Mara Salvatrucha and El Salvador’s other maras, as the gangs are generically known, do exercise what can be described as hegemonic control over portions of the country (some experts consider them a serious threat to sovereignty). In the exoticized, Heart of Darkness narratives constructed by the likes of National Geographic and other mainstream media and US-government officials, one often hears that residents of communities like Nuevo Israel “live in chaos.” In fact, there is order here—an alternative order, one governed by the gangs.
Mara law is unwritten but deeply felt on the bodies and in the interactions of these residents.Mara law affects their daily decisions as much as or, in some situations, more than the law of the state: It affects educational decisions like where and whether to send children to school; housing decisions like where to live; economic decisions like if and how to run—or shut down—a business or how and when to pay the local gang tax; lifestyle decisions like how to dress; and travel decisions like when and whether to visit certain neighborhoods or whether to leave the country altogether and brave the dangerous journey to the United States, as the children and mothers jailed in the Karnes City, Texas, immigration prison told me earlier this year.
El Salvador’s estimated 70,000 gang members speak as a power because they do not act alone. Like the FMLN in its day as a guerrilla army, the maras operating in city shantytowns and, increasingly, poor rural areas have a social base, people whom they live among and receive support from.
The only problem with the piece is the title applied to the article by The Nation, El Salvador’s Gang Violence: The Continuation of Civil War by Other Means, which incorrectly suggests that somehow the current violence is just a variation of the conflict between leftist guerrillas and an oppressive right wing regime. Lovato certainly does not imply that in his article, and quotes plenty of critics of the FMLN government for continuing and escalating the iron-fisted (and counterproductive) policies of its predecessors. The true parallel to the civil war, is that the primary victims are the same -- the poor and the marginalized.