Posted on August 13, 2019

Violent Gangs Saturate El Salvador from Top to Bottom

Miguel Patricio, Courthouse News Service, August 12, 2019

Violent gangs have infiltrated virtually every corner of life in El Salvador, from businesses to police to housing — even to whether one can leave one’s home to go to the outhouse.

The gangs own bus routes, hotels, bars, restaurants, body shops. There are lawyers and doctors and teachers in gangs. There are mayors in gangs. President Nayib Bukele has announced a huge effort — much applauded — to improve security. Thousands of troops and police are trying to pacify the gang insurgency that has terrorized the country for twenty years. {snip}


A day in the life in one part of Soyapango. A happy ending, perhaps.

It’s hard to find people willing to talk about the criminality that surrounds them. Most small shopkeepers say they pay nothing to the thugs rather than admit to it, and prefer to change the subject. When asked, Lázaro, a prominent owner of a general goods business, stared at a reporter with fear in his eyes, made the sign of the cross and pointed the reporter to the door.


“The gangs tell us when we can leave our houses to work the fields. Nobody can be outside after dark, not even to use the outhouses. The women wear no makeup when they go out to wash clothes for fear of appealing to one or more of them and being raped.”

Elena told of what happened after Rita refused to pay the 18 gang. Her daughter was raped by eight men next to the pump where she had gone to fetch water. She was too afraid to report the crime for fear of reprisal.

Even the doctor who attended to her injuries was afraid to write the word rape in the medical report. Contacted by a reporter, he declined to speak and pleaded to not be quoted {snip}

As part of President Nayib Bukele’s plan to retake the country from the gangs, the police and army are visiting the most dangerous urban areas and going door to door to make people prove they are lawful tenants and arresting those who have forced the lawful occupants out.

In one sweep, 500 houses and apartments were found to have been taken over by gangs and then rented out or occupied. The neighborhood was so lawless there were no buses, no taxis, no mail delivery, no utility service.

Now the housing agency that has legal title to the properties is offering to sell those houses for as little as $500 so people will move back, or giving monthly rents of only $40.

To recover these scarred corners of the cities, the police and army must be present around the clock, seven days a week. The circumstances that led entire neighborhoods to abandon their homes make many unwilling to go back.


Gang extortion of larger businesses is a major problem, with many people left unemployed after a business decides to shut down. Many have done so, leaving dozens of plants and factories vacant. Many businesses that would otherwise invest in El Salvador have decided not to because of the security situation. The only sector of the economy that grows is the remittance sector, the money sent back from abroad, which is 20% of GDP.

It is generally accepted that there are 60,000 gang members in El Salvador, with roughly 30,000 in prison. And it is estimated that 600,000 people survive off the proceeds of their crimes — 10% of the country.