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In El Salvador, criminal gangs are enforcing virus-related restrictions. Here’s why.

Inmates are lined up during a security operation at the Izalco prison in San Salvador on April 25. (El Salvador Presidential Press Office/AP)
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In Brazil, drug traffickers are imposing and enforcing curfews in some of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. In El Salvador, the three main gangs have threatened to punish those who do not respect the state curfew. They’re not alone. Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic, criminal organizations around the world have supplemented governments’ responses to limit the spread of the virus.

My research on public order and violence in El Salvador shows that in marginalized communities controlled by criminal gangs, gangs are uniquely positioned to enforce stay-at-home orders and curfews.

How local gangs came to control territory in El Salvador

After El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992, local gangs spread in low-income and marginalized urban communities. Because the central government’s security forces and militias had brutalized local communities during the war, many citizens distrusted police — who often weren’t showing up anyway.

In the absence of systematic official law enforcement, gangs established control over poor urban areas. They defended their turf from rivals and extorted money from local businesses and residents. In doing so, they set specific rules for locals’ behavior. Which gang controlled your neighborhood came to determine where you could shop for food, run errands, which schools children could attend, and even which public bus routes you could use.

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Gangs often fought for community control, and violently confronted police. But over time, the government and the rival gangs managed to come to implicit arrangements to manage public order. Local criminal governance supplemented that of the state.

El Salvador’s most striking example of such an arrangement came during the 2012-2013 gang truce. In 2009, President Mauricio Funes was elected on a promise to reduce violence, including improving the gangs’ living conditions in jails and providing socioeconomic opportunities in poor neighborhoods. After years of violence, his administration negotiated a three-way deal among the government, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 gang.

The truce formalized gang authority locally; halted gang killings; and created “peace zones,” allowing the government to deliver social and economic services to communities it hadn’t been able to reach for years. However, the deal did not stop MS-13 and Barrio 18 from extorting locals, which helped make the truce unpopular.

While the truce increased gangs’ relative power, it also brought unexpected stability to communities torn apart by years of violence. Both the gangs and the state had a clear incentive to reduce homicides. Over 18 months, the national homicide rate dropped by about 50 percent.

But Funes could not run in the 2014 presidential election — and none of the candidates were willing to support the deal. The truce fell apart.

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Today the government and gangs share another common interest: preventing a major covid-19 outbreak.

On March 21, El Salvador’s current president, Nayib Bukele, announced a 30-day national stay-at-home order, requiring everyone to stay home and shutting down nonessential businesses.

The government has since been accused of failing to protect the most vulnerable and abusing state power. The country’s human rights ombudsman (PDDH) exposed abhorrent conditions in detention centers. Individuals have described the health-care system’s failures. National media reported that the police detained hundreds of people for violating the stay-at-home order, prompting an onslaught of complaints to the PDDH. Media have reported on the police use of excessive force and punishment against gang members. Meanwhile, the government failed to deliver promised financial assistance, leading to long waiting lines and unrest outside citizen services centers across the country.

In response, MS-13 and Barrio 18 have stepped up in parts of El Salvador where they have influence and control, threatening to punish individuals who don’t follow the shutdown orders. Their reputations for using violence and their detailed knowledge of those neighborhoods make them powerful enforcers.

Why gangs are enforcing the state stay-at-home orders

Gangs may have taken up this charge for several reasons. First, gang members live in the territory they control — and they don’t want to get sick. In interviews I did with human rights workers for my research, I learned that gang members tend to avoid hospitals and clinics, fearing that medical staff will report them to police. Gang members further suspect that they will be denied treatment if covid-19 overwhelms Salvadoran hospitals. Gang leaders’ decisions to enforce curfews and lockdowns could be seen as measures to preserve the gang members’ health.

As a result of state-ordered business closures, some gangs decided to stop demanding extortion payments from local businesses and bus companies, their usual sources of cash. Some have negotiated agreements to reduce and delay extortion payments, given restricted mobility and fear of contagion. I came across similar measures when interviewing business owners during the gang truce. Gangs felt that flexible extortion arrangements would show good faith and help the relationship survive over the long term. Allowing similar arrangements now could ensure the gangs’ financial viability after the pandemic and enable them to build local legitimacy.

Gangs may also be enforcing the stay-at-home order to forestall increased police presence in their communities. During the shutdown order’s first month, police and other security forces mostly patrolled main roads and avoided entering the narrow alleys of gang-controlled communities. However, after the spike in homicides at the end of April, Bukele deployed security forces to patrol gang-controlled communities and authorized them to use lethal force. Yet, reports suggest that gangs are still the ones enforcing stay-at-home restrictions and even distributing assistance.

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While the government and the gangs share the same objective in the fight against the virus, their motivations are different. Nonetheless, it illustrates the extent of gang control over communities that the central government fails to reach.

Gaëlle Rivard Piché is a strategic analyst with Defense Research and Development Canada. She conducted field research in El Salvador between 2012 and 2015 as part of her doctoral studies.

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