The Gang Threat to Salvadoran Military Personnel and their Families




Military Personnel and their families face an existential threat from gangs due to the military’s increasing involvement in counter-gang operations since 2015.   Military and their families lives are constantly threatened which has cause them to quit the military and often flee the country.   These heroes and their families are effectively carrying out U.S. policy in El Salvador but often become victims of U.S. deportation orders that send them back to the country they fled.   This article looks at the danger they face in El Salvador and provides evidence of this danger that can be fruitfully used by immigration attorneys at deportation hearings.

The Problem:

The military has become increasing involved in counter gang operations since 2015.  In April 2014, former Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén declared war on the gangs which resulted in continuous open warfare between the military and the gangs. There are currently 10,400 soldiers on the streets of El Salvador, with the currently government unleashing a 1,000-strong special reaction force (Feres) including 600 soldiers [1].

The Salvadoran Army Special Forces in particular have been involved with the El Salvador's National Civilian Police (Policia Nacional Civil, or PNC) in combatting gang operations in the country.   These operations in particular included area security, security of local and state police facilities, and joint training.  The Special Forces have also been snap linked into the U.S. sponsored Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) unit to better pursue and prosecute gang members.  This has involved in particular intelligence sharing between the PNC, Special Forces, and U.S. Embassy-San Salvador.  The increased cooperation between the PNC and the military in recent years in El Salvador has been noteworthy as both had been traditional rivals for government funding.  Anti-gang operations have been one area they have found common ground [2].

In recent years, the United States has dedicated funding to support anti-gang efforts in Central America. Between FY2008 and FY2018, the U.S. spent roughly $56 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) funds for anti-gang efforts in El Salvador.  Additional support for anti-gang efforts in the region was provided through the Mérida Initiative, a counterdrug and anticrime program for Mexico and Central America and through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).  At the military strategic level, the Department of Defense has stepped up its efforts in recent years, partnering actively with El Salvador to help mitigate gang power.

U.S. Southern Command, in conjunction with U.S. Embassy-San Salvador, has been involved with the training of military and police in counter gang operations over the past six years.   The U.S. Army National Guard in particular has been essential, with its concentration of civilian-career law enforcement personnel, many with gang-related experience, which have aided the Salvadoran military in mitigating the gang threat [3].

As a result of all this activity of the military over the last ten years, the military has increasingly become a target of the gangs as the gangs see the military as an existential threat.  The Salvadoran Armed Forces work to disrupt their operations, arrest their members, and ultimately eliminate their way of life.  Accordingly, those who participate with the military in anti-gang operations are viewed as enemies and are targeted for killing.  Involvement in the military means support for the government [4].

Due to their affiliation with the Salvadoran government which opposes and seeks to eliminate the gangs, members of the Salvadoran Armed Forces are targeted by gangs in El Salvador.  Targeting members of the military and their families with death threats and carrying out those threats is very common and widespread [5].

Military members must take extreme measures to protect themselves and their families from the gangs.  They are not permitted to wear their uniforms off-duty or bring them home. They must conceal their affiliation with the military, particularly around any gang members. Their families must also take care to not be identified as being associated with the military [6].

Members of the Special Forces who are involved in anti-gang operations face even more danger from the gangs because they combat the gangs and disrupt their operations on behalf of the Salvadoran government. By extension, the families of Special Forces troops face increased danger due to their family member’s anti-gang activities. The dangerous conditions and risk to military families has not changed.  Military families continue to be the target of death threats and killings [7].


The Salvadoran military and in particular their Special Forces, face an existential danger in El Salvador due to the gangs.   Arguments can be made in immigration court that these former military personnel and family members would be in grave danger if returned and at least deserve protection under the Convention Against Torture.   At the present, the Salvadoran government has not proven to be able to protect their own active military personnel from gangs let alone former members.  Due to the corruption of the Salvadoran government and police at all levels, it is more likely that an official at some level working with gangs would inform them of military personnel and hand them over for retribution rather than act to protect them.



[1] See for example:  “Rise of the Salvatrucha: World’s most feared and vicious gang is expanding with ambitions to commit the most murders”  January 7, 2017.  Accessed at:



[2]. Department of Justice Resources Allocated to Containing Gangs,” U.S. Department of Justice, April 2008, accessed at:; Also, author conversations with personnel, U.S. Embassy, San Salvador, December 2019.


[3] See for example:  Max G. Manwaring, The Complexity of Modern Asymmetric Warfare (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2012); Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan. Studies in Gangs and Cartels (New York: Routledge, 2013); Douglas Farah. Transnational Organized Crime, Terrorism, and Criminalized States in Latin America: An Emerging Tier-One National Security Priority (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2012); See also:  U.S. Southern Command, “Posture Statement of Admiral Kurt Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 113th Congress, House Armed Services Committee, 15 February 2018.”  Available online


[4] “The Gang Challenge in El Salvador: Worse than you thought,” War on the Rocks, December 16, 2015, accessed at:


[5] “Alert Circulated for Military for Supposed MS-13 Threat,” El Diario, April 27, 2017, accessed at:


[6] How the U.S. helped created El Salvador’s bloody gang war,” The Guardian, January 10, 2020, accessed at:


[7] “Alert Circulated to Agents for Supposed Threat of Attacks to Police HQ,” Moneda, September 3, 2017, accessed at:



About The Author

Robert Kirkland

is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and operational Latin American Foreign Area Officer. He has a B.S. from the United States Military Academy, West Point and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Pittsburgh. He also has a graduate certificate in Latin American Studies from the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He also helps guide students in Service Academy admissions as well as ROTC scholarships . He has provided expert testimony on drug cartel and gang violence in Mexico and Central America since his retirement from the Army in 2014. He can be reached at or at his website


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