Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

CENTRAL AMERICA: Harsher Measures Don’t Cut Crime

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Nov 1 2006 (IPS) - Tough policies against youth gangs in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have only contributed to increasing crime, and an integrated approach that tackles the causes of the problem is urgently needed, according to civil society groups in Central America.

Research by the Central American Coalition for the Prevention of Youth Violence (CCPVJ) showed that the heavy-handed measures adopted in those three countries have provoked “an adverse effect,” with increased violence and more homicides, in contrast to developments in Nicaragua, Mexico and neighbourhoods in Washington, DC that were included in the comparative study.

The number of murders committed by young people in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras rose by about 40 percent after the implementation of tough new policies in the last three years, Jeannette Aguilar, one of the researchers and director of the University of Central America’s Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP), told IPS. Further data are still awaiting detailed study.

This is “extremely alarming,” the expert said.

Three years ago, the governments of the Northern Triangle of Central America began put into effect harsh policies named “Mano Dura” (Firm Hand), “Super Mano Dura”, Zero Tolerance and “Escoba” (Clean Sweep), which in practice declared open season on young people accused of belonging to “maras”, or street gangs.

But these programmes strengthened the gangs’ organisations in jails, and now their acts of violence, such as burglary, kidnapping and, recently, massive extortion, are directed from within the prison walls, according to the CCPVJ report.

Police records in El Salvador show that some 60,000 young people were jailed in the country over the last three years.

According to the Institute of Legal Medicine, the average number of murders in El Salvador is 55.5 per 100,000 population, twice the average for Latin America. Honduras had an average homicide rate of 40.6 per 100,000 population last year, and Guatemala had a rate of 37.5 per 100,000.

In contrast, Nicaragua has less than eight murders per 100,000 population, while Costa Rica, where social spending by the government is among the highest in the region, has just 6.2 per 100,000.

“The difference between the levels of violence has to do with action taken by the Nicaraguan state, which promotes the rights of children and young people, as well as police prevention strategies, in which relationships are developed with the youngsters and the problem of violence is dealt with within the total context,” Aguilar said.

The CCPVJ study was presented at an international forum on Juvenile Violence in the Region: An Unfinished Dialogue, held last week in San Salvador, which brought together political leaders, police chiefs, academics and experts on the subject.

Also taking part in the debate were delegates from international aid organisations, civil society and governments, including Senator Jarrett Barrios from the U.S. state of Massachusetts.

Only 14 years after the signing of the peace agreement which put an end to the civil war that left a legacy of 75,000 dead and more than 6,000 “disappeared”, El Salvador is again caught up in a spiral of violence, albeit a very different one.

Aguilar said the strong-arm tactics adopted by the authorities have induced changes in youth gangs, in terms of modifications of their structure, stricter requirements for joining, use of illegal methods, and changes in appearance.

“The gangs are becoming increasingly professional, and some of their members now have links with organised crime,” in direct response to the authorities’ “mano dura” approach, she warned.

This is a tragedy that Gabriela Romero, 13, “dreams will come to an end.” A participant in the art exhibit on “Youth, Violence and Migration” at the forum, she talked about her painting, splattered with firearms and blood but “also with hope.”

Faced with this scenario, the forum attempted “to foment a comprehensive approach to juvenile violence, with contributions from academic analysis” towards integrated solutions, including best practices that have already been successful in other countries, said Antonio Rodríguez, a Catholic priest and the head of a guidance and training centre for young people in the district of Mejicanos, on the outskirts of San Salvador.

“The idea is for juvenile violence to be treated from a holistic viewpoint, emphasising prevention, with the support of local governments, state institutions and non-governmental organisations,” explained the priest, who also coordinated the exhibit of 14 paintings by children and young people at the conference.

Over two years ago, in San Martín, about 15 kilometres from the Salvadoran capital, local authorities and residents put into effect a municipal plan against carrying guns. Since then, homicides have dropped by at least 20 percent.

Senator Barrios, for his part, said that violent gangs also exist in Massachusetts, and that the problem affects the entire community. He believed, therefore, that citizens should participate in the solutions, as has happened in some parts of the United States.

“The problem of violent gangs is really serious in this country,” Barrios said, but he warned that mass arrests of young people do not work in the long run. This has been shown, even in the United States, he said, and suggested that “greater social investment on the prevention side” was needed.

Donaldo Leiva, a 29-year-old from Honduras who belonged to the “Mara Salvatrucha” gang for over five years, said he was sure that this is the only strategy that can help curb the growing violence in the region.

He admitted to participating in robberies, sale and consumption of drugs and other crimes while he was a member of the Salvatrucha gang, and said that he “had made a mistake.”

“Generation X”, a former gang members’ organisation, helped him “turn his life around 180 degrees, and gave him the opportunity to become a counsellor for other young people who want to leave their gangs,” he said.

The two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, originated in California in the 1980s, after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during El Salvador’s civil war and settled in impoverished neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife.

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