The Passion of Mara Salvatrucha

Found this earlier in the week:  Christian Century: Truce.  A puff-piece on Salvadoran gangs is bad enough but to find it in a (nominally) ‘Christian’ blog during Easter week is truly absurd (and, frankly, distasteful).

Written by one Paul Jeffrey, the thing is a masterpiece of bias:.

While the gangs weren’t the only violent actors, with their stigmatizing tattoos they were the most visible, and they quickly became scapegoats for a long list of social evils. With U.S. funding, governments in the region’s Northern Triangle—Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala—instituted a military response of violent repression and mass imprisonment. Merely looking like a gang member—what authorities called illicit association—was enough to earn young men long sentences in overcrowded prisons plagued by suspicious fires that killed hundreds.

Dubbed mano dura, the “iron fist” approach, these repressive policies were widely popular. “People grew tired of the death and violence caused by the gangs, and they wanted to hear that someone was going to instill order and put the delinquents in prison. That repressive discourse became mandatory for politicians, as it gets a lot more votes than talking about prevention. People wanted to hear about vengeance and repression, not peace or dialogue. And that’s what they got,” said Felix Arevalo, a Baptist pastor in San Salvador who has worked on dialogue with gang members.

‘Stigmitized’ and ‘scapegoated’ by ‘repressive policies’ for ‘merely looking like a gang member’ –  it’s fairly clear where the Mr. Jeffrey’s sympathies lie.

But are such people truly the victims of unjust ‘repression’ that Mr. Jeffrey would have us believe?  A deeper look reveals another side to the story:

In a country terrorized by gangsters, it is left to the dead to break the silence on sexual violence.  Rather, to the bodies of dead women and girls pulled from clandestine graves. Raped, battered and sometimes cut to pieces, they attest to the sadistic abuse committed by members of street gangs…

Most of the violence is the handiwork of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs, which were formed by migrants in the United States, then returned home and grew into warring forces of tens of thousands of gangsters…  The Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs are the most powerful of six major gangs in El Salvador, and those who study them say it is not uncommon for gang members themselves to be the offspring of rape. Many targets of their sexual violence do not willingly approach the gangs, but rather are stalked by them.

Official numbers show just 239 women and girls among the murdered so far this year, about a tenth the number of men, with an additional 201 reported missing. Through August, 361 rapes were reported, two-thirds of them against minors. But the statistics don’t begin to tell the story. Worldwide, women generally report only 20 percent of rapes, according to the World Health Organization, and that percentage is likely lower in El Salvador. The missing and dead also may be underreported.

“We have cases in which the mother knows how her daughter died, but she cannot talk because the gangsters who raped and killed her have come to the wake to offer condolences for their girlfriend,” said Silvia Juarez, a lawyer with the Gender Violence Observatory. “In this context, the state is incapable of offering protection.”

Seems not to be the clear-cut case of ‘repression’ Mr. Jeffrey presents – visiting the wake of a girl you raped and murdered to intimidate their family being, not only brazen, but rather less than sympathetic.

Still though, such does not deter our intrepid author.  Undaunted, he continues:

“Anyone who gets close to the gangs is seen with suspicion,” San Martin said… “When youth go to get a job, if they say they’re from a certain zone, the interview is over. If you say you’re from Montreal [a gang stronghold], you’re simply discarded and if you can’t find a job, you’ve got three options. One, you accept that you’re going to live in absolute poverty without a future. Two, you get involved in the dynamics of delinquency that give you certain guarantees and protection. Or, three, you migrate.”

“Gang members were satanized. People thought the only solution was to kill them,” said Pio González, a Catholic priest in San Salvador’s impoverished San Luis Mariona neighborhood.

‘Satanized’ is an interesting turn of phrase (almost as good as The Nation’s classic ‘monsterization’).  But is it really  unjust to regard such people with suspicion?  From the earlier NYP piece:

Criminologist Israel Ticas, who digs up clandestine graves for the Attorney General’s Office, says more than half of the 90 sites he has excavated in the last 12 years have contained the remains of murdered women and girls. “For sure there are hundreds of these cases and maybe thousands out there,” Ticas said.

His field notes, augmented by interviews with protected witnesses, provide a window into the underworld of abuse. He randomly selects a case from one of his journals:

“7 June 2013 in Santa Tecla, the girlfriend of a gang member recruited two friends to go to a party. The gangsters suspected that one of the girls betrayed them, talking to a rival gang. Eight men raped the girls. First two were killed with multiple knife wounds. The third was held for 24 hours while they asked for ransom, but when they couldn’t get the money they killed her, too. The three were dismembered. They were 12, 13 and 14 years old.”

Ticas closes the worn book and opens another:

“27 October 2011, Colonia Montes, San Salvador. A 16-year-old girl approached a gang member out of curiosity. She wanted to be his girlfriend and they had sex. After, he turned her over to his clique as a prize. After they raped her, they cut her in pieces.

“April 21, 2014 in Ahuachapan, I worked on the body of a young woman who was about 18 years old, killed 43 months before. She was mummified, her painted red fingernails had been perfectly conserved. She was halfway buried in the middle of a sugar cane plantation. She had been killed by asphyxiation, with multiple nooses pulled in different directions by various men. She had been gang raped, with serious damage to her sexual organ, and we never could identify her. She went from a clandestine cemetery only to end up in a common grave.”

“How many more do you want?” Ticas asks, pointing to a dozen journals filled with photographs, drawings and hand-written notes on the exhumations. “Any girl or woman who gets near this world sooner or later will be collectively abused by the gang.”

More on ‘Rape as a weapon’ among those crazy and kooky DREAMers here and here.

All things considered, one can hardly blame the middle class people of El Salvador for trying to wrest control of their country back from the gangs and it seems downright uncharitable to criticize people for a reluctance to hire people from a criminal background that includes kidnapping and the gang rape of minors.

As it is what Mr. Jeffrey asserts in his piece – “Merely looking like a gang member—what authorities called illicit association—was enough to earn young men long sentences in overcrowded prisons…”,’repression’, ‘suspicion’, ‘satanization’ et al – betrays a shocking degree of naivete regarding Central American gangs. The reality is that they are among the most violent people in the world, many of them already hardened killers in their teens, deeply involved in not only drugs but human trafficking, kidnappings, torture/mutilation/murder for intimidation.  In reality, these people are every bit as violent and threatening as ISIS.

And worst and most depressing of all, thanks in no small part to the efforts of people like Paul Jeffrey, these thugs are setting up shop in our backyards.

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