Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2012.
Civil Society leaders discuss opportunities and challenges to a sustainable peace
SAN SALVADOR Just over two hundred days have passed since the two rival Salvadoran street gangs, MS 13 and Barrio 18, signed a historic truce. The pact has seen various hiccups since its signing—under the pressure of investigative newspaper El Faro, President Mauricio Funes’ administration admitted that it had negotiated the signing of the pact in exchange for favors for leading gang members, and that it was not brokered exclusively by the Catholic Church as they previously insisted; and the bloody discovery of the bodies of schoolboys in July raised questions about whether the agreement was still in place. However, the homicide rate immediately fell upon its signing and has, in comparison to what is normal in El Salvador, stayed low. “Even one fewer death every day is a huge opportunity for this people… we’ve already seen hundreds of lives saved,” says Maria Silvia Guillen, the director of the Foundation for the Study of the Application of the Law (FESPAD) and past representative to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The question that civil society leaders like Guillen are raising is whether the truce will dissipate before important changes are made to Salvadoran law and society that are necessary in building a sustained peace. If these changes are not made, leaders warn, the opportunity will quickly slip away.
Exactly what changes are necessary was the subject of a recent San Salvador conference in late September, called The Truce: Opportunities and Challenges. “The problem of violence in El Salvador has never been 100% the fault of the gangs,” stated Rodrigo Bolanos, the owner of League clothing factory, where one-fifth of employees are gang-affiliated. “It is 10% their fault, and 90% the fault of the history of inequality in this country.”
Young people in El Salvador, who make up the majority of gang members, are also the hardest hit by this chronic lack of opportunities. Even today, the country earmarks less than 2.5% of its gross domestic product for education and underemployment rates remain high. “This sort of social exclusion is the first step in the evolution of violence,” explained Fr. Antonio Rodriguez, who runs Passionist Social Service community programs for violence prevention in urban Mejicanos.
Since the first gang members were deported from Los Angeles to El Salvador in the early 1990’s, the cost of this social exclusion has been very high. “The number of victims since the gang phenomenon began is above 50,000; what we were living before the truce was a new type of social conflict, not simply a crime wave,” asserted Raul Mijango, former guerilla and one of the truce mediators. “We have seen in the past that heavy-handed approaches to solving the problem haven’t worked…now, it’s time to try alternatives.”
Conference participants pointed out that several root causes of this social conflict still remain: among them, a failed penitentiary system, widespread discriminatory attitudes in society and laws, and too few opportunities. El Salvador’s nineteen prisons are overcrowded and violent: built to hold 8,000 prisoners, they today hold 24,000. “In a functioning prison system, a person should be able to leave incarceration and return to civil society rehabilitated,” said Fr. Jose Maria Tojeira, the rector of the Jesuit University of Central America.
With conditions as they are in the Salvadoran system, it is no wonder that prisons have actually increased gangs’ power, and certainly do not offer a chance to prepare to return to normal civilian life after release. No specific plans to overhaul the prison system have been announced since the truce was signed, but Mijango stated at the conference that the government has recently accepted two loans for upwards of $70 million from unidentified international institutions, to be used toward this end.
Another roadblock to lasting change is widespread discrimination toward active and former gang members in society and the legal system. These attitudes ensure that the doors to opportunity remained closed to youth in gang life. “It has been six months now (since the truce signing) and Salvadoran society hasn’t reacted like it needs to… We understand the hatred against the boys for all that they have done,” stated Mijango. “But now, they’re the ones making proposals for a social recuperation in this country.” Fr. Tojeira added, “This is historic: the poor and marginalized are no longer waiting for the powerful to take a step forward…. They are facilitating progress for our society.”
The speakers pointed out that if the social exclusion that created the cycle of violence in El Salvador continues, the truce will be unable to break that cycle. However, the government’s involvement in negotiating the truce is a notable break from previous attitudes, argued Guillen. “For as long as we at FESPAD have done violence prevention work with young gang members, we have been criticized for ‘protecting criminals.’ Now, this government is instituting that very work as policy. This is a very hopeful change.”
According to Geovanni Morales, MS-13 member and employee of the Social Reinsertion area of SSPAS, young people in gangs need psychological support, trust and opportunities when they attempt to leave the violence of gang life. “Put yourself in our shoes. Behind me, there are many youth wanting to change like I have, to contribute to society. But that won’t happen if the discrimination continues.”
Morales’ statement prompted a young man from the audience to stand and thank him for his honesty, telling the audience that he was inspired to try to change his attitude about gang members in his neighborhood. Mijango cautioned the young man about yet another of the road blocks to sustainable peace: the Anti-Gang Law, passed by the Funes administration in 2010, which makes it illegal to in any way aid or accompany gang activity. “If you reach out your hand to a gang member, you could be put in jail. That’s why we see abolition of this law as necessary,” he explained. Gang members had also demanded that the law be repealed as part of truce negotiations, but the government has yet to take any concrete steps to do so.
The lasting effectiveness of the truce may also depend on the success of several proposals unveiled at the conference. The Passionist Social Service distributed a proposal for an alternative to the Anti-Gang Law, which they call the Special Law for Withdrawl and Rehabilitation of Members of Gangs and Criminal Organizations. It would allow gang members who have been processed for a felony to clear their records if they will choose to leave the gang, and would destine some State resources to rehabilitation programs. The proposal points out that Article 27 of the Salvadoran Constitution establishes rehabilitation of delinquents as a responsibility of the government. The proposal also suggests the creation of the National Institute for Gang Rehabilitation, which by legislative decree would have the responsibility of coordinating and overseeing the various rehabilitation efforts that could surface under this proposed law.
Factory owner Bolanos unveiled another proposal at the conference aimed at creating alternatives to violent gang life: a self-sustaining industrial park that includes education through a second-year technical university degree, childcare, and recreational areas. The park is intended to be built in a marginalized urban neighborhood in San Salvador known as the IVU, which has a 95% unemployment rate and high levels of violence. The center of park would be a clothes factory, which would employ at least one member of every family in the community, including gang members. It would be built on land owned by the local mayor’s office. Bolanos believes that this type of employment opportunity that also strengthens community ties would be an effective antidote to the violence that gang activity usually implies. “The gang members that I have employed at League have been efficient and honest workers…. There are a few other business owners with me in this, but not many. We are all in a learning process; we are the first in the Americas to see this problem with dignity, to truly recognize that we are all human beings,” he stated.
The Funes administration is also poised to act, according to Mijango. He announced that the government has recently accepted six projects from the United States Agency for International Development, the first $40 million of which will be dedicated to reinsertion into society for former gang members and violence prevention programs.
He also announced that the government is awaiting similar funds from the European Union. The extent to which these proposals will be enacted is yet to be seen. Whether greater society will be willing to move beyond long-held attitudes about gang members is also a pending piece of the puzzle.
Despite the unknowns, small signs of change surface at the conference. “All of us who are here today have been through our own rehabilitation process,” said an audience member. “We’ve all somehow learned to see this problem differently, to see each other first as human beings. I decided long ago that I want to be part of a society where everyone is allowed to participate, and we are now one step closer. We are hearing politicians and business people say that they’re ready to institutionalize dignity…this is called ‘Revolution,’ ladies and gentlemen.