MS-13 Cops Are Fleeing El Salvador Gang and Settling in America: Report

MS-13 police officers asylum American El Salvador
An MS-13 gang member in the Criminal Center of Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, El Salvador, on March 4, 2013. Marvin RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images

Police officers tasked with fighting the MS-13 street gang are reportedly fleeing El Salvador for the safety of the U.S., as rampant organized crime continues to push residents out of the country in fear for their lives.

According to an investigation by The Washington Post, 15 Salvadoran police officers are in the process of being resettled as refugees by the United Nations, while six others have recently been granted asylum or are awaiting asylum hearings in U.S. immigration courts.

There are no official figures, either in the U.S. or El Salvador, tracking the number of Salvadoran officers applying for asylum, so the total number may well be higher. More officers have reportedly applied for protection and humanitarian visas in other countries, including Spain and Mexico.

The Post also claimed to have seen WhatsApp groups where officers have discussed forming their own migrant caravan, which they called a caravana policial, composed entirely of police to travel to the U.S.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the U.S. has spent $48 million training police forces in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in an effort to stymie the spread of Central American organized crime, much of it linked to the notorious Mara Salvatrucha—or MS-13. But authorities are still struggling to deal with the influential gangs, which employ brutal violence to establish territorial control and lucrative revenue streams.

The gang originated in the U.S., among the Salvadoran refugee community of Los Angeles, where many fled to escape the country's brutal civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s. The conflict pitted the U.S.-backed right-wing military government against the Soviet-supported left-wing opposition, and tens of thousands of people were killed in the fighting and by brutal paramilitary death squads.

Many MS-13 members—and those belonging to the Barrio 18 group, which splintered from MS-13—found themselves locked up in U.S. prisons, but this concentration allowed gang influence to grow. The 2000s then had mass deportations of Salvadorans from the U.S.—more than 40,400 between 2001 and 2010, according to the Post—and this relocated the gang problem to El Salvador.

Violence has since spiraled out of control, and by 2015 the murder rate in El Salvador was the highest in the world, at 105 per 100,000 people, according to the World Bank. Though this dropped to around 82 by 2016, homicide numbers are still some of the worst on the planet.

Even the police sent to fight the gangs are not safe. At least nine police officers were killed in the first month of 2019, the Post reported. The violence against officers has been especially bad since a temporary truce between the police and gangs collapsed in 2014.

Salvadoran police, who are not legally allowed to take their weapons home with them, are often poorly paid, the Post said, with salaries often as low as $300 a month. As a result, they are forced to live in the low-income areas controlled by the gangs, making them easy targets.

Despite protests from police, government efforts to protect officers have been largely inadequate. Though the country's attorney general in 2017 called for a new law to be passed giving greater protections for police, the legislation was never approved.

But while more Salvadorans—both police and civilians—try to find safety in the north, President Donald Trump's administration is making it harder for them to succeed, legally or illegally.

As thousands in Central American caravans headed to the southern border at the end of last year, the president introduced new measures to deny asylum to any migrants entering the country illegally.

But at the same time, even those who follow the legal process for claiming asylum at the border are being made to wait for an unspecified amount of time before they can file applications. Thousands remain stuck in border cities like Tijuana, where local lawmakers have warned that the infrastructure is under strain, and local residents have been angered by the sudden new arrivals.