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In fighting gangs, US should look to El Salvador

In combating the MS-13 gang, the Obama administration should look to El Salvador, which has adopted a far less confrontational approach, and is seeing a drop in gang violence as a result. A negotiated 'truce' with gangs is possible in the US and Mexico.

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Victor Garcia, from Calle-18 gang, sits with his wife and daughter during a religious service at a prison in Quezaltepeque, on the outskirts of San Salvador June 16, 2012. Mr. Garcia, along with members of the rival MS-13 gang, entered an unprecedented, negotiated truce that authorities say has greatly reduced the homicide rate.

Ulises Rodriguez/Reuters/file

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In October, the US Treasury named the notorious MS-13 gang a transnational criminal organization. This unprecedented action aims to sanction the violent American-born street gang and seize its estimated millions in assets – profits gained through drug and human trafficking.

But the Obama administration should take a cue from El Salvador, which has adopted a far less confrontational approach to gangs, and is seeing a drop in gang violence as a result. Both of us have worked and traveled extensively in Central America – El Salvador in particular, which has its own MS-13.

In the United States, the MS-13 is made up of about 10,000 members, largely Salvadoran-Americans or Salvadoran nationals who fled El Salvador’s civil war. The US gang is part of a transnational criminal network of drugs, weapons, and violent gang culture.

In Central America, gang warfare has given way to a complex network of organized, violent crime and in many places has taken on characteristics of a “traditional” war. Measuring the intensity of violence in terms of homicides, the so-called "northern triangle" of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is now considered the most violent region in the world (aside from battlefields), averaging tens of thousands of gang-related deaths annually. The need for suitable civilian protection is obvious.

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