A former high-level Salvadoran gang member admitted in an interview that the Salvadoran government’s Iron Fist approach only strengthened gangs, according to a Tuesday report from journalism think tank Insight Crime.
El Salvador is the headquarters of two prominent global gangs, MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang. MS-13 has been named a transnational criminal organization – TCO – by the U.S. Treasury Dept. and is particularly active in the Los Angeles area as well as the DC metro area. The gang member interviewed refused to name which of the two gangs he had been a part of, since his former fellow thugs are currently out to get him for leaving gang life behind.
The gangster — who chose to go by the alias Maicol — told Salvadoran investigative news outlet El Faro that under the conservative government of President Francisco Flores Perez, the Iron Fist strategy was conceived after the liberal opposition won the March 2003 congressional elections. It was the first time that the liberal party took control of the Salvadoran Congress.
With presidential elections coming up in 2004, President Flores wanted to seem tough on crime so he decided in July 2003 to make crime the central issue with his Iron Fist approach. El Faro reports that “an overdose of government propaganda, and much help from a narco-press obsessed with reporting police raids involving black masks and AR-15 guns, with tattooed suspects presented one day after another.”
The government chose to make crime an issue just as 2002 and 2003 had been two of the least murderous years on record. Maicol asserts that “The government strengthened gangs,” and that, “‘Mano Dura,’ – Iron Fist – rather than solving the problem, helped us organize.”
With a change in government policy came a shift in gang tactics. With several gang leaders being locked up with one another, there was, “the creation of national leadership structures in prison, abandoning the usage of tattoos as indicators of hierarchy, tighter control over neighborhood territory, a gradual departure from idolizing US gang culture… And it all took place during the height of the “Iron Fist” policy, between 2003 and 2006.”
Maicol went on to tell El Faro that, “when we were organized, we became politicians. [The government] made us politicians, do you understand me?” According to the reformed gangster – who currently has a price on his head from his former gang for leaving the thug life behind – politicians lobbied gang leaders for votes. Maicol stated that gangs held meetings with both conservative and liberal politicians, “They secretly went into prisons before each election and found our leaders and told them: when we win, we will change certain things; we won’t give you everything, but we will loosen up some of the tough stuff, and this and that. I’m telling you that certain officials have something to do with the growth of gangs.”
In exchange for delivering votes, senior gang leaders were promised conjugal visits as well as having prison sentences reduced by half or one third. According to Maicol, it was gangsters convincing two to three family members each to vote in elections that won liberal politician Mauricio Funes the Salvadoran presidency in 2009. Shortly before the article was published, El Faro released footage of a conservative party leader stating that he had promised perks to gangs for votes.
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