This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
July 11th, 2006
18 with a Bullet
Interview: Anne W. Patterson

July 10, 2006: Anne W. Patterson, former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, discusses anti-gang efforts and U.S. deportation policy with Anchor, Daljit Dhaliwal.

DHALIWAL: Ambassador Anne Patterson, welcome to WIDE ANGLE. What did you make of what you just saw in that film?

PATTERSON: Well, I thought it was a very affecting and moving and sad piece. And for me and my family, we spent three wonderful years in El Salvador. It’s a country full of hard-working, industrious, and very practical people who have suffered a lot in recent years with the civil war and hurricanes and earthquakes. So it’s very sad to see this sort of film and the role that the gangs are now playing there.

Anne W. Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

DHALIWAL: You were ambassador to El Salvador. How long were you there?

PATTERSON: I was there from 1997 to the year 2000. And the gang problem was bad then, but nothing like it has become.

DHALIWAL: So what is the main reason that kids like Sochi and Charlie join gangs like 18?

PATTERSON: Well, obviously some of the young men shown in this film are psychopaths. There’s really no other word for it. But I personally think the vast majority of the reason that people are attracted to the gang life, both here and in El Salvador, is family disintegration. And El Salvador had one of the highest rates of family disintegration in the world, brought about by, first of all, the violence of the civil war. And secondly, by enormous immigration to the States. Something like 20 percent of El Salvador’s population lives in the States. And there’s no percentage like that anywhere else in the world. So the mothers and fathers come up here, driven by poverty, driven by violence. They work hard at minimum-wage jobs. And as we saw, they leave behind their children, who are poorly cared for, or not cared for at all. And the gangs become a family to them. This is particularly true with young kids.

DHALIWAL: What is the problem, then, in terms of trying to get out of these gangs? What’s keeping these kids locked in?

PATTERSON: Well, what keeps them locked in, I think, is lack of employment opportunities, lack of proper programs for intervention, and just the sense of family. In some cases, they have nowhere else to go. Now obviously, some of these older kids are criminals of the first degree. But some of the younger kids — and that’s probably where we need to concentrate our efforts — at eight, nine, 10 years old, they’re being recruited into the gang life. And that’s an enormously worrisome thing.

DHALIWAL: And part of the reason that that happens is that — I mean, if you look at a place like El Salvador, there are so few opportunities. There’s a culture of violence, a real lack of job opportunities, and barely any education to speak of. What are the prospects for people like Charlie and Sochi in El Salvador? When all they see around them is despair?

PATTERSON: Well, let me sort of step back for a minute. Because I think El Salvador has made enormous progress after the civil war, which was over at the end of 1991. I mean, they’ve made huge progress in economic growth and economic reform, in reconciliation. If you saw the leaders of the former guerrilla groups and the former right-wing groups, you’d be astonished at how they have moved their country forward in a political sense, and to sort of calm down some of the scars from the civil war. But what that left behind was this essentially disenfranchised and heavily armed group of young people that now have very few employment opportunities. So they’ve immigrated to the States in large numbers. Certainly the fact that many of them have been deported from the United States — the two major gangs originated in Los Angeles; the fact that some of them have gone back and taken some of their skills with them has been a factor. But lack of employment is the major issue. As is lack of law enforcement, and investigative skills on the part of the Salvadoran police and prosecutors. That’s a very difficult issue to redress. And we’ve invested a lot of money over the years in reforming the police and working with Salvadoran prosecutors.

DHALIWAL: Talk about our immigration policy in the 1990s. I mean, did it help create and spread the gang problem in El Salvador? And in other parts of South America? By deporting them, and now we’re finding that they are coming back into the United States. And in some cases, we hear these words being used, of a “revolving door.” You know, you deport them, you put them in prison, they get out of prison and they come back into the United States. And that’s what we mean by this transnational gang culture. What about our policy? Did we help create this problem?

PATTERSON: I don’t really think we helped to create it. It was the outgrowth of many factors. As I’ve said, it was an outgrowth of poverty, it was an outgrowth of violence, it was an outgrowth of the huge availability of small arms. And we are required by law to deport criminals from the United States. And you can understand why. There’s no reason that these criminals should prey on Americans. But yes, what we’ve deported them back to is a system — keep in mind, there are no charges against many of these young people in El Salvador. So the police, even if they can monitor their activities, have a hard time doing anything about it as a practical matter. And we’re trying to develop some programs that will help solve this. At least to identify gang members as they return to El Salvador.

DHALIWAL: But when this was going on, you were ambassador to El Salvador at the time. What was it like seeing thousands upon thousands of El Salvadorans being deported back by the plane-load? How did the government reconcile this?

PATTERSON: Well, the government tried to have, when I was there — had a tracking system to keep track of them. And it’s extremely difficult, as I say. Because there are no charges against these people who come back with criminal records. And it’s not just criminals that were deported. About a third of them have some sort of criminal record in the United States, but two thirds of them are largely immigration violations — people that are caught at the job site or caught elsewhere in the United States and deported. But the Salvadoran government — and again, all Central American governments cooperate very, very well in this deportation policy. Because they understand that the United States can’t — that that’s our law. And that we have to send these people back from whence they came.

Anne W. Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

DHALIWAL: And that was also the case in the 1990s. But at the time, they didn’t know they were felons. And they were landing in cities across —

PATTERSON: No, of course they knew that a lot of them were felons. Because a lot of them came out of American prisons and were then deported back to El Salvador. No, of course everybody knew that. And they were struggling even then with how to address this problem. It’s very difficult though, again, when there are no charges against people in their own country, to keep track of them once they land.

DHALIWAL: So were they furious? Was El Salvador furious, or at least the government, mad that we had kind of, in a sense, dumped this problem on them? What did they say to you at the time?

PATTERSON: No, no, they weren’t mad. We worked very cooperatively with them. And I think the same would be true in Honduras and Guatemala. Keep in mind that remittances are the biggest single source of foreign exchange for El Salvador. I read the other day they’ve reached something like 20 percent of GDP. It’s an enormous amount of income for families that live in El Salvador. And the Salvadoran government — this one and the previous one — are enormously mindful of what immigration means to their country. Their country could not survive without these remittances from the United States. So they were extremely cooperative in all matters relating to immigration. What they wanted, of course, was more information on the criminal deportees. On the young men, mostly young men, who came back. And we’ve struggled to give that to them over the years, with very mixed degrees of success.

DHALIWAL: El Salvador is such a tiny place. Yet there’s something like 10 murders reported to the police every day. Why is it such a violent place?

PATTERSON: I used to wonder that. I was ambassador to Colombia as well, later on, which is also an extremely violent country. Why is El Salvador more violent then Nicaragua? Those are good questions. And there are a number of learned conferences that have addressed these issues. But I think in the situation of El Salvador, it was really a question of the legacy of the civil war. That’s when the United States had the highest degree of violent incidents, was after our Civil War. And again, coming out of this war — lack of employment, lack of infrastructure, proliferation of small arms. I think it was the outgrowth of the civil war. Remember, 75,000 people died in El Salvador’s civil war, which in terms of their population is a very high percentage. So there’s a culture of violence that they’ve had a very difficult time getting past.

DHALIWAL: And what was our legacy in the immediate postwar period? Did we disengage properly? Or could we have done a lot more to help rebuild and rehabilitate El Salvador, and other parts of Central America?

PATTERSON: We did a lot after the end of the war, as did the rest of the international community. There was a very successful UN observer mission there. We put an enormous amount of money and time into reforming the police. And into trying to find jobs for these young men. Training, land titling — all the things that we thought would make this society better. Did we disengage? I don’t know. I don’t really think so.

DHALIWAL: But could we have managed it better? Could we have done better, with hindsight?

PATTERSON: We might have done better in terms of the law enforcement aspects of it. Yes, we might have done better. We might have done better to recognize this problem with young people early on. But again, this is demographically a very young population. We might have done better to set up prevention programs. We might have done better to work with the prisons. But again, the international community had a lot of interest in El Salvador and put a lot of resources in El Salvador after the civil war. Everyone recognized this as a major international priority.

DHALIWAL: Was there anything akin, though, to nation building at the time? Or was that sort of out of vogue?

PATTERSON: No, there was a lot that was related to nation building. Again, land titling — the World Bank and the United States cooperated in a land titling program, in the hopes that some of these people that were coming out of armed groups would go and be farmers. Well, they weren’t interested in being farmers. Or they have [already have] training to be a mechanic, for instance. And I think one of the issues with the gang problem right now is there’s an enormous amount of labor available in El Salvador. So a fellow who owns a garage does not have to hire an ex-gang member or someone in some kind of prevention program. He can go out on the street and get a qualified and very hard-working employee.

DHALIWAL: The other thing that our film shows is just how easy it is to get weapons. Why are there still so many weapons on the streets of San Salvador, when the civil war has been over for 15 years?

PATTERSON: That’s true of everywhere in Latin America that I’ve been. Arms are pervasive and cheap. And almost anybody can get them. And I really don’t know the answer to that. There’s no gun control as we know it. Most of the guns, frankly, are imported from the United States. There is very little control from our point. And there are just a lot out there that are easily available for criminals, and frankly, for ordinary citizens.

DHALIWAL: But how does that fit into the broader problem of coming up with anti-gang initiatives? Are things like controlling the spread of weapons part of those kinds of initiatives, either in El Salvador or the kind of initiatives that we’re trying on a regionwide basis?

PATTERSON: Where we’re going to try to focus our efforts is on identification of gang members. That’s sort of the first step. Who are these gang members? And do they have criminal records in the United States and in Central America? So with better databases, and data mining techniques, fingerprints — I think we can achieve that.

DHALIWAL: Do we have a comprehensive, reliable database of the who’s who among gangsters?

PATTERSON: No. But we can probably put one together, working with the law enforcement in Central America. The FBI has set up a task force. They’ve had a lot of good luck in prosecuting gang cases and working with their counterparts in Central America. Arrests are way up, so —

DHALIWAL: But do they share intelligence with all of the governments in Central America?

PATTERSON: Yes, most of them. And that can be facilitated. Because when a gang member comes back, the Salvadoran authorities need access to materials and records on this gang member. And then they can take appropriate action. The other thing we’re trying to do is address substance abuse. Certainly in the prisons, and with some of these gangs. Because most of them have some kind of addiction problem. And as you’ve seen in the film, street-level sales are the way the gang earns revenue. I mean, these gangs wouldn’t be nearly such a challenge, and nearly so violent, without drugs. So we’re going to try and address the substance abuse issue with gang members. And then work with gang members’ children — of course, as you saw, some of them have little kids — to do some kind of intervention program. Because those children are most assuredly at risk. And then finally, to do something in the prisons. Because as your film dramatically showed — shockingly showed — the gangs are running the prisons.

DHALIWAL: Well, why is there such laxity within the prison walls?

PATTERSON: That’s true all over Latin America. Again, I wouldn’t want to single out Salvadorans about that. But it takes a lot of money; it takes a lot of discipline to set up prisons that are basically up to U.S. standards.

DHALIWAL: And is that something that we would want to try and give El Salvador and other Central American countries help with? In terms of their justice system — improving the institution, and transparency as well. Because that’s the other side of the coin, is that a lot of Salvadorans don’t trust their own criminal justice system. They don’t think that it is transparent.

PATTERSON: Yes. But again, they’ve made huge strides in that in recent years. I mean, the police I think have been very — and you saw in your film, some of the policemen coming up and engaging in a very, shall we say “polite,” way with some of the suspected gang members. There’s a lot of infrastructure in the police, there are techniques in the police. … Rodrigo Avila, who’s the head of the police now, was well known to me. He was head of the police when I was there. These are honest and serious people. And they’re trying to do a good job. Most Salvadorans, and again I would say, most Latins, feel that if someone is in prison, they’re not deserving of a lot of the government’s revenues. They’re off the street. They’re out of our hair. But obviously it’s an area of great concern. And we want to help in that. I think the United States government wants to help in that.

DHALIWAL: Talk about “Mano Dura” and “Super Mano Dura.” Do you think that those policies are working? And what kind of public support is there?

PATTERSON: Again, both of these took place after I left. And Honduras has a similar policy. There’s enormous — at least I’ve read — that there’s enormous public support for these policies. And that would be consistent with everything I know about El Salvador.

DHALIWAL:  But are they working?

PATTERSON: Well, seemingly not, or we wouldn’t see the sort of enormously high homicide rates that we’re now seeing in El Salvador. They’ve been criticized, as you know, very extensively by human rights groups and other NGOs. But what the police need is better investigating techniques, better intelligence, better data. It’s a question of the tools to properly investigate and then prosecute these crimes, and then jail these people in a way that they can’t carry on their gang business from a national prison.

DHALIWAL: Talk about the intelligence. How much do we actually know about the gangs? How many gangs are there? How many members do they have? How well organized are they? And how do they make their money?

PATTERSON: We don’t even know how many members are in the gangs in El Salvador. And I was struck when I was reading to get ready for this interview, that the numbers are essentially all over the map. And I suspect that’s a definitional issue — that there are hard-core members like the leaders that you’ve seen on your film, and then there are a number of affiliated members, which are essentially young kids in varying stages of entry into the gang.

DHALIWAL: If we can’t define the problem, how do we begin to tackle it? How do we come up with solutions?

PATTERSON: It’s extremely difficult. But we do know they’re in the prisons. We do know they suffer from substance abuse. We do know that if we can get better interoperability with databases, that we can identify people that have criminal records in both countries. And many of them, as you see, it’s hardly any secret. Because they’re standing out there on the street, basically extorting people. Police intelligence is a very different animal than military intelligence. And when I was there, we were beginning to help the police build up an intelligence capacity. And that really revolves around elderly ladies coming in to the police station, feeling confident enough with the police to come in and say, “I saw so-and-so on the street. I know he’s a gang member. I know his real name — it’s not just the gang name that he uses.” So there’s [a] collection issue that depends on community support. And you can bet that all the people in these communities know exactly who these kids are. It’s a very small town; they know who these people are. And if you can get the confidence of the community and implement techniques of community policing, you’ll go a long way to getting information.

DHALIWAL: But in terms of what we saw in the film, they seem to be engaged in small-time criminal activity. What you see in the film is them holding up buses for fare money and living very much in the margins of society. But I read somewhere that you had described them as international criminal organizations. What do you mean by that? I mean, what exactly are they — because defining it is such a big problem. What are they? Small-time players, or are they like the Mafia or the Cali drug cartels? I mean, where do they fit in here?

PATTERSON: No, they are not like the Cali cartel or the Mafia. But what I think we’re seeing increasingly is that they do have links with Salvatrucha and with Diez y Ocho, the 18th Street gang. They do have links to gangs in California and northern Virginia. I think this has been true for years about gangs — Latin American gangs. Dominican gangs had links in the Dominican Republic and in New York, or the Jamaican gangs. So don’t think this is a new phenomenon, but I think —

DHALIWAL: Right, no, they’re not into organized crime, in the sense that they haven’t penetrated financial crime or anything like that, like the Mafia has.

PATTERSON: No, no. And what we’ve seen is that they basically engage in drug trafficking. But they don’t engage on a scale of a Cali cartel or Medellin, but what they do is totally undermine any democracy or citizen trust in the community. And of course they’re engaged in major crimes, because the homicide rate is enormous. And they’ve been engaged in the United States in various serious crimes indeed.

Anne W. Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

DHALIWAL: So how are gang members like Sochi and Charlie a threat to the United States? I mean, do you see them as a serious threat to U.S. security?

PATTERSON: To U.S. national security? No. But, if you lived in Herndon, Virginia, or you lived in East Los Angeles, you would absolutely see them as a threat to your personal security. And that’s what’s very dramatic in a place like El Salvador. I went to visit, when I was there, one of our gang intervention projects, and people were afraid to go out at night. They’re afraid to go to restaurants. They’re afraid to pick their kids up from class. They’re afraid to go out. And the police, at least in these days — and this was the beginning of the gang movement — were afraid to go out of their “puestos,” of their spots.

DHALIWAL: So the average Salvadoran lives or dies at the mercy of the gangs?

PATTERSON: And lives in fear. The impact this has on business because investors won’t go in — not only are they apprehensive about their personal security, but they don’t want to pay the enormous cost associated with this. I mean, there were places in El Salvador where the shifts of the factories were basically designed around when people felt safe getting home. So people couldn’t work a graveyard shift. Now that’s the sort of impact on individual people. Is it a threat to our national security? No. But it’s a terrible thing if you have to live with it.

DHALIWAL: Is it like that in the rest of Central America? Is it like that in Guatemala, or in Honduras?

PATTERSON: My understanding is there’s been a huge crime wave in Guatemala for much the same reasons that there’s a huge crime wave in El Salvador. And that’s because of, again, coming at a period of civil war, coming out of a heavily armed population. And I think Guatemala is further complicated by the fact that it had become a trans-shipment point for narcotics going north from Colombia into Mexico and to the United States. So I think the narcotics problem is more severe in Guatemala.

DHALIWAL: So we have this problem of gangs in Honduras, in Guatemala, and in El Salvador. Yet in Nicaragua and in Panama and in Costa Rica — their neighbors — there isn’t such a problem. How do we explain that?

PATTERSON: Yes, we need to really dedicate some serious thought to that issue. The answer off the top of my head is the level of family disintegration in those countries during the ’80s and ’90s was a lot less. There was much more immigration from Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador than from Nicaragua and Panama. I have understood that they have a more comprehensive gang policy in a place like Nicaragua, and we need to look at that.

DHALIWAL: It’s not purely law enforcement.

PATTERSON: No, it’s intervention.

DHALIWAL: And they’re looking at rehabilitation as well, which is something that perhaps El Salvador hasn’t done so much of?

PATTERSON: But they do have rehabilitation programs. They do have rehabilitation programs. I’ve seen them.

DHALIWAL: But how many?

PATTERSON: I don’t know how many. But they exist. But again, I think the key would be the level of family disintegration is certainly higher in those three countries than Nicaragua and Panama. I mean, Panama basically was — and Costa Rica, absolutely — was basically removed from the civil wars of the ’80s. Now certainly Nicaragua suffered in its own way, but it didn’t result in this huge migration to the United States.

DHALIWAL: How is the situation changed since you were ambassador to El Salvador? Has it gotten worse, has it gotten marginally better? Or are you very optimistic and hopeful for the future?

PATTERSON: I would always be optimistic about El Salvador because it’s full of hard-working, industrious people who are extremely practical. So I would be optimistic over the long term. And I think with our help they’ll be able to come to terms with this problem and resolve it in some way. And again, since I was there the gang problem has gotten worse, but the kidnapping problem, which was a terrible problem when I was there — people were being kidnapped a block away from the American embassy and threats were being called in to the embassy parking lot — it was a terrible problem. That’s largely been resolved because the police have been able to set up special anti-kidnapping units that, again, acquired intelligence, managed to penetrate these groups. So it can be done. And now they’re working on a similar strategy for gangs. And again, our own law enforcement, the FBI, Justice Department — they’re working vigorously to try and confront this problem.

DHALIWAL: But it seems that we are doing a lot of different things across various departments, whether it’s justice, whether it’s state, or whether it’s defense. Why are there all these kinds of splinter groups? I mean, why not one kind of cohesive organization that is looking at how the gang problem impacts us here in the United States? And what it’s doing in terms of our relationship with Central America, and the whole thing about this revolving door policy, you know — leaving, coming back in, being put in prison, leaving prison, and then coming back into the United States. Why can’t we have an overall kind of approach?

PATTERSON: Well, we do have a coordinated policy, I think. And the National Security Council and the Justice Department and the State Department. … But there is a coordinated policy. I don’t think we lack a coordinated policy. But the problem is enormously complex, and it involves social services, it involves law enforcement, it involves our immigration policy. And the United States is going to continue to deport criminals to Central America, to their countries of origin. That’s not going to change. So we have to find some way to deal with that problem in a more effective way.

DHALIWAL: Wouldn’t part of the way of dealing with that problem be to make sure that the criminals serve their time in American jails? Wouldn’t that help take some of the pressure off Central American governments?

PATTERSON: They largely do serve their time in American jails, and are deported after completion of their sentences. So that’s an enormously costly element for the American taxpayer. To go to jail for a year in the United States is $35,000. So they’re largely deported after they complete their sentences. There may be some that are the exception to the rule, but that’s generally the rule. And again, that’s not going to change. We have the same standard with every country — we deport people all over the world on exactly the same standard. The key is better information about who we’re deporting and what their backgrounds are.

DHALIWAL: Is there any evidence of any links at all between the “maras” and jihadists?


DHALIWAL: So this rumor of a meeting in Mexico between an al-Qaeda cell leader and also another meeting in Honduras was pure fiction?

PATTERSON: I think the deputy attorney general, or the attorney general, has said that there was no foundation to that rumor. And I would be —

DHALIWAL: Any idea why a rumor like that would start, or —

PATTERSON: I don’t know, I don’t know. It’d strike me as extraordinary on the face of it.

DHALIWAL: You were saying earlier on that you feel that they’re out of our hair. What do you mean by that?

PATTERSON: In a society like El Salvador or many other societies, it’s very difficult when resources are short — there’s no money for education, there’s no money for health providers — to convince the population to spend money on prisons. Because basically they see it as an advantage, as benefits, for criminals. And so it’s very difficult to get public support to get a budget for prison, or to get good employees to manage the prisons. And that’s one of the things that we’re going to work on in cooperation with the government of El Salvador, to set up a substance abuse facility and treatment programs within the prison. Because again, over 50 percent of them have some kind of substance abuse problem. And then work on prison administration. Because the key to reforming the prisons is not so much money but procedures and discipline.

DHALIWAL: One of the things that you do see in the film is that there’s great laxity within the prison walls. Where are the guards? Have they been intimidated? Have they been bought off? What’s the problem?

PATTERSON: Probably a little of both. They’ve been intimidated, they’ve been bought off, they’ve been scared. They’re not paid anything to begin with, so they figure, why should I risk my life? And remember, the lives of their family members who are on the outside. Because these gang members can call out and threaten the families of the guards. That’s been a big issue elsewhere in Latin America. So there’s very little incentive to crack down on the activities within the prisons. But again, we’re trying to develop programs that will address this issue, particularly working through NGOs like FundaSalva in El Salvador.

DHALIWAL: How organized are these gangs? Talk about the level of organization, how they get their money. How many members are we talking about, and how many gangs? Because in the film, what we see are kids who are holding up buses for money, who are living very much on the margins of society, and who are earning something like $40 a week selling marijuana. Yet I believe that you have said that they are full-blown international criminal organizations. I mean, there’s a bit of a disconnect there. Talk about that.

PATTERSON: I think what we’re seeing is these gangs are becoming more hierarchical and more disciplined. They have leaders who are, I think, serious criminals, by any standards — psychopaths as well as serious criminals — who have organizational capacity. They have block captains. They’re broken down into smaller groups that are managed by individuals. So I think they’re becoming more hierarchical. I think they’re becoming more frequently in contact with U.S. counterparts. Even when I was there, there were some drug trafficking rings that worked between Los Angeles and El Salvador. Again, not the Cali cartel, not the Medellin cartel, but enough drug trafficking in routes that were going between El Salvador and Los Angeles. Again, I don’t think this is a new phenomenon for Latin America. Because I think there have been links among gangs for many years.

DHALIWAL: You said earlier on that there have been plenty of gains that have been made in El Salvador. How has that been felt by the average Salvadoran? How does that trickle down through education, in terms of housing, in terms of jobs? Give me some positive examples.

PATTERSON: El Salvador has had a very significant rate of economic growth. In housing and in education and in health, in improvements in infant mortality, those have been nothing short of dramatic in recent years. The population, though, is large and young and cannot provide the employment opportunities for this essentially large mass of young people that are coming out of the schools. Education is a serious problem not only in El Salvador but throughout Latin America. There’s a very high dropout rate and a very low rate of completion, one of the lowest in the world. But there has been progress. It’s a country, though, that has suffered greatly from the civil war, from hurricanes, from earthquakes, from natural disasters, and has essentially no natural resources on which to fall back.

DHALIWAL: Where did El Salvador’s gang problem come from? I mean, if there’s one main factor that you could pin it on, where do you think it started? And also, the second part of that question is, did El Salvador, did other parts of Central America, have a gang problem before we started our immigration policies of deportation back in the 1990s?

PATTERSON: That’s a really good question. I used to ask myself that when I was there. But people would tell me that there were always bands of people in neighborhoods, that the gang problem — the conventional wisdom is that these gangs, and I think it’s true, began in Los Angeles and migrated back to El Salvador.

DHALIWAL: At 18th Street in Los Angeles?

PATTERSON: Yes, yes. And named after — but people would tell me there were criminal gangs that had existed many years in El Salvador. In other words, there was the basis of criminality and violence that predated the civil war. I think that’s true of Guatemala, and I suspect it’s true of Honduras. They weren’t as severe, not nearly so severe as they’ve become. Again, greatly aggravated by family disintegration. My husband and I, the last year we were there, we visited some American nuns and priests outside of San Salvador. And they told us that only 10 percent of the children in the school that they were in had two parents. Ten percent. The vast majority were in the United States. And they’ve been left behind with grandparents or uncles or cousins or something of the sort. So that again, the rate of family disintegration on top of all these other problems has been quite severe. And that’s why we were trying to develop this program that will work with the children of gang members. Because obviously, that’s a population that’s going to have severe problems in the future if something’s not done early.

DHALIWAL: Well, what are your own personal thoughts on crackdown versus rehabilitation and prevention?

PATTERSON: My own thoughts are like everybody else’s. You need a balance. You need the law enforcement and prosecution of cases. You need gang intelligence. You need to know who these people are. You need intervention in the prisons. You need to get control of the prisons. But you also need to provide some alternative for the very young children, these little boys.

DHALIWAL: What is the actual mix in El Salvador?

PATTERSON: The actual mix? It’s hard to say. Again, you need to do it all. And you need to do it all at once. And none of it’s cheap.

DHALIWAL: Is that what it comes down to, that law enforcement and the crackdowns are a lot cheaper than rehabilitation prevention?

PATTERSON: No, they’re not cheaper. They’re more expensive.

DHALIWAL: They’re not?

PATTERSON: Of course. Even in El Salvador, it’s more expensive to put somebody in jail than have a community outreach program to reach a young child.

DHALIWAL: So why are there, then, fewer of those types of programs?

PATTERSON: I suspect there are not fewer of those types of programs. I visited some in El Salvador. They were developing these programs. But you need a balance. You need to deal with the leadership. You need to incarcerate them. You need to put them away in jail in a way that they can’t command the loyalty of gang members, and you need to get at the little kids that they’re recruiting. And you need to do everything else in between. And I think when you talk about gang intervention programs, the ones that have been successful in the States — they deal at all levels of the problem: the law enforcement, arrest, incarceration, and the family intervention.

DHALIWAL: So what was the gang problem like in El Salvador before the mass deportations?

PATTERSON: When I was there, some of the policemen, some of our advisors, would come down from California. And they were seeing then the graffiti of Mara Salvatrucha, of the 18th Street gang. And they said, obviously, this is promoted by deportations. Again, I’m not really sure that’s true. I think it was fertile ground for the gang problem in El Salvador. But what you have in a place like El Salvador is less law enforcement and less control, so the problem rapidly got out of control.

DHALIWAL: Do you think that, generally speaking, Central America is paying lip service to rehabilitation and prevention programs — and going more for the crackdown type of programs — because they seem to have more public support, even though when you look at and assess them, they don’t seem to be yielding results because they don’t cut gang membership and they don’t reduce the level of violence, either?

PATTERSON: I think that’s hard for any society to get a balance between, shall we say, the soft and the hard side, between a law enforcement crackdown and intervention with young gang members. I mean, you can imagine in our own country, the debates we’ve had over this sort of thing. And that’s why what we’re trying to do is get both ends of the spectrum. That’s where the U.S. government is trying to focus, both with the prevention and rehabilitation and the substance abuse [treatment], and again, work at it through a regional approach with the OAS [ Organization of American States] and with other countries, and more information on the actual criminals.


PATTERSON: Who’s a criminal? What do they do? What’s the criminal record, so law enforcement action can be taken against them?

DHALIWAL: But we’ve had a lot of very, very valuable and some very successful experiences here in the United States, mainly in Los Angeles, where we learned that multi-sector approaches are very fruitful. Why can’t we just take some of those programs and replicate them in Central America? Would that work?

PATTERSON: Well, we are replicating some of them. But again — and I actually went to Los Angeles when I was getting ready to leave El Salvador, and I remember talking to some of the officials about these programs, which have been incredibly successful. But they’re enormously resource intensive. I remember meeting with one policeman or patrol officer, something of the sort. And they identify at-risk youth. And the young man — generally a young man — doesn’t show up for school. Somebody goes to his house and gets him out of bed and finds out why he’s not at school. And that’s the kind of personalized, dedicated attention that these successful programs will require. And it’s very difficult for a country like El Salvador to come up with those sorts of resources.


Anne W. Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

PATTERSON: Again, this is a country where you have grinding poverty and low levels of education. And you have enormous needs of legitimate citizens: health and education. So it’s very difficult to come up with the resources to develop those sorts of programs. But again, we’re trying to help them work on this sort of thing.

DHALIWAL: So it’s not a question of political will at all, when it comes to the Salvadoran government?

PATTERSON: I don’t think it’s a question of political will. The fact is, the United States is a rich country with strong institutions. And we have gang problems in places like Los Angeles and Herndon, Virginia. But we can set up institutions. We can set up gang task forces. We can set up intervention programs. And these often just aren’t an option overseas in a place like El Salvador, without international support.

DHALIWAL: There are a number of agencies, and we’ve talked about this already — defense, justice, and state — which are looking at various different types of programs. What exactly is defense doing? Is that in the United States or is it in Central America?

PATTERSON: I’m not certain what the Department of Defense is doing on this. I understand they’ve been involved in some training programs, because they’ve engaged the military to do some activities on this. I personally don’t think that’s a good idea. The police should be built up to address this problem throughout Central America. And again, we’ve made huge strides working with the police in many of these countries over the last 15 years, to develop a police force that’s respectful of a population.

DHALIWAL: And the military should not be used on this because of their reputation with human rights abuses?

PATTERSON: Well, again, the military is greatly improved in all these countries, too. But that’s not the role of a military. The role of the military is national defense, not to go after crime in the streets. And police and institutions need to be built up with that. And we’ve worked vigorously, for instance, in Guatemala. We have a model precinct that’s made fairly significant strides in reducing crime in the area of that precinct. So you can develop police institutions. And again, I think we made some progress in El Salvador.

DHALIWAL: Just recently, the U.S. Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said that, you know, perhaps there should be this idea of a rapid response unit, or a rapid response force in Central America, which would involve Central American armies in terms of fighting the drugs problem and looking at other issues like security. Is that a good idea? Is that the way to go?

PATTERSON: That’s a little different issue. I mean, certainly, you should use the military against drug trafficking. And this had been a big issue elsewhere in Latin Amer-

DHALIWAL: And against gangs or not?

PATTERSON: Well, again, where you need the military, let me give you an example. Drug traffickers are coming into remote areas of Guatemala, dumping cocaine there, and having it shipped into Mexico, on to the United States. That’s a perfect role for the military and a quick reaction force of the military, to respond to those sorts of threats. But what you need in a case like gangs, you need intervention units. And you may need a rapid response force. But it should be under the police.

DHALIWAL: And not the armies at all?

PATTERSON: Not the army, in my view.

DHALIWAL: And your reason for that being what?

PATTERSON: That you need to build up a civilian police capacity. We’ve seen over the years in Latin America that if you leave law and order to the military, it’s a very different function. The military function is dramatically different from the police function. First of all, the police have arrest powers, which the military, most fundamentally, doesn’t have. So when you send the police to a scene like we saw in your film, they can arrest the perpetrators on the spot. The military can’t do that.

DHALIWAL: But is it a good idea to get the military involved in issues around gang violence in Central America, given their questionable human rights record during the civil war periods?

PATTERSON: It’s not so much a question of their human rights record, because I think with all the Central American militaries, that’s improved rather dramatically over the years. It’s not a good institutional solution. And in my view, no, it’s not a good idea. It’s a bad idea to get the military involved in gang intervention. Because it’s a role for the police.

DHALIWAL: So, I just want to get the overview here. What is the future for a country like El Salvador and for kids, as well, who are in gangs and Slappy’s kids?

PATTERSON: Insofar as your film focused on the criminal gang element, maybe it did the rest of the Salvadorans a disservice. Because there is an enormous future in a place like El Salvador. They’re increasingly tied to us in a good way, through things like the Central American Free Trade arrangement, through immigration. There are many Salvadorans up here who are extremely successful and sending money back and contributing to both societies. And if this is any guide, they’ll probably go back and retire there in El Salvador. So I think the future of El Salvador is good. The more difficult question is what is the future for [Slappy’s] sons. And I grant you, that’s going to be an enormous challenge. That’s why we’re trying to develop some programs to get at these little kids, essentially, and get them into some kind of intervention program, some kind of educational program that will help put them on a path toward a decent life and a decent job.

DHALIWAL: Ambassador Patterson, thank you very much for joining us for WIDE ANGLE.

PATTERSON: Thank you. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.


Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2021 WNET.ORG Properties LLC. All rights reserved.