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Gang warfare takes over El Salvador

El Salvador

In San Salvador, the entrance of a community building commemorates the work and life of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Alison McKellar under a Creative Commons Licence

This past March was El Salvador’s most violent month for a decade. There were a total of 481 homicides – an average of 16 a day in a country with a population of less than 6 million. Ninety-two per cent of the victims were men aged 18-30.

While cities have become notorious for gang warfare, what is worrying is that more and more murders are being committed in rural areas, as the violence spreads like an oil slick across the country.

Yet on 26 March, responding to a call by the National Council of Citizen Security and Coexistence (an advisory group organized by the president and facilitated by the United Nations), thousands of Salvadorans marched through its main cities, demanding peace.

The month also marked the 35th anniversary of the murder of Óscar Romero, a universal pacifist, who will be canonized by the Catholic Church in May.

Violent clashes with gangs are claiming an increasing number of lives on both sides of the law. Between January and March, the number of police officers killed tripled compared with the same period last year.

Violence has plagued the country for decades, but gang violence is now at an all-time high, leaving thousands of families, often from poor communities, in mourning each year.

In El Salvador, most young people (especially those aged 9-12) join a gang because membership provides a sense of identity and power and, in a country with few employment opportunities, it gives them something to do and a way to earn money through illicit activities. Some even join for the notoriety of seeing their faces in the media.

Jeanne Rikers of Christian Aid partner FESPAD explains: ‘There is a huge need to create positive alternatives for young people, and this requires a significant investment of resources on the part of the state.’

Revenge killings are responsible for a large proportion of the recorded homicides and are not only carried out by gang members, but even by friends or family of the victims.

‘The factors related to these homicides are many and complex, and cannot be addressed through retaliation with further violence – whether by the state or individuals seeking revenge,’ says Rikers.

‘It is the country’s social, economic, political and cultural structures which lead to social exclusion, the availability of arms, drug trafficking, the stigmatizing of youth and the ever- present issue of “machismo”.’
‘The culture of impunity also means there is no discouragement from joining gangs because so few people are prosecuted.’

FESPAD works across the country, in communities which suffer from social exclusion, building trust between residents in order to promote peace. It arranges meetings between community leaders and the authorities to discuss solutions to the violence, where it can mediate between community leaders – who are sometimes also gang leaders – and the state.

FESPAD also offers training to the police, prosecutors and judges to ensure they apply penal law with respect for human rights.

A vital part of its work involves the rehabilitation and social reintegration of ex-gang members, providing them with opportunities to earn a legal income which helps discourage them from returning to the gangs.

What is needed is a countrywide, integrated approach, focused on generating structural and cultural changes, as well as changes in attitude.

The National Council of Citizen Security and Coexistence launched a ‘Plan for a Secure El Salvador’ in January this year.

FESPAD, along with governmental institutions, the private sector, churches, political parties and social organizations, fed into this plan which hopes to tackle the violence by reducing exclusion and inequality.

With a $1.7-million annual budget across five years, it will introduce 100 recommendations, such as educational programmes in prisons and increased police presence in the 50 most violent cities.

Civil society organizations across the country are making efforts to understand the gang phenomenon and to share their findings and knowledge. Initiatives such as those run by FESPAD, focusing on enterprise, culture, sport and art, are important contributions, demonstrating change is possible both at an individual and community level.  

The concern for all those working in El Salvador is that if the violence continues to seep out into rural areas, every part of the country will become infected with gang violence, thus making it even harder to contain with the limited resources pledged to tackle the problem.

Guadalupe Cortés Vega is Programme Officer for Christian Aid in El Salvador.

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