Gangs of El Salvador

American Cities Reduced Violence—Will the Same Strategies Work in the Northern Triangle?

Members of the 18th Street gang at a prison mass in Izalco, near San Salvador, April 2012 Ulises Rodriguez / Reuters

At 11:56 am on December 18, 2015, seven Salvadoran gang leaders got on a conference call. Some of them dialed in from prison, others from the streets. Among the subjects they covered that night was a hit list of eight people. Before they carried out the murders, the gangsters on the outside needed approval from those on the inside.

The deliberations began just 19 minutes into the conversation. The first potential victim, according to the indictment filed by Salvadoran prosecutors, was the father of an alleged cooperating witness. A few minutes later, he was given a “green light,” gang lexicon for condemned to death. Other victims followed: one gang member “for not adapting,” another for “snitching,” a woman for being what the gang called “gossipy.” By the time they had finalized the hit list, one hour, 25 minutes, and 44 seconds had passed since the discussion of the first homicide began.

The conversation, which was captured as part of a sprawling indictment of dozens of gang leaders, is important, not just because eight people may have died as a result of it but because it forms part of the violent mosaic of El Salvador. In 2018, the country had 51 murders per 100,000 people, more than ten times the U.S. rate. Thanks in large part to endemic violence, citizens of El Salvador, together with those of the other countries in Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle, Guatemala and Honduras, have accounted for 75 percent of all undocumented U.S. border apprehensions in 2019.

As debates over Central American migration have grown increasingly divisive in the United States, U.S. policymakers have sought to find ways to address its root causes. Perhaps no cause has loomed larger than endemic gang violence: over the past few years, leading experts on violence have studied whether El Salvador (and, by extension, Honduras and Guatemala) can adopt the types of gang-intervention programs that have proved so successful in U.S. cities such as Boston and Oakland, California. Their response, after a yearlong study funded by the

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