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Youth Gangs in El Salvador: Unpacking the State Department 2007 Issue Paper

by Thomas Boerman

Immigration judges, Asylum Officers, and government attorneys rely on State Department country condition reports to provide a framework for understanding and ruling on Central American gang-based asylum claims. A report that gets particular attention is the 2007 State Department Issue Paper entitled, Youth Gang Organizations in El Salvador. In certain respects the paper correctly reflects the situation in El Salvador, but experts are deeply concerned about the accuracy of certain assertions contained within the report and their potentially detrimental effect in gang-based asylum claims.

The concerns with the 2007 Issue Paper are threefold: First, it reflects a limited and distorted understanding of the Salvadoran social context vis-a-vis gangs, the fundamental elements of gang culture and mentality, and the risk to those who have been targeted for retribution. Second, by taking guidance from the paper and embracing a distorted understanding of the gang phenomenon and the social context within which it exists, decision makers may deny legitimate asylum claims resulting in the wrongful repatriation of petitioners to situations that involve extraordinarily high risk of egregious harm and death. Third, the 2007 Issue Paper has implications beyond El Salvador, as the assertions made within may be applied to cases involving applicants from Honduras and Guatemala.

Concerns revolve primarily around the following sections:

Paragraph 12: The Salvadoran government does not have a policy or practice of refusing assistance to persons who receive threats or are otherwise victims of gang violence. Additionally, the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador has no information to suggest that persons have been denied assistance from police authorities in relation to complaints they have made relating to gang violence or threats from gang members.

Gang experts and stakeholders from virtually every sector of Salvadoran society agree that this statement is highly distorted and inaccurate-particularly as it relates to complainants in lower socio-economic groups, who represent the victims in the overwhelming majority of gang related crime and violence. I am personally familiar with numerous homicides where law enforcement officials were provided the names of the perpetrators and took no action whatsoever. The perception of police unwillingness to respond to the needs of citizens being victimized by gangs is widespread and the public rarely seeks assistance because it is perceived as not only futile but also dangerous, as taking such action routinely leads to violent gang reprisals.

The reasons underlying the inadequate police response include resource scarcity, indifference, ineptitude, officers' fear of gangs, and official corruption. The combined effect results in a situation where, according to a high ranking Salvadoran National Police official with whom I met recently, police have no capacity to:
  1. effectively combat organized criminal activity,
  2. protect the public from organized criminal groups, or
  3. address the security needs of deportees retuning to El Salvador who have been, or may be, targeted by gangs.

Paragraph 17: Outside of the prison environment, however, forced recruitment is rare among male recruits.

Paragraph 24: Gangs may threaten or reportedly occasionally even assault someone who refuses to join the gang. In general, however, most people are able to avoid joining a gang and can continue their normal activities.

It is commonly agreed that the vast majority of gang-joining is voluntary, and according to experts I consulted while in El Salvador recently the percentage of the youth population subjected to forced recruitment is not likely to be more than five percent. But the concern for immigration professionals lies not with those who join voluntarily, rather it is with the small percentage that are forcibly recruited and subsequently persecuted as a result of their refusal to join.

The statements in the 2007 Issue Paper minimize to an extraordinary degree the risk to those targeted for recruitment, and presents a fundamentally flawed view of the situation. I am aware of numerous cases involving youth who rebuffed recruitment efforts who were brutalized and murdered, and in some of those cases their refusal resulted in the threat extending to other members of their families. The most fundamental tenets of gang mentality dictate that once an individual has challenged a gang by rebuffing recruitment efforts (or for any other reason), that person is likely to be subjected to a violent and punitive response. An exhaustive discussion of the reasons behind this is beyond the scope of this brief note, but to suggest that youth can rebuff recruitment efforts without risk of potentially egregious harm is simply without factual basis and is inconsistent with the experience of many young people in El Salvador. I have spoken to parents who have preemptively removed their children from school, restricted their movements in the community, and in some cases relocated them to other parts of the country or to the U.S. to avoid the risks associated with forced recruitment.

Paragraph 18: Whereas there have been various allegations that it is standard gang policy and practice to harass and target for recruitment observant members of evangelical Protestant and other religious groups, information from NGOs and other credible sources in El Salvador indicates that gangs generally do not forcibly recruit practicing members of Catholic or Protestant religious groups.

The relationship between gang recruitment and religion is complex, but based on my experience I have seen little to suggest that gangs differentiate between one religion and another. To illustrate, I recently served as a consultant in two asylum cases involving evangelical Protestants and two involving Catholics. I would argue that the harassment and recruitment of religious youth has less to do with their church affiliation, and more to do with the level of animosity a gang feels toward a given church and the perceived advantages of successfully recruiting a particular youth.

Further, the issue of religiously oriented persecution is not limited to harassment and recruitment of youth. Many clergy members and lay workers are targeted because of their church-based anti-gang efforts including sermons encouraging youth to resist the lures of gang recruitment, fund raising efforts to support community-based anti-gang programs, and outreach to at-risk or gang-involved youth.

Paragraph 20: Gang initiation rites are a complex phenomenon and vary depending on the gang.a There have been allegations that women are regularly raped by gang members as part of gang initiation ritesb An initiation rite for women to join some maras may be to undergo gang rape by other members.c Rape, however, is not a universally employed gang initiation rite for male or female candidates as a condition to join a gang, nor is it a required admission ticket for gang member candidates to use against innocent third parties as a means for becoming a marero.d Certain mara groups reportedly forbid the raping of any women in neighborhoods under their control.e Some gangs protect their female members and collaborators from rape by other members and by third parties.f Gang killings of females in El Salvador appear to be most often connected with retribution acts by gang members against other gangs or persons otherwise involved with a gang, rather than a result of arbitrary killings of third parties.g While rape and threats of rape or physical violence do occur, they are not universally employed methods for gang recruitment of females, nor is rape against innocent third parties a required step for candidates seeking gang admission.

The issue of gang violence against women, especially sexual violence, is complex and this section seems to suggest that sexual violence occurs primarily as a function of initiation rituals. In actuality, both gang and non-gang involved females are subjected to sexual violence for a host of reasons having nothing to do with initiation. Sexual violence against women may be used:
  1. against those who have had a falling out with their own gang,
  2. as a manifestation of inter-gang rivalry,
  3. to retaliate indirectly against males who have fallen into disfavor with a gang, and/or
  4. as retribution over an individual or family's involvement in anti-gang activities. Arguably, the most egregious form of sexual violence is "torture rape," which frequently ends by murdering and mutilating the victim and leaving their dismembered body on soccer fields, school yards, or in bags on the street.

Paragraph 23: Unless an individual person has a specific reason to fear gangs, that person would be no more subject to possible violence from gang members than any other person in the country.

I have been involved in numerous cases where government attorneys and/or immigration judges interpreted this to mean that if returned to El Salvador, petitioners would be at no greater risk than the population in general. The key is that persons who do have reasons to fear gangs-including the typical petitioner in gang-based asylum claims-are at exponentially higher risk that the general public. Individuals who have been targeted by gangs are recognized by government officials, police, domestic and international human rights organizations, gang prevention and intervention specialists, and civic organizations as being at high risk yet few, if any, efforts have been made to protect this vulnerable group.

Paragraph 24: While local gang members might retaliate against someone in the gang's immediate zone of activity, based on the amount of effort involved, it would be unlikely for the gang to track down a person who refused recruitment into the gang in another part of the country, unless that person had done something that threatened the gang's operations.

This statement is problematic in at least two respects. First, by the time targeted youth feel compelled to flee to the U.S., they have raised the ire of gang members to an extent that violent retaliation is the only predictable outcome and/or been exposed to the gang's criminality and operations to such a degree that they may be considered a threat. Second, the statement suggests that the only people at risk of being pursued would be youth targeted for recruitment or those who threatened the gang's operations. I am familiar with many instances in El Salvador (as well as in Guatemala and Honduras) where petitioners had been targeted for other reasons and tracked down after relocating to different areas of the country several times, and in every case the threat was renewed. One of the fundamental tenets of gang mentality-and an issue of direct relevance to refugees-is that once an individual has been targeted for retaliation the gravity of the threat does not diminish across time, even over the course of years.

It is also imperative to recognize that throughout the country there exists a communication "grapevine" that ensures news regarding the arrival of deportees from the U.S. is commonly known soon after-and in many cases before-being returned. Additionally, El Salvador is a tiny country, within which by conservative estimates there are an estimated 15,000 gang members with well-established communication networks that make it essentially impossible for an individual to hide. Upon learning that targeted individuals have fled to the U.S., gang members routinely put out the word that the threat will be renewed upon their return. The combination of the informal "grapevine" and gangs' communication networks make it unrealistic to assume that petitioners can be returned without gangs learning of their presence in the country.

Paragraph 24: There is no credible information supporting assertions that individuals who decide to leave a gang would be any safer from the gang's retribution in the United States than in El Salvador. Reports suggest that if an individual has significantly offended a gang, the gang will seek out that person in Los Angeles, New York, or any other location in the United States as well as in El Salvador.

El Salvador is roughly the size of Massachusetts, and to assert that the viability of remaining safely hidden in a country the size of the U.S. is no greater than it would be in El Salvador defies all reason and logic. Granted, if a former member targeted for retaliation relocated to a city in the U.S. where Central American gangs had a strong presence the chance of being located would be significant. Having said that, the vast majority of U.S. cities are not affected by Central American gangs and by exercising discretion, an individual would have an infinitely greater chance of remaining hidden almost anywhere in the U.S. as compared to the tiny geographical context of El Salvador. Additionally, law enforcement capacity and orientation in the U.S. is such that gang members are inhibited from taking the type of retaliatory action in this country that they take with impunity in El Salvador.

Paragraph 26: It is difficult, but not impossible, for a member to leave a gang and start a new life. Depending on the specific circumstances, gangs have permitted members to leave for the following reasons:

Undergo a religious conversion and become a sincerely committed, practicing member of a Catholic or Protestant religious group.a However, the degree of commitment and devotion to the religious belief demonstrated by the individual is the key factor for gang recognition of this as an acceptable avenue out of the gang world.b Gangs reportedly consider joining a church group to be the most respected legitimate reason for leaving a gang.c In recent years, thousands of mareros have become born again Christians, and thus obtained an exit ticket from the gang life.
  • Get married or otherwise start a family with an intimate partner,
  • Become conscripted or enlist in the national military, or
  • Enroll in a substance abuse rehabilitation program.
It is generally agreed that many individuals are able to leave gangs, although the process involves risk and must typically be conducted strategically and over a period of time. The concern for immigration professionals is not with those who are able to successfully extricate themselves from gangs but with those who are persecuted, or at risk of persecution, as a result of their efforts to do so.

As opposed to a pre-established set of conditions under which any given individual may extricate him or herself from a gang, the process is ill-defined and the opportunity to sever one's ties depends entirely on situational variables such as the:
  1. particular clika (individual gang cell) and its orientation,
  2. individual's status in the gang,
  3. threat they would pose to the gang if interrogated by police and coerced for information, and
  4. effect their departure would have on leaders' control over the gang, to name a few. As is clearly borne out by history, many members' attempts to leave gangs proves to be a death sentence and often puts others in their families at high risk of persecution.
Despite the commonly held belief that religious conversion provides a "free pass" for those who want to leave gangs, leaders have recognized that members were exploiting this and largely closed that loophole. As for getting married and starting a family, enlisting in the military, and/or entering into substance abuse treatment none of those represent assurances of being able to leave the gang and in fact some may actually increase one's risk of intra-gang reprisals.

Further, the Issue Paper presupposes that the only risk to former members originates with their own gang. In actuality they are at high risk from a number of sources including:
  1. rival gang members, who do not care that they have renounced gang lifestyle;
  2. "social cleaning" groups involved in the extrajudicial execution of known and suspected gang members, which are not likely to assess an individual's gang status before executing them; and
  3. police who detain, interrogate and sometimes abuse former gang members to coerce information from them.
Paragraph 34: Upon their arrival in the country, deportees are detained only if they have an outstanding warrant in El Salvador.

Young males have reported to me that they are frequently harassed and detained by customs officials and police upon return to El Salvador because it is assumed they were deported because they had been gang-involved in the U.S. I am aware of cases where deportees were not only detained but intimidated, threatened, and physically abused by immigration officials and/or police. Deportees with tattoos are at particularly high risk, as officials typically lack both the skill and/or the motivation to critically assess the tattoos to determine whether or not they are gang-related.

Paragraph 34: Additionally, it is neither the policy nor practice of Salvadoran law enforcement authorities to decline or to refuse to protect gang members or to condone abuses by anyone against gang members.

It is commonly agreed that the Salvadoran police generally fail to respond to the needs of law abiding citizens who are victimized by gangs, particularly those in the lower and lower-middle socioeconomic classes. To assert that police officers would protect gang members-whom for good reason they fear and loathe-is simply irrational. The lack of investigation into the extrajudicial killing of gang members and the relative impunity with which "social cleaning" groups operate stand as testaments to the ambivalence with which the government regards these abuses and directly challenges the credibility of this assertion made in the 2007 Issue Paper.

About The Author

Thomas Boerman has a B.A. in International Studies with a focus on Latin America, and has been involved in human rights issues in the region since 1985. Dr. Boerman's areas of professional focus include the personal and environmental factors that underlie the initiation, maintenance, and cessation of gang activity; and the development of school, community and institution-based gang prevention, rehabilitation, and social reinsertion programs in the U.S and Latin America. Since 2004 he has served as a consultant to numerous international development and donor organizations active in addressing the gang phenomenon in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Panama, and has worked as a trial consultant and expert witness in approximately 90 Central American gang related asylum cases since 2006.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.