Under Lockdown, El Salvador Gangs Kinder, Gentler Extorters Than US Banks

The Washington Post has a hell of a good guest column today by Gaëlle Rivard Piché, a Canadian researcher who reminds us that when governments are completely ineffective, other institutions tend to replace them. For instance, in El Salvador, Ronald Reagan's dream of making sure communism never spread to Central America left a bit of a power vacuum, into which stepped violent drug gangs:

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.

Eventually, the state simply gave up and let MS-13 and Barrio 18 run large parts of Salvadoran cities. It's bloody and violent, but profitable for the gangs, and the government largely butted out. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the government ordered a nationwide public health lockdown in March, but has botched its management, says Piché, leading to accusations of "failing to protect the most vulnerable and abusing state power." So once again, the gangs are acting like local government:

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.

We're pretty sure there haven't been any demonstrations by militia assholes demanding they be allowed to get haircuts.

Piché, a strategic analyst with Defense Research and Development Canada, an agency within Canada's Defense Department, explains that gangs have some very good reasons for enforcing public health measures. For one thing, they don't want to get sick, and they generally avoid hospitals because they fear being reported 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.

And in a weird echo of some US policies aimed at helping people get through the crisis, like eviction moratoriums and the like, some of the Salvadoran 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.

For her PhD, Piché studied a 2012-2013 gang truce arranged between the Salvadoran government and the gangs, during which gang leaders saw such "flexible extortion arrangements" as a good business move, since they created "good faith" with the businesses. During the pandemic, she suggests, the flexible extortion payment plans "could ensure the gangs' financial viability after the pandemic and enable them to build local legitimacy." And unlike in the USA, there don't seem to be any rich hotel assholes abusing the system.

Finally, Piché notes, if gangs are enforcing the stay at home orders, that's likely to keep the cops and other authorities from horning in on their territories:

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, [President Nayib] 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.

It's a fascinating look at what happens when you drown government in a bathtub, or hack it to death with machetes. On the whole, we think it's a lot better when government works, instead of dividing countries up and letting those with the most money or guns make the rules. Here's hoping we can avoid seeing criminal gangs take over more of the US government than they already have.

And for Crom's sake let's hope Trump doesn't hear about this article. He's likely to decide the Mafia would do a bang-up job of providing election security.


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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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