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A suspected gang member being detained by two policemen in El Salvador. A man is detained on suspicion of having links to a gang, San Juan Opico, El Salvador, April 1, 2015 (AP photo by Salvador Melendez).

El Salvador’s ‘Iron Fist’ Crackdown on Gangs: A Lethal Policy With U.S. Origins

Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018

Editor’s Note: In July 2019, this story received an Honorable Mention by the National Press Club for the Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence, which recognizes excellence in reporting on diplomatic and foreign policy issues.

SAN SALVADOR—Late one morning in the fall of 2016, police officers handcuffed a group of middle school-aged boys on a street in a neighborhood on the outskirts of El Salvador’s capital. The boys were serving as lookouts for members of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, the violent street gang that originated in Los Angeles and expanded over two decades ago to this small Central American country, which had just ended a brutal civil war. MS-13 and other gangs have since multiplied across El Salvador, becoming a main source of violence in the postwar era. There are now an estimated 60,000 gang members in a country of 6.5 million people. Serving as lookouts, as the boys were doing, is an early step toward full gang membership. ...

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