Michael Busch

The carnage being wrought in El Salvador this year is slowly attracting the attention of major English-language media in the United States. In the past week alone, Time ran a photo-feature on the country’s “War Without Sense,” ThinkProgress published a refresher piece on the history and evolution of El Salvador’s gangs, and NPR’s Kelly McEvers reported from San Salvador on the recent bus strike that brought life in the capital to a halt. Some of it, naturally, is better than others.    

On Friday, the Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey reported that El Salvador’s gangs are “more vicious than ISIS,” and are responsible for “localized terrorism as extreme as anything seen on the planet.” As former Salvadoran guerilla Joaquín Villalobos, who Dickey quotes throughout his piece, recently argued in El Pais, “Islamic terrorism decapitates and crucifies in its territories. In Latin America the criminals hang, decapitate, burn, chop up, and play soccer with the heads of their victims.”

Comparisons like this couldn’t be more unhelpful. Forget the pointlessness of ranking hyper-violent, entirely unrelated organizations according to some vaguely defined, qualitative notion of brutality. The deeper problem lies in allowing the sensationalist violence to drive the narrative, and therefore the analysis. What’s most important to understand is precisely the question being avoided by tallying up the varieties of grisly actions by different groups: what motivates the violence? 

El Salvador’s gangs may be more “vicious” than ISIS, whatever that means, but the wars they wage in Central America are completely divorced in kind from what is playing out across Syria and northern Iraq. There, the Islamic State—as its name implies—appears to be intentionally pursuing a nation-building project, in which spectacular acts of violence serve to consolidate sovereign authority and control, and attract international attention.  

In El Salvador, the alarming spike in violence is more difficult to explain. Dickey argues that “despite new waves of arrests, and the gangs’ hatred of each other, MS-13 and Barrio 18 are clearly out to show how powerless the central government really is.” Sure, but why? The gangs have exhibited no interest in, let alone capacity for, state rule. Indeed, to the extent that they have articulated reasons for the surge in murders, the gangs have suggested it’s a pressure tactic to compel the government to negotiate a new peace.    

Whether this line can be trusted is up for debate. Yet it highlights an often overlooked possibility in the development of gang power in El Salvador. Just as the government struggles to maintain control against internal and outside threats to its authority, the gangs are facing their own organizational challenges. Whether the leaders of MS-13 and Barrio 18 can uphold discipline within their dramatically swelling ranks, manage increasing financial complications accompanying this growth, and fight a two-front war against competing gangs and the state is a concern that must be on their minds.    

Comparing the gangs to ISIS also invites “barbarians at the gates” alarmism. Dickey notes that “Central America’s brand of terror is just around the corner from communities all over the United States, whether in the barrios of Los Angeles or at a derelict shopping mall next to a posh neighborhood on Long Island…In fact, the Salvadoran gangs have roots almost as deep in the United States as they do in El Salvador itself.” True enough, but so what? Are we to assume that the sort of violence visited upon Central America will soon arrive to the States? Dickey doesn’t say, yet the implication is there.  

A more legitimate line of concern rests in the violence suffered by the people of El Salvador. Dickey correctly concludes that more killing is on the way, as the government of “former guerilla fighter Salvador Sánchez Cerén has said it is ready to put the army back in the streets to protect transport and combat the gangs.” Whatever security considerations are driving this policy, a hard line posture plays well politically with a population that is sick and tired of the wreckage the gangs are making of the country. 

Preventing endless fighting, and the lost of countless more lives, demands serious consideration. With neither side demonstrating military advantage—but both enjoying access to the constant stream of weapons from up north—further fighting is unlikely to tip the advantage to either side anytime soon. How the responsibilities of the government to its people can be meaningfully balanced against the preferences of gangs, who wield real power across El Salvador, is a puzzle that has so far eluded a solution. 

Picking through the complexities of this challenge ought to be a project to which mainstream media can make valuable contributions in its reporting and assessment. Comparing El Salvador’s gangs to ISIS makes for good clickbait, but it leads to bad analysis. 

Michael Busch is Senior Editor of Warscapes magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.