Another commonly cited indicator of social disorganization is a high level of transience. As William Wilson illustrated in When Work Disappears, those who can afford to leave financially distressed neighborhoods do, thereby leaving the poorest of the poor behind, furthering the lack of resources and role models in the urban ghettos.
So it was shocking to read that in El Salvador, over one fourth of the entire population had bailed to work in the United States. From an NPR story, “Social Inequities, Discontent Grow in El Salvador”:
One of the most telling facts about how tough life is in El Salvador right now is that a quarter of its population chooses not to live here. An estimated 2 million Salvadorans out of a population of less than 7 million live and work in the United States. Remittances from those migrants rival exports as the leading source of revenue for the country.
To make matters worse, with construction and manufacturing work disappearing in the U.S. and fewer people buying retail items made from the garment industry, those remittances are surely dwindling. In any case, when 25%+ of an entire country’s population is looking for labor elsewhere, it tends to mean more than pervasive joblessness.
James Diego Vigil’s A Rainbow of Gangs notes that the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992) sparked massive conflict and emigration, largely to Southern California, and Los Angeles in particular. With L.A.’s schools and police departments under equipped to cope with such a rapid rise in immigrants, El Salvadorian gangs began to surface.
Conspicuously, many of these immigrants were undocumented since the United States wouldn’t accept them as political refugees seeking asylum – never mind the U.S. helped to fund military forces in the Civil War. As undocumented immigrants/refugees, they couldn’t get conventional jobs, and shazam, another contributor to gangs materializing. Vigil also comments that many of the El Salvadorian gang members that mushroomed in Los Angeles were deported to El Salvador.
Sending gang members to a locale characterized by over-population, poverty, and a lack of opportunity – talk a bout a recipe for disaster.
Crime is rampant. The birthrate is high. Social mobility remains limited, in a place that just fought a civil war over its vast inequities in wealth.
Presently, it appears major sectors of El Salvador are more or less run by gangs, who extort small businesses and even hospitals for rent money and infiltrate the police. From a related story, “Extortion, Gang Violence Terrorize El Salvador”:
Jose Eduardo Martel, a subinspector at the local police station, says extortion is a huge problem in El Salvador, and he says it is currently his district's biggest crime problem.
All types of businesses — stores, beauty salons, barbers — have to pay la renta to the gangs, Martel says.
Accompanying the extortion rackets is violence — which breaks out when gangs fight over territory or when people for some reason don't pay. The dominant gangs are the Mara Salvatrucha and Diez y Ocho, or 18, but Martel says there are others, too.
According to a 2002 report published by the World Health Organization, El Salvador has the second highest homicide rate of those ages 10-29 in the entire world at 50.2 persons murdered per 100,000 (Colombia has the highest at 84.4/100,000).
So looking back on this colossal problem weighing down on El Salvador: they had a civil war that the U.S. formally acknowledged, but then denied political asylum to those threatened by the war, thereby making those who had to leave illegal immigrants who couldn’t work in the U.S., some of whom then turned to gangs as a means to make it. When the gangs become a problem, our answer is to ship ‘em back; just move the problem elsewhere. And now look at the massive gang problems in El Salvador.
The U.S. can't solve every international problem, but its complicity in exacerbating major crises can't be denied either. Couldn’t our policy makers have better foresight?
(Photo courtesy of NPR)
Excellent podcast on this topic. “Assignment: America’s Most Dangerous Gang” (BBC World Service Podcast; 3 April 2008)