Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Epicenter of Violence

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 23, 2015 --  

Central American countries have devolved into the bad neighborhoods of a globalized world.

When Cold Warriors in Washington and Moscow started arming different sides in El Salvador's bitter civil war 35 years ago, events were set in motion that would the country on a disastrous path.

Wartime atrocities and easy access to weapons built a culture of violence. Millions of Salvadorans fled to the United States, either as refugees or following family members in later migrations. Youth scarred by this violence joined drug gangs in the United States and inevitably ended up in the prison system where they were hardened even more. Once deported back to El Salvador, gang culture found fertile ground to spread locally. Last month, the tiny country of six million reported 635 murders, the highest number since the end of the civil war.1 It has become the epicenter of violence in the Western Hemisphere.

The case of El Salvador highlights a particularly acute negative consequence of globalization. Conditions have in effect made the entire country of El Salvador a bad neighborhood in the global community. Observers have long noted that free trade makes some countries winners and others losers. Highly competitive economies like China, Taiwan, Chile, and Germany do well. Insular economies lacking innovation like Greece, Argentina, Pakistan and Ukraine do poorly.

But the phenomena affecting countries like El Salvador is different because it is not primarily caused by economic forces, but social ones. Much like an urban neighborhood in decline, residents with resources, drive and skills leave to seek better opportunities. Those left behind must muddle through without those who would otherwise have been role models and community leaders. Instead of being mayors and businessmen in El Salvador, these people are running shops in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles or in Chillum, Maryland just outside Washington DC.

Salvadorans working in America send millions of dollars of remittances to relatives in El Salvador each year, amounting to 16 percent of El Salvador's GDP.2 This money helps makes ends meet for those remaining in the country. But it can also enable stagnation and subsistence much like welfare payments in poor neighborhoods in the world's major cities.

The current spike in violence in El Salvador is a result of a war between two gangs founded in Los Angeles, the 18th Street Gang and MS-13. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former general in the Soviet-backed FMLN guerrillas, has refused to negotiate with the gangs and has launched a crackdown that many have criticized for violating civil liberties.3

Unfortunately for El Salvador, this violence has not stayed within its borders. A similar gang phenomenon now exists in neighboring Honduras, which also has a high rate of population exchange with the United States and hosts the same violent drug gangs. The two countries have the dubious distinction of trading the top spot on rankings of the most violent country in the world.

Bad neighborhood countries are not confined to Central America. Afghanistan has for decades drawn violent foreign fighters from all over the world to battle on one side or the other of an Islamic insurgency. The violence has been funded and exacerbated by local poppy production that funnels into the world heroin trade. Like El Salvador and Honduras, many Afghans with resources or skills have fled the country in desperation, leaving their countrymen behind to suffer.

The good news, if there is any, is that the situation isn't entirely hopeless for these bad neighborhoods. The experience of Colombia a decade ago shows it is possible to turn things around. In the early 2000s, Colombia was nearly a failed state, with narco-guerillas running freely over most of its territory. As recently as 2002, rebels encircling the capital disrupted the president's inauguration with mortar fire.4

By the end of the last decade, a persistent government crackdown on guerrilla forces had forced them to the bargaining table and returned most of the country to central control. How exactly Colombia managed to do this is the subject of a vigorous debate. Were the human rights abuses of the paramilitary forces allied with the government justified? How important were extrajudicial killings of guerrilla leaders using American-supplied intelligence?

Unfortunately, there is no simple formula to rescue a nation that's become a bad neighborhood on the global stage. Is President Sánchez Cerén's crackdown the beginning of a Columbia-like turnaround? This is by no means certain. But if it proves to be so, it won't be a minute too soon for the suffering people of El Salvador.


1. The Guradian, El Salvador's Homicide Rate Soaring with Gang Truce no Longer in Effect, June 3, 2015

2. Migration Policy Institute, Beyond Remittances: Reframing Diaspora-Driven Development in El Salvador, March 5, 2013

3. Washington Post, El Salvador is on Pace to Become the Hemisphere's Most Deadly Nation, May 17, 2015

4. Los Angeles Times, Colombian Rebels Splintering, July 5, 2008