Journalist Alma Guillermoprieto begins her new essay in the New York Review of Books with the line "I’m back in El Salvador for the first time in thirty years, and I don’t recognize a thing." Thirty years ago, Guillermoprieto was one of two US journalists who broke the story of the massacre which had happened at El Mozote, in Morazan province.
Today she is writing about a new type of violence afflicting El Salvador. Her piece titled In the New Gangland of El Salvador explores the phenomenon of gangs in El Salvador with conversations in the poor neighborhoods where the gangs are flourishing and interviews of gang members in prison.
It would be easy to lay the blame for this social and economic disaster exclusively at the feet of the party founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson—the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, by its Spanish initials—which governed the country with evident if not single-minded interest in the well-being of the wealthy for twenty years after the peace accords were signed in 1992. (In 2009, Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the party founded by the former guerrillas, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, won the presidency.) But there is also the enormous fact of the war itself: the demolished roads and other infrastructure, the collapse of rural society, the rise of urban slums peopled by campesinos fleeing those remote areas of the country that were the war’s principal staging ground, the systematic practice of ruthlessness, the drastic increase in single-parent families, the loss of an educated elite, the huge stockpile of leftover weapons no one kept track of. None of this, however, adds up to a complete or satisfactory explanation for the proliferation of the maras, currently estimated to number some 25,000 members at large, with another 9,000 in prison.Guillermoprieto does not try to provide us with that complete or satisfactory explanation, but this essay does offer a little more insight into the maras of El Salvador.