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El Salvador is one of the most violent countries on the planet. MS13 and Barrio 18, gangs notorious for their brutality, control a large portion of the nation. Scholars often look to the impact of United States immigration policies when it comes to explaining how these gangs came to be in El Salvador. In this paper, I build on that history to explore why MS13 and Barrio 18 can maintain control over an entire country. Immigration policies of the United States have left a stain on modern-day El Salvador, but it is the failings of the Salvadoran state that encourage the persistent violence of gangs. Societal stigmas, institutional weaknesses, and an unwillingness to address past violence push El Salvador deeper into the cycle of violence. Today, the United States provides aid to El Salvador, but encouraging punitive action and military-level training only serve to exacerbate the conflict between the government and the gangs. However, a path beyond cyclical violence is on the horizon; Nicaragua has successfully implemented community-based programs that have dramatically decreased gang presence and murder rates within the country. With the help of the United States, El Salvador could do the same.
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