The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

El Salvador:
Government Crackdown on Gangs and the Working Class

May 9, 2022

On April 20, El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, announced that in the past 25 days, his government had arrested more than 14,000 gang members. The day before the raids began, on March 26, 62 gang killings had shaken El Salvador, the highest number of homicides in one day in that country in many years. Prompted by a tweet from Bukele, his allies in the Salvadoran legislature declared a state of emergency. Bukele himself declared war on gangs, and ordered harsh treatment for imprisoned gang members. He tweeted: “Message for the gangs: because of your actions, now your ‘homeboys’ will not be able to see a ray of sunlight.”

Faced with Gang Terror, Many Workers Support the Crackdown

It is a big crackdown which, according to human rights groups, includes many innocent young men who are not affiliated with gangs. But still, many working-class Salvadorans welcome the crackdown—which is consistent with very high approval rates (over 90%) for Bukele in recent opinion polls.

It’s not surprising. Since the end of a civil war 30 years ago, El Salvador developed into what commentators call one of the “murder capitals” of the world, as a result of gang activity and violence. Criminal gangs have been terrorizing working-class neighborhoods by extorting residents and recruiting teenagers—and attacking, kidnapping and murdering those who resisted. As a result, thousands of Salvadorans have fled their neighborhoods, and country, to seek refuge in the U.S. In recent years, thousands of parents have even sent their young children, often by themselves, to the U.S. border as refugees, despite the increasingly deplorable conditions that U.S. authorities have been forcing on refugees, young and old, at the border.

Not a Government for Workers

But Salvadoran workers cannot have illusions that this government would protect them from the gangs. Yes, Bukele, who calls himself the world’s “coolest dictator,” has promised to clean up neighborhoods from gangs, but previous actions of Bukele’s government show that this government is not on the side of the working class. In the spring of 2020, for example, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the Salvadoran government arrested thousands of people for breaking quarantine and curfew rules—including many essential workers, who were supposed to be exempt—on technicalities. Those arrested were then placed in overcrowded detention facilities, in fact increasing the risk of Covid outbreaks. These are certainly not the actions of a government that has the interests and well-being of working people in mind.

In fact, the harsh government repression unleashed after March 26 is a threat against Salvadoran workers also. After declaring a state of emergency, El Salvador’s Congress has also made changes in criminal law, lengthening sentences—including prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for journalists who “publish gang messages” and “cause anxiety among the people.” This is a direct threat to not only journalists but anyone who voices opposition to government policies.

And these laws can be used against workers who organize to fight for better wages and working conditions—in a country where wages are very low for most workers. For example, what the government calls “minimum wage” in El Salvador, $365 a month, is completely deceptive, because to earn this amount, workers are required to either have a college degree or be bilingual—in a country where the working class has very limited access to education, and where roughly one out of ten people is illiterate.

Salvadoran Gangs: Born in the U.S.A.

Today, the U.S. government is accusing Bukele of human rights violations, but that can’t hide the direct role the U.S. has played in shaping the current situation in El Salvador. The two dominant gangs in El Salvador today, Barrio 18 and MS-13, started out in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ‘70s. Like other gangs active in U.S. cities, these gangs were originally an attempt for a segment of working-class youth in L.A., in this case youth from Salvadoran immigrant families mostly fleeing a bloody civil war, to protect themselves in rough neighborhoods where young people have no access to a decent education or jobs. And like other gangs started under such circumstances, parts of these gangs evolved into criminal networks.

Life as a criminal, and prison, was then in store for many members of these gangs. It’s one of the ways in which capitalist society, where private capital does not provide jobs, and government does not provide a real education to the vast majority of working-class youth, railroads a large number of working-class youth to prison. And since the early 1990s, the U.S. has been deporting members of MS-13 and Barrio 18 from prison to El Salvador, where the gang leaders, once again, found a fertile environment for their criminal activities—thanks to the deterioration and impoverishment caused by the country’s civil war (1979—1992), which itself was driven heavily by direct U.S. support for the country’s brutal right-wing, anti-working-class government!

The problems Salvadoran workers face—low wages, crime and violence in their neighborhoods, lack of education, health care and other government services—are all problems workers in other countries, including here in the U.S., face. These are problems caused by capitalists’ endless drive for profit, which governments serving the big capitalists, in El Salvador or in the U.S., will not solve.