, and it will be several years before he is returned to El Salvador.

I wonder if you can see any way in which this problem of Salvadoran gangs could have been prevented. My own view is that the public schools here do a remarkably good job with Salvadorans who are under about age 10 when they arrive here, teaching them English and assimilating them, and immigrants who are over about age 18 when they arrive are readily accepted into the work force. But those who are too old to learn English readily and too young to work when they arrive have little offered them. They are victims of the civil war just as those who were killed or wounded or had their lives disrupted in El Salvador.

— William G. Rhoads, Germantown [PA] Meeting.

Reply: Thanks for the clarifications. Gang problems in the USA (in general, not only for Salvadorans) will be greatly mitigated by (a) decriminalizing all opiates, (b) implementing a negative income tax, and (c) making temporary work permits easier to obtain. I realize that none of these are politically acceptable to the American people at present, but I think that all of these strategies are necessary for many reasons (not just for gang problems) and will ultimately be implemented. — Loren

Perhaps the question we in the US need to wrestle with is why anyone coming out of a US Jail is not better prepared to rejoin society, no matter where they go when they are released. The punitive mindset of our penal system is planting the seeds of our own societies' problems, not just those in Central America. Some states are even spending more on incarceration than they are on public education.

Sooner, rather than later, we will all be suffering from the graduates of the "school of hard knocks" that prisons have become. Gated communities and bigger SUV's and a "War on Terror" are not going to keep people safe from the collective neglect of so many of our new released inmates.

I urge Friends to become active in ways to reduce recidivism as a way to break the cycle of lawlessness that increases the occasion for war in the streets. See the link to Uplifting People, below as an example of what a few people can do about this concern.

— Free Polazzo, Douglasville, GA, and co-founder of Uplifting People.


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2005 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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