Living in a culture of death

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Each conversation you have can show you only a portion of reality, said Armando Trull, a reporter for National Public Radio. But in his 20 years of reporting, cultivating friendships with sources and conducting interviews on and off the record, Trull has been able to create a fairly clear picture of the reality of his subject: El Salvador. At Marymount University in Arlington April 1, he presented his take on the complex problems facing the country.

Unintended consequences of war

The gang crisis traces its origin to the Salvadoran Civil War that began in 1979, said Trull. The Salvadoran government, supported by the U.S. military, fought against the leftist guerillas supported by Russia, China and Cuba.

Many atrocities were committed, said Trull, in large part by the government. Seventy-five thousand people were killed, and 8,000 went missing. Many refugee children were sent to the United States to live in Los Angeles - a city with its own share of ethnic gangs.

"(Central American gangs) began as a response for disconnected, dispossessed, poor children to defend themselves in a country that was not their own, and to survive," he said. After the war ended, many of the Salvadorans who had been arrested in the United States were deported back to their native country. Some brought their gang affiliations with them.

With no strong central government or police force, gang members took over their old neighborhoods. Though today some areas are still relatively untouched by gang influence, Trull believes that may change. "A gang member told me, 'We are like a cancer - we grow,' " said Trull.

In the resulting turmoil, thousands have left El Salvador looking for a better life. Once again, gang connections came with some of them. Central American gangs have spread all over the United States, including in Northern Virginia.

An atmosphere of fear

In the Central American country of 6 million people, roughly 70,000 are in gangs, such as MS-13 or Barrio 18, Trull said. The high gang population creates an atmosphere of violence, extortion, kidnapping, sexual assault and fear.

In the first two months of 2016, 1,399 Salvadorans were killed, he said. Around 60 percent of the victims were involved in gangs; the remaining were civilians.

Trull believes Salvadoran authorities are accepting of the high number of gang deaths. In his opinion, this devaluing of life is at the heart of the conflict.

"What you have in El Salvador is a culture of death," he said. "It doesn't mean you necessarily promote that. It means you live with death. You see it on your streets, and you begin to develop a (different) way of looking at death."

The Salvadoran government has taken a hard line against gang members, but Trull fears the situation will not improve unless a dialogue occurs between the two. "You can't kill or jail half a million people," he said. "I want things to get better in Central America, but there has to be a political willingness from the entire Salvadoran society, and it's still too divided."

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016