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A Call to Action

Fear is a constant feeling in El Salvador. Gang violence claims over 6,000 lives every year. The murder rate is one of the highest in the world (104 per 100,000, compared to 5 per 100,000 in the US). Parents are afraid to let their children go to school. Men sleep in fear with guns by their sides. Gang members of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang are terrorizing the people of El Salvador.

In 2014, Congress allocated $750 million to support economic development and public safety in Central America. While aspects of this initiative target gang violence in the region, no efforts specifically target the people of El Salvador. Since the truce between the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs dissolved, the city of San Salvador and many other cities have become increasingly uninhabitable. Thousands – including unaccompanied children — are fleeing to the United States. Those who stay comply with gang members or die. To stop this reign of terror, the United States should implement a Salvadoran specific anti-gang initiative in 2017.

Half of the Central American funding should be targeted for police training, recruitment, and security technology. Starting in the capital, U.S. assistance can help each region of El Salvador build sufficient and capable police brigades. To make these brigades effective, the United States should provide 2-week police training on containment strategies and civilian protection. An increased police presence will decrease opportunities for terrorism and will allow police to regularly monitor neighborhood gang activity.

In conjunction with these efforts, the United States should also work with the Salvadoran government to install security technology that will alert brigades when a shot is fired. This will allow police to immediately respond to incidents and dramatically curb gang violence in the region. These policies can put an end to gang violence and save the lives of thousands of families.

U.S-led anti-gang operations in El Salvador are necessary because gang violence can spread to the United States. One-sixth of the MS-13’s 36,000 gang members already live in the United States. Gang members communicate with each other across the region and continue criminal activity even from jail. The reality is that our failure to act creates a bigger problem. The size of these two gangs is what has made them powerful. It is what has made their extortion and their terrorism possible. Aggressive anti-gang activities are necessary to stop youth recruitment and will, over time, reduce gang influence.

Anti-gang operations are necessary because gang violence destabilizes friendly Central American governments. El Salvador and its neighbors are our key partners in the war on drugs. El Salvador has been our trade partner and our ally. Gang violence cripples its economy and prevents its growth and development. A dip in the Salvadoran economy means fewer trade opportunities and less capacity to stop drug trafficking. If we want to protect lives and keep these governments strong, we must work together.

Anti-gang operations in El Salvador also reduce the need for people to flee. Because of its proximity to the United States, many who flee find safety in our country. Although we care about the lives of those affected, the United States does not have the capacity to accept every Salvadoran citizen. Instead, we must find a sustainable solution to gang violence in El Salvador. In 2016, the number of family apprehensions at the US-Mexican border from El Salvador tripled from 3,300 to over 11,000. These apprehensions have grown in number due to the violence in the country and will only continue if the United States doesn’t act.

Gangs are killing thousands and families are being separated. The violence in El Salvador is our problem as well: it leads directly to more gang violence in the US, more drug trafficking, and more children and families showing up at country borders. The MS-13 and the 18th Street gang are committing blatant acts of terrorism. Both our values and our interests should compel us to act. We are leaders and experts in security. We should become El Salvador’s strong and best partner. Our collaboration against gang violence now will lead to safer children, safer families, and a safer America.