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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Sarah Elizabeth Garland
SAN SALVADOR, Aug 3 2004 (IPS) - Norman Rinar proudly holds up a delicate ceramic frog in the dim workshop decorated with vivid blue graffiti. His bare back and arms are tattooed with the same symbols and images that are smattered across the walls, and his forehead bears the central theme: a large gothic “18.”
The 26-year-old handles the pottery with great care; more than a potential candle or pencil holder, the small frog is his ticket out of the poverty and hopelessness he grew up in.
The energy Rinar once poured into adorning his skin and the walls of his neighbourhood with gang symbols he now dedicates to creating pottery sold in his home country, El Salvador, and exported to Honduras and the United States.
Still an active member of the gang ’18th Street’, Rinar says he and his friends have “calmed down” since they joined the Movement of Young Discoverers (MOJE by its Spanish acronym), an organisation supported by Swiss and Swedish foundations that provides technical job training to local gang members in Ilobasco, El Salvador.
“(We joined) because we wanted to bring something home to our families … and so people would see we’re trying to change, so they’ll stop judging us,” he said in an interview with IPS.
Ilobasco’s population burgeoned during El Salvador’s civil war of the 1980s as refugees from nearby mountains streamed into the neutral township.
Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street originated in California after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during the civil war and settled in impoverished neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife.
Just as El Salvador began to recover from the war, Washington began to deport thousands of gang members to the country, where the explosion of gang violence during the late nineties lifted El Salvador’s homicide rates above those during the war.
Police and judicial reforms, along with a decently performing economy dependent on remittances from Salvadorans working abroad, have reduced some of the crime. But guards armed with automatic rifles protect most banks and larger businesses, and urban Salvadorans – over one-half of the population – scurry indoors as soon as night falls.
In some districts of the country, violence rages still, some of it related to gang conflict and the rest to organised crime, domestic abuse and random acts that no one can explain except as remnants of the country’s bloody national history. Murders of young people in Ilobasco have dropped significantly in the past several years, however, from 50 in 1999 to two so far this year.
MOJE claims its work was the defining factor in reducing that number, but police argue that gang violence is declining because of temporary anti-gang laws enacted last July under the so-called Plan Mano Dura (Iron Fist). The first two versions of the law made membership in a gang a crime, with tattoos or previous gang activity acceptable proof for arresting someone.
A third version, Super Mano Dura, was agreed on in June after weeks of negotiations between newly-elected President Tony Saca, the National Assembly, the judicial branch, the National Civilian Police (NCP) and human rights agencies. Instead of targeting gangs specifically, the new programme revives a law that penalises illicit associations and increases sentencing limits for juveniles, thus avoiding previous protests that the anti-gang laws were discriminatory.
Despite a compromise at the federal level, police and anti-violence organisations continue to clash in the streets over how to end gang warfare.
Anti-violence organisations like MOJE and Homies Unidos (Homies – for “home boys,” a term for gang members – United) argue that most gang members will never leave their gangs, facing death if they do. They assert that the bodies have some positive aspects, and instead of eradicating them, they say society should leave the gangs intact and help their members eliminate the violent rivalries.
Police, on the other hand, say gangs are by nature violent, and the only way to reduce crime is to root them through hard-nosed policies. “They have no reason to exist … except to seek the death of the rival gang,” said Mauricio Ramirez, sub-director of public security of the NCP, in an interview at police headquarters.
He describes the NCP’s plan as a three-pronged approach, which includes prevention and reinsertion of gang members into society, but Ramirez echoes others in law enforcement who believe that getting gangs off the streets however possible is the best way to protect the rest of the Salvadoran population in the short term.
MOJE argues otherwise. “The violence has greatly diminished in Ilobasco … reflecting the impact our work has had,” said José Wilian García, general coordinator of the body and a former gang member, in an interview at MOJE’s main offices.
Instead of dismantling the gang, MOJE believes in preserving its “familial” structure, which often provides support to youth, many of whom come from violent family situations. The organisation also offers workshops in personal development and self-esteem to encourage gang members to “calm down,” or leave behind violent lifestyles.
But local police have not accepted the MOJE model, said García. “There is still police abuse against them (gang members), though; they keep abusing their rights.”
Negative perceptions of the members of MOJE have not dissipated despite their participation in profitable pottery, welding, carpentry and screen-printing enterprises. The group says, for example, that police have continued to harass its members despite them having identity cards to show authorities they are participating in the programme.
On one occasion, police entered the ceramics workshop without a warrant and broke several pottery pieces. Using the anti-gang law, they arrested the boy left to guard the shop, despite the fact that he had a MOJE card. At other times, police have torn up their identity cards, say members.
MOJE and similar groups like Homies Unidos say Mano Dura reversed progress they had made in reducing gang violence.
Founded in Los Angeles to work with Salvadoran youth involved in gangs, Homies Unidos opened a branch in El Salvador to work with local gang members deported from the United States. It is financed by organisations like the Liberty Hill Foundation, Peace Development Fund and The California Endowment.
“We’re constantly harassed. We’ve been marked,” Homies Unidos Executive Director Silvia Beltrán told IPS, referring to the recent arrest of the group’s El Salvador director.
The supposed national leader of 18th Street is known throughout El Salvador by his nickname, Viejo Lin (Old Lin) after his face was splashed across newspapers for months when he was arrested on murder charges that were never proven.
With his fame marking him for death at the hands of either the rival gang or the remnants of paramilitary death squads left over from the war, Viejo Lin feared for his life after his release from prison. So Homies Unidos, whose main work is to help deportees leave violence behind as they readjust to life in El Salvador, went to pick him up.
Minutes after driving away from the prison, police stopped the car and arrested everyone in it using the anti-gang laws that made the Homies Unidos El Salvador director’s remaining tattoos from his gangster past a crime.
Many smaller incidents have chipped away at the strong base of support that once made Homies Unidos a beacon for youth trying to leave gangs and gang violence. With the Los Angeles branch of the organisation prevented from sending funds because of U.S. anti-terrorism laws that brand the Salvadoran branch an illicit group, the southern office now struggles to pay its electricity bills. The salaries of a staff reduced to two have gone unpaid for months.
Both MOJE and Homies assert that the fear Mano Dura has generated among youth in gangs has reduced membership in their anti-violence programmes. Many youth with tattoos or known affiliations with the gangs stay hidden at home, emerging only at night.
“I can’t go out of the house, we can’t go to the park anymore,” said Rinar, who spent most of the month of February this year in and out of jail after being arrested repeatedly under the first version of the anti-gang law. He only spent three days in jail at a time, since Salvadoran judges had refused to apply the law, calling it unconstitutional and a violation of the human rights of its targets.
“A principle of guilt where people aren’t judged by their physical appearance but by the delinquent acts they’ve committed has to be a part of any law,” Aída Luz Santos de Escobar, a judge in the San Salvador court for youth offenders, told IPS, criticising the past laws.
Yet while many of the judges refused to support a new law that specifically targets gangs, Rinar and others are sceptical Super Mano Dura will hold many benefits for them. They see little distinction between the anti-gang law and the revived one forbidding illicit associations.
“For this president, the solution is to put all young people in jail,” said Rinar, “It’s really hard; they don’t give you an opportunity, they just offer you prison.”
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