NBC’s Engel: People Fleeing ‘War Zone Dynamic’ in El Salvador

Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” NBC News chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel  said people were fleeing a “war-zone dynamic” in Central America.

Partial transcript as follows:

TODD: Richard Engel returned last night from a trip to El Salvador where he reported why people are willing to risk this dangerous journey and family separation to come to the United States, and Richard joins me now from Seaside, California, where we made him stop here to get on our show. Richard, thanks very much. Let me start with this. Normally I’m talking to you and you’re in a war zone somewhere, maybe you’re in Syria, maybe you’re in North Africa or maybe somewhere in Asia, but here you are in Central America. Does it feel like the war zones you cover when you cover the war?

ENGEL: It felt very much like a war zone, a low-grade war zone and there were places in El Salvador where you can’t go, and where the police and government don’t feel safe to go. We’re talking about a population of 100,000 active gang members and when you have that many people with guns and when you have a government that doesn’t feel in control of the capital city, then you’re having a war zone dynamic. People we talked to said they’re afraid to go out in the countryside. When they do, they see gang members carrying their weapons openly. There are gang checkpoints stopping you, asking you where you’re from and what affiliation you have and if they don’t like your answers they will kill you and drop you in the street. We went to a prison and met very hard-core gang members and one of them bragged to us that he’d killed 35 people just himself and when you have that number of dangerous people who feel that emboldened, it is not surprising that people want to leave the country and seek different opportunities and don’t want their children to get sucked into the gang life and have them become the next generation of killers or victims.

TODD: In some ways you’ve spent way too much time in Syria for us at NBC. Compare the story in El Salvador. How much of that country are they actually governing and how much of it are the gangs in charge of? Is it like Syria where you had parts of the country governed by certain entities?

ENGEL: Well, not just the 100,000 people or so who are active gang members, there are some estimates that you have to multiply that number by five or ten to get the real number of people who are actually affiliated with gangs, supported with gangs, make their livelihood with gangs, and this is a small country, El Salvador. We’re only talking 6.5 million people. That is roughly one in ten people there is either a gang member or makes their livelihood from a gang member. We’re talking about 10% of the population, just of the population living outside the law, and this is a population that is armed. So they are able to control and exert their will over a lot more of the percentage than that. So there are large parts of the country that are not fully under the government’s control.

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