El Salvador’s mounting security crisis has been met by a heavy-handed government response, which centers on sending the military and police into the streets to outgun the gangs and filling the country’s jails with even the lowest-ranking of alleged gang members. Beyond escalating violence and presenting extremely serious human rights concerns, this plan is simply not working. But, as 2016 unfolds, the government has a chance to set a new course and roll out an existing strategy to curb the violence.

In El Salvador, over 80 percent of murders were carried out with guns in 2015. Loose enforcement of existing Salvadoran laws, limited U.S. gun controls, military corruption and lax oversight of large caches of civil war-era arms have made it relatively easy for criminals to access such firepower.

The government’s use of force has invited violent pushback from the gangs, and there have been severe consequences for citizens living in the crossfire. All sides are now engaged in an escalating cycle of action and reaction. For security forces, it seems the line between those living in gang-controlled neighborhoods and those in a gang has become blurred, casting such a wide net in their operations that anyone could be targeted, but particularly young boys.

As the war continues to rage, the fight against the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs has often taken center stage. However, the security landscape in El Salvador is more complex than a battle between gangs and security forces. 

In an attempt to understand the different sources and dynamics of violence, the Center for International Policy and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund traveled to El Salvador late last year. We interviewed journalists, analysts, government officials, judges, police officers, citizens, activists, humanitarian workers, diplomats, and academics. Our report, coming in a series of posts over the next week will lay out El Salvador’s current security situation and provide recommendations for U.S. policy.