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  • A gang member looks into a broken piece of mirror while getting a haircut by a fellow inmate in prison.

    A gang member looks into a broken piece of mirror while getting a haircut by a fellow inmate in prison. | Photo: Reuters

Published 12 November 2016
Washington's role in the country's current security and economic crises ought to be lesson number one.

“What have you heard recently about gangs and violence?”

El Salvador’s War on Terror

According to an October article in The Texas Tribune, this is one of the questions appearing in elementary school workbooks provided to El Salvador by the United States as part of an anti-gang education initiative designed to discourage U.S.-bound migration.

The Tribune quotes one response from an 11-year-old student named Yaritza in the town of Lourdes, who says she has heard “[t]hat there are a lot of murders.” The article continues: “Officials say nearly 30,000 students have… graduated from the anti-gang program in more than 50 schools in the area.”

Unfortunately, Yaritza has heard correctly: in August 2015, The Guardian reported on El Salvador’s designation as the homicide capital of the world, where three consecutive August days had produced 40, 42, and 43 murders respectively.

The newspaper noted that “[e]ven Iraq – with its civil war, suicide bombings, mortar attacks and US drone strikes – could not match such a lethal start to the week.”

Salvadoran police officers from a new anti-gang task force parade in Comalapa, January 9, 2012. Photo: AFP

More than 6,600 homicides were recorded last year, with at least 1,000 of them reportedly perpetrated by police. Homicidal activity by state security forces has no doubt been facilitated by an overly accommodating legal interpretation of “self-defense” when it comes to extrajudicial killings by cops.

And while Yaritza’s response to the workbook question is certainly more than valid, there are plenty of other things Salvadorans might have “heard recently about gangs and violence”—including, of course, news of violent behavior by security outfits meant to be protecting people, not killing them.

To be sure, one of the most crucial lessons about gangs and violence in El Salvador is that significant contributions to both phenomena have been made over the decades by none other than the same folks now supplying Salvadoran schools with anti-gang workbooks.

El Salvador was but one victim of the United States’ intensified quest in the 1970s and 80s to make the hemisphere safe for capitalism by backing right-wing Latin American dictators, juntas, death squads and other fanatics. As a 1998 dispatch in The Atlantic summarized: “The success of U.S. policy in El Salvador — preventing a [left-wing] guerrilla victory — was based on 40,000 political murders.”

El Salvador Struggles to Break Legacy of Civil War Violence

By the time El Salvador’s war officially ended in 1992, the U.S. had acquired a substantial population of Salvadorans that had fled the conflict — many of them to Los Angeles. In an interview with NPR, San Salvador-based reverend Gerardo Mendez explains the genesis of Salvadoran gangs in the States:

“[I]n Los Angeles, these Latino groups, like African-American groups, lived a difficult, marginalized life … Above all, [the] gangs originated as self-defense groups, defending the Latino community, and the neighborhood, from other neighborhoods coming in to steal or inflict damage.”

So what happened next? The U.S. began deporting gang members back to El Salvador in the 1990s, an arrangement that Mendez notes “coincided with a very complicated social environment in the country, in which family life had been broken, financially and culturally.”

As the New York Times puts it, gang leaders deported from L.A. “brought criminal techniques to impoverished youths who found a means of survival in the gangs.”

Clearly, then, this isn’t some problem that El Salvador cooked up entirely on its own and that the U.S. will now rectify via anti-gang workbooks and other helpful migration-deterring tools.

While educating the rest of the world on how to keep desperate humans away from America’s sacrosanct frontier, meanwhile, the U.S. continues to violate global borders with impunity in accordance with the good old American tradition of having one’s cake and eating it too. These violations range from punitive economic policies to more visible forms of penetration like mass military slaughter.

And what do you know: in its total devastation of Iraq, the U.S. was able to draw on sadistic expertise honed in none other than El Salvador. As The Guardian detailed in 2013, the elusive Jim Steele — “Washington’s man behind brutal police squads” in Iraq — is a veteran of Central America’s dirty wars, including a counterinsurgency in El Salvador that relied heavily on death squads and the evisceration of human rights.

“Secret detention centers, torture and a spiral into sectarian carnage” were among the results, The Guardian contends, of replicating the counterinsurgency model in Iraq.

So while the U.S. legacy in El Salvador has succeeded in transcending various borders, migrants fleeing the fallout of imperial activity are denied such freedom of movement. Barack Obama has already deported more than 2.5 million people from the U.S., which according to ABC News is not only more deportations than any other administration in history, but also “more than the [cumulative] sum of [deportations ordered by] all the presidents of the 20th century.”

The election of a new, even more overtly sociopathic American head of state presumably means that insecurity for people on both sides of the U.S. border will continue to grow — all in the name of “border security,” of course.

Meanwhile, reducing the Salvadoran landscape to a decontextualized one of “gang violence” is simply a means of outsourcing responsibility for the current state of affairs in a region perpetually subject to U.S. militarization schemes and economic servitude. But no degree of camouflage can mask the fact that a whole lot of the violence is Made in USA.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

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