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July/August 2011
Vol. 36, No. 4

El Salvador: Responding to gangs

Nineteen years after the end of the brutal civil war in El Salvador that took the lives of an estimated 70,000 people, violence continues to ravage this small Central American country. Its homicide rate currently is approximately 10 murders per day. Organized street gangs, originally established in the U.S., grow in size and influence. The following article was contributed by Larry Parr, a Maryknoll lay missioner who lives and works in San Salvador.

The response by the government in the last 10 years has been very similar to its response to the guerillas during the civil war: violence. Government officials have chosen to use harsh anti-gang laws knows as "mano dura" or strong hand tactics detaining youth for mere suspicion of being in a gang, longer prison sentences, and raids against suspected gang members. More recently, the military has begun accompanying the police in patrolling some of most violent zones.

The U.S. and Salvadoran governments have viewed this as a transnational issue and have poured millions of dollars into police equipment and training with little success. These strict policies have not worked, as the violence and crime rates have stayed the same or slightly increased in this time period. These policies have also led to police corruption and have alienated many young men in El Salvador.

Many youth are constantly stopped and searched by the police. This includes students who are just walking home from school. One student in my neighborhood was stopped and hit in the head by police while he was on his way to soccer practice. Other youth are detained by the police for up to three days and are never charged. One 16 year old I work with has been detained six times in five months. This exposure to prison life leads many youth into deeper gang involvement. The current policies are not only ineffective but are counter-productive, with the end result being a community paralyzed by fear of both the gangs and law enforcement officials.

Local governments and community development organizations are beginning to look at this environment of violence in a different light. Lack of education and employment opportunities have come to the forefront and increasingly seen as a critical factor. This has resulted in community-based solutions that generate more opportunities for the youth and create safe spaces to allow them to develop and grow in peace.

Many young people do not have the money or resources to complete middle school, much less attend high school or college. Consequently, roaming the streets becomes the everyday activity for these impressionable youth who are at high risk for joining street gangs. Local organizations provide youth with alternatives to the street. These associations provide educational scholarships, establish community libraries where the children receive support needed to succeed in school, vocational and computer training programs, women's self-empowerment groups, and sports leagues. These programs help combat violence at the source by sending the message to young people that they are valued members of society, and should not be treated like criminals for walking down the street. These community organizations, use young and older adults as role models in the community. Youth are treated with respect and consideration which in turn allows them to build individual and group esteem. The youth respond to these programs with enthusiasm and optimism.

Violence continues to plague this small country, but there have been many individuals who have been positively affected by these programs. There needs to be more focus on creating a better environment within communities, rather than combating violence with more violence. These policies have been in place for many years, and have been proven to be ineffective in diminishing the atmosphere of fear and violence. There needs to be more of an emphasis on community development from the ground up. Both the Salvadoran government and the U.S. need to start looking at violence in Central America in a different light, and start focusing on development and not on the violent tactics that have been used since the civil wars.

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