Amid mass gang arrests in El Salvador, the already thin threads holding poor families together are being cut. Fathers and sons disappear in overcrowded prisons. Single mothers swept up in the dragnet are leaving children behind.
Former gang members who have taken difficult steps to exit the Barrio 18 and MS13, and teenage boys on the margins of gang life, are also finding themselves behind bars. Since emergency powers came into effect at the end of March, more than 40,000 people have been arrested, according to the country's security officials.
Norbert Ross is an anthropologist who runs a cultural center – part of a non-profit he created called Actuemos! – in a neighborhood in Mejicanos, a municipality on the outskirts of San Salvador. He has kept its doors open, but only a fraction of the children he previously served now arrive amid what he describes as a “constant state of terror.”
“Some of them are gone because the police took them. Some of them are gone because the family took them away. And some of them are just worried about leaving the house -- and who could blame them?" he told InSight Crime.
In a recent editorial for news outlet El Faro, Ross wrote about a 16-year-old boy who drifted in and out of the center during the past four years. That teenager is now being tried as an adult after his arrest. He faces a possible sentence of up to 30 years in prison under the country's new anti-gang laws, Ross said.
Ross spoke at length to InSight Crime about the effects of the crackdown on marginalized communities and at-risk youth.
InSight Crime (IC): How are families reacting to the arrests?
Norbert Ross (NR): There are several children that are now essentially orphaned because police took their mum and dad away and didn't care. The most extreme case that we have is a mother whose two sons they took away, then they took her husband away. She just committed suicide a week and a half ago because she was completely desperate. There are now de facto single-mother households because [the partner] is in jail.
IC: Do you have any sense of the conditions in the prisons?
NR: We can't get in there. That's the problem we have. I have a couple of lawyers that I am trying to get to see these kids like (the boy) I was writing about. Unfortunately, there's no way of getting a lawyer to him. For two weeks, you don't have to be told anything.
IC: You spoke about former gang members being arrested after leaving the gangs. How do you think that will affect their lives?
NR: There are at least three people that I know in a central neighborhood [of San Salvador] who had left the MS13 in the last two to three years. They had made an incredible effort to do so. They struggled economically, but they made a huge effort. Then, these people are just taken away as gang members. That essentially tells you there's no way out.
IC: How do the sweeping arrests seem to be affecting marginalized communities?
NR: First, it's this constant terror. People don't want to go to the market to buy stuff because you don't know whether you will come back. You think twice about going to work because you don't know whether you will come back. Right now, it's not even clear what it means to be a gang member. It's not like you carry a membership card. So people could be collaborating with the gang, which is hard to avoid in areas where law enforcement has been literally absent for the last 20 years.
IC: Some 5,000 women have been arrested. What does that mean for families?
NR: You have an incredibly high rate of single-mother households. That means you have children … that have to be taken in by someone else who barely scrapes by. And there is a psychological cost for these children. How much are they going to like the government when their mom is in jail for nothing or for maybe helping [the gang] out with certain things? Specifically, women are not allowed inside the gangs. Do they collaborate? Of course they do. Are they forced to do so? Of course. At times, they are forced to do so out of economic means and sometimes because their son or nephew is in the gang. This is all true. But within this context, you can't completely stay away from them. The gang is part of the community. They provide law enforcement. They provide security. This is just a reality that we can't forget.
IC: Do you fear for the young man whom you wrote about? What is his life likely to become?
NR: He's 16 right now. If he is going to be tried as an adult on terrorist charges, he (could) spend 30 years in prison with gang members. So the only way for him to survive, get food, get the services he needs, would be by affiliating with the gang. If he survives prison, he will for sure come out as a gang member.
IC: Could putting all these young men in jail serve, paradoxically, as a recruitment drive for the gang?
NR: They’re not going to survive without becoming gang members. And think of all these young kids whose mothers have been taken away. They're now orphans. I mean, they're never going to trust the government. Now the gang is their only family. Why do people go to the gangs? It’s economic, but it’s also a matter of justice, a feeling of belonging.
I think [the crackdown is] just going to make things much, much harder in the long run. It creates a lot of resentment in the community. It creates fear. It creates economic necessity. And these are all the ingredients that created the gangs in the first place.