SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — After police in Montgomery County, Pa., stopped an undocumented immigrant for driving without a license in 2018, he was deported to El Salvador and almost immediately became a victim of the notorious MS-13 gang’s extortion.
Roberto Ortiz, a pseudonym he uses because he fears serious reprisal if his real name is published, now works as a farmer, and must pay nearly a third of his income to gang members who threaten to kill him if he does not comply.
“There’s no place to hide here. I need to leave this country,” Ortiz, 41, told me when I recently visited El Salvador.
I lived in El Salvador in the 1980s, reporting on the civil war there. I recently returned to understand some of the changes that have occurred in the 30 years since.
I found that the economic forces and violence driving people to leave are so strong that I don’t see how we can address our immigration problems without helping El Salvador tackle those issues. Short-term solutions are not going to work for problems that have been decades in the making, sometimes resulting from problematic U.S. policies.
An example: In the 1990s, a major U.S. deportation of MS-13 members and other criminals spurred the activity of Salvadoran gangs. The gangsters reorganized and made El Salvador the murder capital of Latin America by 2015.
Venezuela has taken over the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of killings, but Salvadorans continue to pay or flee the gangs, because they know there still is a very real threat.
Jonathan Rosen, a professor at Philadelphia’s Holy Family University, said the shakedown racket is the main source of income for Salvadoran gangs.
“The myth is that gangs make most of their money from drugs,” said Rosen, who interviewed former gang members in El Salvador and has written extensively about organized crime in Latin America.
The U.S. government lists MS-13 as a transnational organized-crime threat, and scores of its leaders have been indicted in the United States on charges including drug trafficking.
But across El Salvador, it is the extortion and violence that hit hardest. Thousands of Salvadorans are victims of extortion each year, and the violence is a significant factor driving Salvadoran migrants to the U.S., researchers say.
El Salvador’s current president, Nayib Bukele, who took power last June, has acknowledged that the gangs essentially run a “parallel state.” He said there are about 70,000 gang members, who have “de facto power” to conduct shakedowns in the New Jersey-size nation of 6.5 million people.
“What El Salvador needs is a hell of lot more. They’re drowning, and it’s hard for drowning guy to save himself.”
None of that is a surprise to most Salvadorans.
A leading business think tank in El Salvador released a survey in 2016 of 3,977 small businesses and micro-enterprises stating that 22% reported being victims of extortion. The country’s top Catholic university said nearly a fifth of the people it polled in 2014 said they were paying the gangs.
It’s easy to find small business owners who pay the extortionists.
In the privacy of their taxis, cab operators in the capital of San Salvador explained how they were forced to pay the gangs. In a country where a third of workers earn less than $6 a day, cab owners typically pay gangs about $100 a month.
The fundamental problem? El Salvador’s economy generates only a fraction of the jobs needed for its young people, who know they can make money working for gangs.
The new government mounted major police sweeps to pick up suspected extortionists. But for every person arrested, there seems to be another young replacement with a gun.
To discourage people from joining gangs, the government is trying to find jobs for them outside the country. It won a small expansion of temporary agricultural worker visas from the U.S., and is hoping to channel people to the job-rich Middle East.
One small success is a project started in 2009 by the Salvadoran subsidiary of a Montgomery County clothing manufacturer, League Collegiate Outfitters.
League was praised for its practice of hiring former gang members at its sewing plant in El Salvador. A Florida International University study found that League’s factory was “a model for how to reinsert former gang members into society.”
League merged with another clothing manufacturer in 2018, but the Salvadoran plant still employs former gang members.
The venture has not been without criticism. Last year, the nonprofit Workers Rights Consortium issued a report citing issues at the plant, including the firing of three gay workers, and requiring employees to attend morning prayers and educational programs without compensation. The consortium said the company agreed to rehire the workers and pay those who attended educational programs.
Even if imperfect, such efforts to counter the appeal of gangs are sorely and increasingly needed.
More than 200,000 Salvadorans have been allowed to work legally in the U.S. since a huge 2001 earthquake, but the Trump administration has moved to end their temporary residency status next year. Criminologists have warned that a massive deportation of Salvadorans could immediately provide a major source of recruitment for gangs.
Money is also an issue. Since fiscal year 2017, there has been a steady reduction in U.S. aid to Central America. In March 2019, frustrated with an increase of migrant children arriving at the U.S. border from El Salvador and neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, President Donald Trump ordered a cutoff of $615 million in U.S. assistance to the three countries. Though much of the aid was restored later in the year, many programs to help families in the countries suffered.
Charles Katz, an Arizona State University criminology professor who worked for the U.S.-funded projects in El Salvador, said Washington needs to change course and significantly increase aid if it wants to have a meaningful impact on criminal organizations.
“What El Salvador needs is a hell of lot more,” said Katz, whose U.S. funding for projects in Central America ended in December. “They’re drowning, and it’s hard for a drowning guy to save himself.”
Mark Fazlollah covered Latin America for United Press International and later for The Inquirer.