Ali Watkins and Meridith Kohut explore the difficult relationship shared by the United States and El Salvador in A Conflicted War: MS-13, Trump and America’s Stake in El Salvador’s Security for the New York Times. After having just finished The Salvador Option, it's awful to see so many parallels with the 1980s.“If the police don’t eradicate crime in El Salvador, and the United States cuts the funding, the gangs will take over my country — even more than they currently do,” he said. “More people would try to escape, running away from crime, to save their lives.”
The United States is deeply involved in helping to improve El Salvador's capacity to tackle gang violence. It is training police, soldiers, prosecutors, and judges. It is funding forensics labs and prisons. It is pushing community policing efforts. The homicide rate has decreased but it is difficult to assess the impact of the United States' contributions to Salvadoran security.
Security units with whom the United States has worked continue to commit human rights abuses. Some will say because of US training while others will say in spite of its training. At times, these units effectively carry out missions based upon US training "But at other times, they struggled to complete assignments and were openly skeptical of their own system." Thirty-seven years to the day after the El Mozote massacre, the parallels to the Atlacatl Battalion are hard to miss. The United States provided basic training to El Salvador's elite unit in 1981 but they threw what they had learned out the window and then reverted to what cruelty they had been committing prior to US training.
Like the 1980s, the US government in Washington and in San Salvador are at odds with each other. The US Ambassador to El Salvador says that officials in San Salvador cannot be distracted by what the President says. That is no way to run the foreign service.
The president has claimed that he is deporting Salvadoran migrants at a record pace, that asylum-seekers are flooding American borders and that the Salvadoran government is not doing anything to help. But according to data the State Department presented this year to Salvadoran leaders, the number of citizens fleeing and the number getting deported back have decreased significantly.
The mixed messages can be dangerous. President Trump is warning that criminals are overrunning the US southern border and that it might be permissible to shoot them. In some ways, he is following El Salvador's lead where its political leaders have given the impression that it is permissible to shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. Like the 1980s, Salvadorans are fleeing a war in which the US is deeply involved. However, the United States accepts no responsibility for those fleeing for their lives.Jean Elizabeth Manes, the United States ambassador to El Salvador, said American officials there aren’t distracted by Mr. Trump’s remarks. “We stay focused on what the end goal is,” she said.