In May, the Washington Post reported that El Salvador is on pace to become the hemisphere’s most deadly nation. A 2012 government-supported truce between the two most powerful gangs, MS-13 and 18th Street, disintegrated in 2014 because neither the government nor the gangs maintained their commitments under the negotiated agreement. Since the truce crumbled, violence has surged; more than 1800 people have been killed this year. The Guardian recently reported that El Salvador broke a grim record in May with 635 homicides – the most killings for a single month since the country’s civil war ended in 1992. That translates to about 20 people killed per day in the month of May, and underreporting is suspected.
In response, El Salvador’s anti-gang police have intensified their operations, killing suspected gang members and arresting more than 4,400 others this year. Over the years, El Salvador has tried various iron-fisted security plans, but the gangs remain pervasive. There is no indication that the latest repressive police crackdown has been any more effective than previously implemented police practices.
But there’s more to this story than the many staggering statistics – the gang narrative in El Salvador is cyclical and often inescapable. Raul Mijango, a violence prevention worker in El Salvador who helped to broker the 2012 truce explains that the influence of the gangs is so prevalent that “kids have two choices — join or flee.” It is undisputed that gangs are deeply embedded in the social fabric of Salvadoran society.
El Salvador will not be cured of gang violence unless the gangs themselves are participants in the peace process. An illuminating September 2014 Al Jazeera article, Victims and Perpetrators: Gangs of El Salvador, details a major obstacle to the peace-building process: USAID, which invests millions of dollars annually in violence prevention in Central America, will not provide funding to any organizations or programs that work with active gang members.This restriction ensures that US investments in violence prevention in El Salvador are not nearly as effective as they could be.
Rick Jones, the Deputy Regional Director of Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador, reports that many young people join gangs because they have few opportunities for recreation and jobs. “There is no youth-serving system in this country that’s functioning,” said Jones. Gangs offer an alternative to youth who witness the poverty and suffering that are the reality of their communities. Jones captured the pervasive nature of gangs stating, “If you’re a young person between 15 and 25 years old, you’re likely to be both a victim and a perpetrator [in El Salvador].”
To date, the repressive police practices and authoritarian policies employed by the Salvadoran government have been unsuccessful. A renewed peace-building approach that integrates the voices of the gangs and acknowledges the root causes of gang membership is desperately needed in El Salvador. Policies that promote models of restorative justice might be a better approach to creating peace.
As always, our challenge and call is to heed the human voice of dignity within each of us while tackling challenges of violence and injustice. I’d encourage you to visit the Blog of my dear friend Jenna Knapp, co-founder of Proyecto Cuentame in El Salvador, where Jenna spent three years accompanying incarcerated Salvadoran youth, practicing empathetic listening and facilitating a space for creative expression. Jenna’s blog offers a bridge to the voices, hearts, and minds of Salvadoran youth, incarcerated because of their participation in gangs: http://alifebetweenthelines.blogspot.com.
The following is a poem that Jenna translated and shared, written byÁngel, who after a childhood of violent abuse, turned to the gangs and then spent years in juvenile detention.
A Man’s Desire
If I were a bird
I would go far away from where I am.
I would fly away until I found a tranquil place
with no problems
without anyone telling me what to do
just to enjoy a moment of peace.
If I were a turtle
I would enjoy the slow life.
I would see the beauty of the sea
soaking up the solitude.
I would submerge myself into the depths
leaving all of my problems in the waves.
If I were a bat
I would hang from a branch
and see the beauty of the sky
the brilliance of the stars and the moon,
to feel myself alone
without anyone looking at me or criticizing me.
If I were a dog
I would care for the people I love most,
I wouldn’t let anyone near them.
If someone wanted to rob them,
I would defend them.
I would stay with them all of the time.
But I am a man.
I can’t become an animal
but I have hopes of becoming
a good person.