THE MERE MENTION of maras—gangs that formed in the U.S. and then spread throughout Central America—conjures up overcrowded prisons filled with ominous-looking, elaborately tattooed Central American youth flashing gang signs. While this reality does exist, it’s part of what German scholar Sonja Wolf calls a folkloric attempt to demonize disenfranchised sectors of society rather than invest in comprehensive social programs.
Her new academic book, Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, offers a far deeper analysis of public policy. It’s a must-read for any aid worker or missionary hoping to build peace and prosperity in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world—81 homicides per 100,000 people, eight times the U.N.’s marker for an epidemic. It also raises important questions about how much violence can actually be attributed to gangs when crime data is patchy and politicized.
The book, an updated version of Wolf’s 2008 doctoral dissertation in international politics, examines two decades of attempts to “pacify” El Salvador’s gangs, a subculture that diversified and expanded after El Salvador’s 1992 U.N.-sponsored peace accords. During the 12 years prior, a civil war claimed some 75,000 lives and prompted 1 million Salvadorans to seek refuge in the U.S. Some of these young refugees joined large U.S. gangs such as 18th Street or created their own, such as MS-13, then brought their gang affiliation back to El Salvador during mass deportations in the early 1990s.
Central America needs help expanding education opportunities, building child welfare systems, and sheltering victims of violence and witnesses to crime. But none of these reforms can be sustained unless Central American governments also work to eradicate corruption and reform their judicial systems.
As Romero said during a time of similar urgency, “On this point there is no possible neutrality. We either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death. … We either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death.”
Despite fevered speculation in the media and across Latin America, the Vatican says Pope Francis has not advanced slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero toward sainthood — at least, not yet.
Pope John Paul II gave him the title “servant of God” in 1997 and the case for his canonization began. But the case stalled under the papacy of Benedict XVI over concerns that Romero was too close to the liberation theology that John Paul and Benedict spent years trying to repress.
Francis revived the cause soon after he was elected last year, and recent reports in several languages have suggested that church officials were poised to beatify Romero, putting him one step short of sainthood.
Last fall, on a Sunday afternoon, as I walked out of the church, a young man tugged on my Franciscan habit. It was Miguel, a member of our Latino choir.
“Father,” he said, “please, pray for the people of my home parish back in El Salvador, especially for one of the priests who has received death threats.”
Startled, I asked: “What is happening there?"
“These priests are organizing against the multinational companies,” he said. “The companies are looking for gold. What will be left for our people? Only poisoned water, a wasteland, and death.”
A few weeks later, I had another similar conversation with a group from Guatemala. Theirs was a similar tale of how indigenous communities were being threatened by mining projects.
As a Catholic and a member of the Franciscan Order, I believe that we are called to “read the signs of the times” and to listen to the cry of the poor and the “groaning” of God’s Creation.
Editor's Note: The following is a poem written by Trevor Scott Barton following reading The Violence of Love by Archbiship Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980.
longing for a hero,
living love, peace and hope,
protecting ordinary people from extraordinary hatred and violence,
dying for the cause but not killing for it,
denying guns and bombs their power,
risking the violence of love.
Conserving tradition at first for the greatest,
seeing through your glasses at last for the least,
feeling the hunger of underpaid workers,
knowing the poverty of farmers,
hearing the warning, "Here's what happens to priests who get involved in politics,”
holding tears of the disappeared.
calling all to view the liberating body of a slain priest,
serving the poor,
using words to build up humanity and tear down injustice,
"In the name of God, stop killing ..."
1. What led you to start an intentional community ministering to gang members? Gangs have a really strong sense of community: They fight and die for their homies and they support each other. Other programs offer job skills or anger management, but don’t offer community. We offer a community like the community they have. After many years working with them, we realized that was attractive to them—they feel at home.
On December 13, a Tacoma-based jury declared five Disarm Trident Now Plowshares activists "guilty" of trespass, felony damage to federal property, felony injury to property, and felony conspiracy to damage property.
Last spring, I made a pilgrimage to rural El Salvador to learn about the violence that had occurred there during the U.S-supported Salvadoran Civil War. The journey became a sacred one for me my first evening there, in the home of my host Florinda.