Making a Deal With Murderers

Government inaction allowed gang members to secure control of several prisons and turn them into operational headquarters from which they ordered — and continue to order — homicides and extortion. And today they once again have cells — branch offices — in the United States. What the United States spat out ricocheted back with even greater force.

A member of the gang Barrio 18, in prison in El Salvador, Aug. 16, 2012.

The president of El Salvador has helped save more than 2,000 lives in the past two years. Now if only he would admit it.

The year 2011 was one of the deadliest since the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992. There were an appalling 4,371 murders — 11 people killed every day. With 70 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, it was one of the most violent countries in the world. If that murder rate were somehow transposed to the city of New York, some 6,000 New Yorkers would be murdered every year.

The cause of the bloodshed was no secret: the war between the rival gangs Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.

These gangs are responsible for countless murders in Guatemala and Honduras, as well as in El Salvador. But they got their start in Southern California. Barrio 18 came into existence as an offshoot of a Chicano gang called Clanton 14 around the 1950s, while Mara Salvatrucha began primarily with Salvadorans and Hondurans in the late ’70s. No one seems to agree about the origin of the hatred between them, but around the late 1980s, it exploded in a bloody war on the streets of Southern California.


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