In 2014, a wave of unaccompanied kids from Central America caught the U.S. government off-guard when they flooded into Texas in record numbers, triggering what President Obama called an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
Two years later, a silent swell of a different type is starting to emerge on the U.S. southern border. And it could be a harbinger of another immigration crisis in the making.
Salvadorans are fleeing to the United States in massive numbers, and now they're bringing the whole family along. Though the number of unaccompanied Salvadoran minors crossing the border has not returned to the surge numbers seen in 2014, the number of Salvadoran family units apprehended on the southern border has increased by a whopping 96% over the past year.
Undocumented Salvadoran families are arriving in the U.S. in greater numbers than immigrants from any other Latin American nation. Ten Salvadoran families are apprehended here for every one Mexican family, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol statistics.
There are now more Salvadorans in U.S. immigration deportation proceedings than any other nationality.
For those paying attention to the situation in El Salvador, the timing of the new surge might seem strange considering that the country's murder rate, which was the highest in the world in 2015, has dropped significantly during the first half of this year. The country's death toll has dropped from an average of 25 murders each day in January to around 11 murders per day over the past four months.
At first blush, that looks like good news. But behind the numbers there could be a gathering storm that's hard to see from the outside, but one that Salvadorans can feel in the air. And that sense that the center cannot hold might explain why so many families are pulling up sticks and heading out now.
The headlines in El Salvador suggest something's brewing—possibly a war.
The attorney general's office last week announced that state security forces recently foiled a dangerous terrorist plot by the MS-13 (Salvatrucha) that could have escalated the country's gang war into something more akin to a guerrilla insurrection.
In a voluminous case filed against 78 MS-13 leaders, state prosecutors accused the criminal group of plotting to purchase high-calibre weapons in Mexico and Guatemala to arm and train an "elite" commando unit of 500 gangbangers to coordinate nationwide terrorist attacks against government targets.
The prosecutor's case, which is allegedly based on intelligence gathered from wiretaps, says the MS-13 was in the process of raising $1 million to buy assault rifles, surface-to-air weapons to shoot down helicopters, commando uniforms and bulletproof vests, according to local media outlets allowed to review the document. The plan was allegedly to place two elite commandos in each of the 249 MS-13 cliques to lead an offensive aimed at asserting territorial control while destabilizing the country's economy and political establishment.
In an effort to sap state coffers, the Salvatrucha shock troops were allegedly planning to target police officers and politicians for daily killings, because each public employee's death costs the government $2,000- $3,000 in funeral costs, plus an additional $20,000-$25,000 in insurance payouts to family members.
In short, the alleged Salvatrucha war plan would have meant an unfathomable escalation of violence in a country that already has the dubious distinction of being one of the most dangerous places in the world.
But is it any of it true? Some claim the whole government report stinks of officialist propaganda.
"This is an operation of psychological warfare," says Paolo Luers, a former gang truce mediator and ex-FMLN guerrilla.
Luers says he thinks the government is trying to justify the "extraordinary" measures it adopted in March to crack down on gangs, while also trying to create division among the MS-13's top leadership, an incarcerated group known as the ranfla.
"I think this whole business about the 500 men is total lie," Luers told me. "The official policy agreed to among the three gangs (The MS-13, 18-Sureños and 18-Revolucionarios) in March is to not fall into the government's trap by getting involved in a military-style final battle, rather to retreat and reduce the level of confrontation."
Luers says the gangs are smart enough to realize that they would lose a war against the government. Even trying to organize a military campaign on that scale would require so much money that it would mark "the beginning of the end" of the gangs' control in the neighborhoods, he says.
The gangs themselves insist they are trying to avoid going to war with the government. In the most recent communique issued by the MS-13 and the two factions of Barrio 18, the gangs claim the recent drop of violence in El Salvador is thanks to their decision to quiet their guns.
"The reduction of violence is due to the decision made by the gangs, because we don't have any interest in involving the country in war," the June 18 communique said.
Outside security analysts are also scratching their heads at the government's claims that the MS-13 was secretly preparing for war.
Adam Isacson, a regional a regional security policy expert for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), says it makes no sense for the gangs to launch some type of guerrilla insurgency against El Salvador's government—it's just not their m.o.
The gangs, he says, have no ideology, no political program, and no aspiration to take over the government. Their only interest is in controlling territory for extortion and other illicit business endeavors—and that model works best when the gangs aren't fighting the police or army.
Declaring war on the El Salvador's government would draw way too much heat, Isacson says.
"It would be an awfully risky strategy because the Salvadoran government has more trained personnel, more firepower, and [U.S.] Southern Command would be prime to jump in on that," he told me. "And it's hard to imagine that going well for them."
Whatever's really happening with the gangs—whether they're just hanging low or secretly preparing for war—the U.S. immigration numbers suggest that that many Salvadorans don't think the government's repressive crackdown, which is awful in its own right, will result in lasting peace. As is too often the case in Central America, things can always get worse.
And for many Salvadorans, the risks of emigrating to the U.S. is not a sufficient deterrent compared to the danger of staying behind.