SAN SALVADOR -- The mass graves unearthed last month 12 miles west of here — each of the dozens of bodies decapitated, dismembered and buried by gang members in shallow graves — hardly registered as news here or outside Central America.
The three major candidates for Sunday’s presidential elections barely mentioned the macabre scenes reminiscent of the darkest days of El Salvador’s bloody civil war. After a day in the headlines, the issue faded into the deepening fog of violence and corruption stories that pile on top of each other on a daily basis across Central America.
But the clandestine cemeteries, whose victims were killed by the country’s two main gangs while they were supposedly honoring a government-sponsored truce, is the clearest indicator of the rising level of brutality in one of the world’s most violent regions where the rule of law has almost disappeared. For a region that holds significant strategic importance to the United States, the deterioration is not only a humanitarian catastrophe but also a national security challenge that is growing rapidly.
Over the past decade, the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) has earned the unenviable position as the world’s most violent corner. The growing importance of the region as a multifaceted transshipment corridor for transnational organized crime (TOC) groups — primarily Mexican drug trafficking syndicates — has brought a new and dangerous alignment in the region’s power structures. The decapitations and dismemberments are copycat rituals of Los Zetas, the feared Mexican drug trafficking enterprise that now controls significant territory in Central America.
The U. S. government estimates that approximately 95 percent of the cocaine leaving South America for the United States moves through the Mexico and Central America corridor. As pressure on the TOC groups has increased in Mexico, the criminal enterprises have migrated southward with a vengeance.
The result has been that the three governments of the Northern Triangle have moved from being weak, somewhat corrupt and unresponsive to almost non-functional in much of their national territories. The region’s civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s, in which the United States, Cuba and the Soviet bloc were deeply involved, left hundreds of thousands dead. But the negotiated end to the wars also left a sense of hope that the nations could rebuild with new institutions, new laws and a commitment to address the social issues that drove the conflicts.
That hope is gone, replaced by deep cynicism and dismay that governments of both the right and the left immediately sought to turn their countries into piñatas in which only a few on either side benefited. The far left and far right, after decades of blood letting, found they could make money together while their countries entered into downward spirals of impunity, violence and massive corruption.
While none of the issues driving the collapse are new, they now appear to have driven the governments past a tipping point in the correlation of forces between the state and TOC organizations. Transnational criminal organizations are on the rise and the positive state presence ever less accessible to citizens. The governments are largely incapable of solving most of the serious issues in ways that strengthen the democratic process, rule of law of citizen security.
The Northern Triangle is emerging as a region where the state is often no longer the main power center or has become so entwined with a complex and inter-related web of illicit activities and actors that the state itself at times becomes a part of the criminal enterprise. There are virtually no “ungoverned spaces” in the region. Some group exercises real political and military control in almost every corner of every country. What has changed is that the authority is less and less often the state.
Sunday’s elections in El Salvador, in which the gang truce is a major issue, offer cautionary tales. President Mauricio Funes won as a candidate for the former guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party despite never having been a member of the group. He has presided over a stagnant economy, the failed gang “truce” and a rising tide of narco activity.
Rather than broker a transparent pact between the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and Calle 18 gangs — the two largest transnational gangs — the opaque process begun in March 2012 has benefited drug trafficking organizations, expanded the territories under gang control, given the gangs their first real taste of political power and completely ignored the victims. Yet, the pact has the backing of the Organization of American States.
The sole justification for the truce was the drop in homicides it promised to bring, and in the early days the promise seemed to bear fruit. But after almost two years, the number of people “disappeared” has risen sharply and the likely hundreds of bodies in the clandestine cemeteries that are now coming to light indicate how untrue that promise was. Rather than dumping the bodies of their victims on the streets, the gangs simply buried them in shallow graves scattered across the country, giving a short-lived appearance of ebbing violence.
The gangs negotiated as equals with the government to gain complete control of the prisons in which their leaders are kept, controlling the flow of prostitutes, drugs, cash and mobile phones into the facilities. In much of the country the gangs are the true authority on the ground.
In addition to killing with impunity, they check the ID cards of strangers in their neighborhoods and deny access to those they don’t like. They regularly collect taxes, in the form of extortion, and control the sale of crack and cocaine in their neighborhoods. The state, rather than benefiting the populace, is relegated to the role of broker among illicit power actors in which the brokers reap enormous benefits but the country reaps only chaos.
The results have been catastrophic, both for the people of El Salvador and the rule of law in the region. The grisly bodies still being excavated from the multiple clandestine cemeteries include those of small children, street vendors and the elderly, an evangelical preacher, and rival gang members. The level of mutilation is something not seen since the 1980s, when death squads dumped bodies at designated sites for the vultures to pick at.
The emergence of some branches of the transnational gangs as major new actors in the drug trade, particularly in El Salvador, adds a new level of complexity to the regional dynamics and underscores the powerlessness of the states.
The current FMLN candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former FMLN commander, has promised to move El Salvador to the radical populism that Hugo Chávez pioneered, where the states become increasingly authoritarian, intolerant and criminalized. Awash in millions of dollars in campaign cash, whose origin the party cannot or will not explain, the FMLN is now heavily favored to win and the promise of revolutionary transparency is unkept.
Norman Quijano, the candidate for the conservative Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) — a party founded on death squad activity — has promised a harsh crackdown on the gangs and a return of power to the traditional business class who tend to run the country as their estates, the very reason his party was voted out of office in 2009. Antonio Saca, a former president who formed his own party, was expelled by ARENA after his presidential term for alleged massive corruption that surpassed the patience of even those long accustomed to running a kleptocracy. His enormous new mansions and unexplained fortune have done little to dispel suspicions of the origin of his money.
These options are emblematic of the Hobbesian choices facing most countries in Central America. None of the leaders of the Northern Triangle are offering new thinking on how to tackle the multiple, complex problems in the region. The reality is that the host of factors driving the violence and the hollowing out of the states can only be tackled at a regional level. Each individual country is too small, too insular and too poor to do much on its own.
The United States must engage with the region as a whole, both out of self-interest and the interests of those in the region seeking a new paradigm that moves beyond transactional politics of corruption and violence to rule of law, economic freedom and transparency. Yet, the U.S. cannot want change more than the Central American governments do, nor can it help when the elites — both the traditional and emerging groups — do not view real reform as in their self-interest. Policy options are limited and complex, but the crisis is growing quickly.
Farah is president of IBI Consultants and Senior Associate of the Americas at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.