Hope Amidst Instability: The Immigration Debate, Organized Crime, and a School in El Salvador

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

This second blog in a series continues to examine the deep cultural divide that has a vice-like grip on the collective American mind. I have written several blogs on the topic of the cultural divide and will continue to do so as I prepare my book, Divided: Colliding Ways We See the World and What We Can Do About It, for publication. Another issue I want to highlight in this blog series, ignored on the left and touted for political gain on the right, is the proliferation of organized crime in Latin America. I will end this series on an uplifting note, in which I will describe the work of a non-profit school in El Salvador, Amun Shea.

 Organized Crime in Latin America

I have found that one of the issues that seems to be lost in the immigration debate or should I say free-for-all is the issues of organized crime in Latin America.

Organized is particularly acute in the small Central American country of El Salvador. It has the highest homicide rate in the world (82.84 per 100,000). Neighboring Honduras has the second highest rate in the world (56.52).  The extremely high homicide rate in this country is marked by significant occurrence gang-related crimes and juvenile delinquency. Gangs are vying for control of the lucrative drug-trafficking operations to the United States.

organized crime victims

The most significant and deadly gang in El Salvador is Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. It is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1970s and 1980s. The gang later spread to many parts of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America, but most members are Salvadorans. MS-13 is defined by its cruelty, rivalry with other gangs and its origins in the Los Angeles undocumented immigrant community.


An MS gang sign and tattoos.

MS-13 is both open and indiscriminate in its use of violence. Infanticide and femicide are common, with El Salvador hosting the third highest femicide rate in the world. They frequently use a machete as their weapon of choice. Many of the victims are minors, and Central Americans are their primary victims. The majority of MS-13 suspects arrested for killings are also minors.

It is estimated that MS-13 has around 30,000 members internationally, which includes 10,000 in the United States and 2,000 on Long Island, New York. In Central America, the gang is strongest in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Government officials in El Salvador announced that 2018 ended on a good note, relative to past statistics, with a 15 percent reduction in homicides compared to 2017. The murder rate dropped from 60 per 100,000 citizens in 2017 to 51, much lower than in 2015 and 2016 when violence between gangs and security forces made it one of the most violent countries in Latin America.

A recent uptick in homicides in the first 16 days of 2019, as reported by Héctor Silva Ávalos for the Insight Crime non-profit organization, has thrust the MS13 back into the national conversation.

During this time, the National Police recorded 169 murders, representing 10.6 murders per day, a significant increase compared to the 9.4 daily murders recorded in 2018.

Drug trafficking is the most well-known form of illegal activity conducted by criminal gangs, but organized crime has diversified their criminal businesses to include human trafficking through migration and kidnapping to its deadly arsenal of services.

Seth Robbins for Insight Crime reported of “The sudden movement of large groups of Central American migrants to remote stretches of the US-Mexico border is a sign that smugglers are profiting from tactics, which requires coordination with Mexico’s larger criminal organizations.

migrants new mexico, arizona

A large group of migrants who surrendered to Border Patrol agents after tunneling under the border fence in Arizona.  Courtesy InsightCrime

Smuggling these migrants is a large revenue stream for organized crime groups. Payments first must be made to several so-called “coyotes,” or “polleros,” traffickers who shepherd migrants to the US. These traffickers make protection payments to Mexico’s drug cartels, which control migrant and drug smuggling routes in border regions. The cartels profit from these payoffs and through other criminal enterprises, such as the kidnapping and extortion of migrants.”

Insight Crime has also reported the “increasing number of African migrants entering Latin America, which has provided human smugglers with a lucrative business opportunity. Ongoing violence and political unrest in many parts of Africa, combined with tightening restrictions on immigration to Europe has likely contributed to this trend.”

01 homicides in venezuela

To add to the depression of this blog, Venezuela is now considered a failed state. Organized crime has stepped into the void and is essentially running the country. Venezuelan citizens are fleeing the country, adding to the migrant woes of the surrounding countries, themselves unstable. Drug trafficking, human trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping add to the misery index. Insight Crime has numerous articles on the disaster developing in Venezuela, once a darling of the left held up as a shining beacon of socialism.

The next blog will be more uplifting as I describe a small but hopeful school in El Salvador.


Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator, grade 7-university, author of seven books, and president of an educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CGA provides books, resources, and services with a holistic, global- focused, and perspective-taking approach for their three programs: Global Awareness for Educators, books and resources for educators and students grade 9-university; Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a self-organizing study and conversation program for adults focusing on seeing different perspectives of pressing global issues; and their most recent program Turn, Transformative Understanding and Reflection Network, which encourages lifelong and transformative learning to help us arrive at a place of personal and global well-being using a seven “path” approach.

Please email info@global-awareness.org or visit www.global-awareness.org for more information.

This entry was posted in awareness, cultural divide, differences, Immigration, migration, organized crime, perspectives, politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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