Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 266 | Septiembre 2003


El Salvador

A “Hard Hand”: State Violence Against Youth Gangs

El Salvador’s government has decided to respond with force and violence to the social problem represented by youth gangs. Its objectives are clearly electoral and its style is the repressive authoritarianism deeply rooted in the ARENA party.

Proceso Magazine team

On July 22, in a show mounted for the media, President Francisco Flores announced what he has labeled the “Hard Hand” plan to fight the youth gangs, popularly known as “maras,” operating throughout the country. Similar to the plan put into effect by Honduran President Ricardo Maduro, the Salvadoran one is centered on an executive bill, being processed by the legislature now, that contains reforms to the penal code and penal processing code to stiffen sentences for certain crimes and facilitate the trial and imprisonment of young people detained for gang-related activity. Among the changes is a provision that would make it possible to try 12-year-olds as adults.

The legislation is accompanied by joint operations of the National Civil Police and the Armed Forces to capture gang members around the country, which have gotten underway even before the bill’s approval.

A repressive approach to a social problem

The governing ARENA party fully backs the plan. Its spokespeople went so far as to ask for the death penalty for people it considers “antisocial,” resuscitating one of the party’s long-standing crusades.

The Left has taken an opposing stand. FMLN leaders criticize the plan for failing to provide a comprehensive solution to
the youth gang problem, arguing that it contains no measures to try to integrate young people into society, and instead takes an authoritarian approach that has already been tried with very bitter results in the country. They also criticized the initiative’s populist bent and obviously electoral objectives.

There is no denying that gangs are a scourge in the country’s poorest neighborhoods, but the plan is indeed basically repressive, while the problem is eminently social. Juvenile delinquency has grown to such an extent in El Salvador that it will be hard to solve the problem without involving many more institutions than those envisioned in the government’s plan. Even within those involved, the plan is counterproductive. For example, it undermines the precarious programmatic efforts aimed at high-risk youth being made by the National Civil Police despite scarce human and material resources.
The plan also testifies to the government’s failure to resolve the problem of crime and social violence in general. The President has made any number of speeches on the urgent need to stop the violence afflicting the country, but can show no results over his four years in office; the “Alliance for Security,” a pillar of his government proposals at the start of his term, has led to nothing but brute repression. Now, in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections, his decision to propose a special, temporary law to respond to such a serious problem arouses suspicions about his true intentions.

Marginalization and gangs

The underlying aim of the Hard Hand plan is to promote social apartheid in El Salvador. While it’s not surprising to find government circles that would end the problems posed by society’s excluded by imprisoning or exterminating them, they border on the absurd in proposing to “consider a mara or gang, that grouping of persons who disturb public order, violate public morals and good decorum or mark their body with scars or tattoos, to be an illicit association.”
The plan stigmatizes a whole category of Salvadorans: marginalized youth. And in a proposal that may well violate the Constitution, it indeed aims to imprison or exterminate them. In societies as inequitable as El Salvador’s, marginalized social groups always get the worst deal. They have fewer economic, educational and cultural opportunities, live in the worst conditions and face the hardest challenges in developing positive moral values. Both material and moral poverty is the daily reality of marginalized Salvadorans, many of them young people. The conditions of extreme marginalization in which they live is not by choice, but because of the current economic model. This is the crucible in which gangs are formed.

Criminalized for their appearance

ARENA’s leaders show no interest in the possible legal problems with their plan. The idea of throwing people in jail based only on their physical appearance—clothing or tattoos—or cultural choices such as lifestyle or language, violates the most basic human rights principles enshrined in international agreements as well as El Salvador’s own Constitution. Article 12 of the Constitution, for example, is based on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
The country’s legal authorities, in contrast, have shown more sensitivity to these issues. Supreme Court President Agustín García Calderón spoke of the need for a thorough discussion with all sectors of society to find the best way to deal with the problem of juvenile delinquency. Many of the country’s judges have warned that the President’s initiative is illegal in seeking to criminalize people only because of the way they dress, speak, behave or mark their bodies, when the body is the property par excellence of each human being, and that it is also illegal for the police to arrest Salvadoran citizens without just grounds.

A project with electoral aims

From the very start, the opposition identified the plan’s purely electoral nature. ARENA members and the head of the government’s National Security Council, Salvador Samayoa, rejected the accusations. While admitting some problems with the plan, Samayoa called it preposterous to suggest that it is a political maneuver to win votes. He invited FMLN legislators to a thorough discussion of the problem.

Later, however, an internal document from ARENA’s National Executive Committee to the party’s mayors and departmental officials, which found its way into the media’s hands, revealed that the goal is indeed electoral. In it, ARENA leaders called their lieutenants into line in the battle for votes, explaining how to take advantage of the sympathy aroused by the fight against gangs. “The Hard Hand initiative,” the document explains, “is supported by 95% of voters. This offers an immediate chance for the party to tie in to a winning issue. The great support for this initiative will put the party in the best possible position to reach voters of all parties.”
To take advantage of this “opportunity,” the document calls on all sectors of the party to become involved in the struggle, and sets a goals for them: “collect signatures from people living in areas where the Hard Hand plan is being implemented and citizens in general to thank the President for the plan and ask him to keep the Armed Forces and Police in these communities on a permanent basis, and to ask Congress to approve the President’s legal reforms.” It is not surprising that ARENA has come up with a plan to attract people’s attention and win their sympathy in the period leading up to the presidential elections, given the party’s poor showing in last March’s municipal elections.

The project’s economic costs

It is important to reflect not only on the social, political and legal ramifications of the plan but also on its economic costs, since it is being paid for by public funds. Developing and implementing this plan will require increases in three budget lines: the police, the judiciary and the prison system. Since the law’s ultimate goal is to break up all the gangs and jail all their members, they must be tracked down all over the country and arrested, then tried by the judicial system under the newly approved law, then sent to prison and kept there.

According to official statistics, there are some 20,000 gang members in El Salvador. The Inter-American Development Bank has calculated that the financial resources earmarked by the Salvadoran government for the police and the judicial and penitentiary systems to respond to the problem of violence in general take up the lion’s
share of the state budget. In 1995, some US$280 million went into these three areas, representing approximately 5% of that year’s GDP. To put the announced plan into effect, it will be necessary to hire new police agents and judges and devote more resources to the Armed Forces, which are also involved in the anti-gang strategy. In the area of public security alone, the government spent $146.5 million in 2000 and 2001. The police detained 35,801 individuals during those two years, so the cost per detention comes out to roughly $4,000, quite a high figure given the country’s economic situation.

Three institutions within the judicial branch are slated to participate in the identification, detention, trial and imprisonment of gang members. The courts will judge individual gang members, supposedly following due process. The Attorney General’s Office will defend society’s interests. And since young gang members invariably have few resources, the Public Defender’s Office will be obliged to provide them legal assistance. One tentative estimate of the cost of the judicial process for each person detained put it at $2,888.

Then defendants found guilty will have to be imprisoned, in line with the essential objective of the anti-gang law. To get an idea of how much it costs the state to keep people in prison, we can begin by looking at the Government Ministry’s budget for confining and rehabilitating the prisoners now in the system. In 2001 and 2002, the state spent $16.4 million for a total prison population of 10,476 people, approximately $1,565 a year per prisoner, even through they live in overcrowded conditions in very poor facilities, with a very poor diet. The penitentiary system receives considerably fewer resources for its work than the public security and judicial systems.

A very rough estimate of the cost of the public security plan in the three areas involved thus comes out to some $8,500 to arrest, try and imprison each gang member for a year, which comes to some $170 million for the approximately 20,000 gang members. If the law had been approved at the end of 2001, its application in 2002 would have required 6.79% of that year’s total state budget and 1.19% of its GDP. We can expect to see this kind of drain on state resources in the coming years if the government succeeds in carrying out its plan. And if the war against gangs drags on, the costs will increase—at the expense of society, which will have to foot the bill for the government’s folly.

A problem, an outcry and several myths

No one questions whether the complex phenomenon of Central America’s youth gangs is a serious problem in El Salvador’s daily life. A study done five years ago by the Central American University’s Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP) found that a little over a quarter of the country’s population above the age of 18 felt that gangs were the number one problem in the fight against crime. Many Salvadorans see them as an essentially criminal matter and demand repressive solutions. The government’s response to this outcry is a campaign that could well form part of a “punitive populism” trend in Latin America.

Several myths are put forward as causes of the multi-causal problem of gangs and therefore as justifications for many of the measures in the Hard Hand plan. People say the problem was started by young people deported from the United States, that gangs develop because of a lack of family values, that young people’s original motivation in joining a gang is to participate in crime, that the current criminal legislation favors gangs and should be toughened up. Let’s take them one by one.

Gangs are not imported

The notion that Salvadoran gangs are a problem imported from Southern California is one of the most frequently heard myths. The argument is that gangs began to develop when thousands of young Salvadorans who grew up in the United States and became gang members there were deported and returned to this country, bringing along with them the violence they now exercise in El Salvador’s streets. As evidence for this argument, people point to the fact that the country’s two largest gangs, the ones that dominate the national gang scene, have their roots in the streets of East L.A., and that many of their cultural expressions can be traced back to the syncretic culture of Latinos in the United States. People also argue that the phenomenon began in the country after the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, precisely when increasing numbers of Salvadorans began returning home.

Numerous studies contradict this myth, however, by showing that the roots of the phenomenon do not lie in the repatriation of young Salvadorans. Several academic studies on gangs already done by 1991 testify to the gangs’ existence as a serious national problem starting in the 1970s. These studies show that gangs grew rapidly in the 1980s and were becoming a danger to all Salvadorans because of their violent actions. Records of those years show that youth gangs tended to be smaller then, with no more than 50 members in each one, and a radius of action limited to certain areas of the capital, including the inner city and some of its poorest barrios. The gangs had different names then—the Mara Chancleta, Mara AC/DC, Mara Nosedice, Mara Gallo and Morazán—but the violence and internal solidarity that characterize these groups today were already very much a part of them.

IUDOP surveys of gang members show that only 11% of those current operating in San Salvador’s metropolitan area joined gangs in the United States, and no more than 17% have ever even traveled to the United States. Against this contradictory evidence, even tracing the roots of the problem to the import of gang members merely because El Salvador’s main gangs now bear the same names as ones in Los Angeles is a very flimsy proposition. The problem of youth gangs is neither recent nor surprising, and the scale it has reached today is largely due to the failure of recent governments, including the current one, to deal with the problem comprehensively.

The style changed, but not the basic dynamics

This repatriation did have a significant impact on the gang members’ style, though. Young people who had participated in gangs abroad quickly took leadership roles among local gang members, who soon adopted their look, language and behavior. The outsiders who were recognized as leaders established a course that the others began to follow, leaving their old gangs to join the famous “foreign” ones. This explains why most of the gangs from the early 1990s no longer exist.

Despite the changes in the form, name and size of the gangs, their basic dynamics, characterized by their loyalty to a particular territory, solidarity within the group, violent activities and drug use, changed little. What did happen was that when the number of gangs shrank to two—the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18—conditions were created for polarized interactions between gang members. The conflicts and hatred between the two were imported along with their names, leading to increased violence and all-out inter-gang war in the streets of San Salvador.

It is clear, then, that gang members deported from the United States helped give the gangs their current form, but are not responsible for starting the phenomenon here.

Not the result of family disintegration

Another common myth is that gangs result from the effects of family disintegration on the youngest members of the family. This argument, frequently found in the country’s editorial pages and radio talk shows, is often associated with complaints about the “loss of values” in contemporary society. People link the rise in gangs to the incapacity of disintegrated families to transmit the “proper” or “correct” values to young people. It is often assumed that single mothers are unable to transmit proper values to their children or that the absence of the father is, in itself, an anti-value, with nary a glance at the kinds of qualities an absent father, or present one, for that matter, may have.

Some factors within the process of family disintegration might well encourage some young people to join gangs, but the studies provide no evidence that a mother who raises her children alone transmits only “erroneous” values to them. What they do show is that the nature of interpersonal relations within the home is far more important than its “ideal family” composition, with both mother and father and a limited number of children. What matters most is not the family make-up but whether the person responsible for the young people—be it their mother or father or both or some other family member or guardian—has a regular, healthy relationship with them and constantly monitors their activities.

The evidence shows that young people from “ideal families” with high levels of domestic violence tend to be much more likely to join gangs than those in homes headed by a single mother, a father or a guardian who provides affection and understanding. An IUDOP study found that young people with negligent parents who often don’t know where their children are, what they’re doing or who they’re with tend to behave more violently both in school and out of it than young people who are being monitored by their parents and know they’re being monitored. This helps explain why not all young people raised by a single parent become gang members and why over a fourth of the gang members surveyed joined even though they live with both parents.

When there’s no father?

A study by a Canadian journalist on Salvadoran gangs in Los Angeles shows that in order to survive, the adults in charge of the family often have to hold down two or more jobs simultaneously. This makes it hard to effectively monitor their children and may lead them to try to control them through violence and repression. The young people are left to their own devices, perhaps even fleeing violence exercised by parents who should be protecting them, and turn to gangs to find the families they don’t have at home. Many young people—and this is especially true among young female gang members, who are quite numerous in El Salvador—face extremely violent environments in their own homes and respond by seeking protection among peers in the streets.

The additional strains placed on families headed by a single parent, doubling up all parental and financial responsibilities on that person’s shoulders, may be a factor that makes the young people in the family more likely to join a gang. According to a UNICEF study, the absence of a family member such as the father most often means that all parental tasks fall on the mother, who also often becomes solely responsible for financially sustaining the home. Such mothers typically have to sacrifice time dedicated to interacting with their children in quality terms, and may not be able to effectively monitor them.

What options do marginalized young people have?

Obviously, not all young people who live in extremely marginalized conditions—whatever their cause—join gangs. Many survive without breaking the law, but at the edge of it. Many others don’t get tattoos or join gangs but merely do what they can, within and outside the law, to obtain their daily bread. For others, the gang is an option that provides them belonging and a way of life, with all its risks.

No marginalized young person is irremediably condemned to become part of a gang, and it would be absurd to believe any such thing. But it is also absurd to ignore the fact that gangs provide one of the few ways of making a living available to young people who have grown up in marginalized neighborhoods surrounded by misery, with no hope that their own future will be any different. When these young people consider their other options, they are no better and often far less profitable: washing car windows or selling candy in the street, carrying bags at the market or hoping that some kindhearted person will offer them work, even if only temporary.

Offering possibilities for personal and collective realization to young people who have been socially, economically and culturally marginalized is a challenge of utmost importance if the goal is to resolve the problem gangs pose comprehensively. Creating these possibilities is neither simple nor cheap. It is politically more profitable to chase people down and imprison them, to make them the object of state violence.

A hard hand brings meager results

In mid-August, halfway through the first phase of implementation of the anti-gang plan, the government reported that it had arrested nearly 900 gang members. President Flores had announced that he was hoping for a thousand arrests during this first phase, and the news that the goal was being reached so quickly was meant to convey an image of the plan’s immediate effectiveness. But the problem is far more complex than the government would like people to believe. The only real achievement to date—after huge operations that mobilized a large part of the National Civil Police, the Army and the Attorney General’s Office—is that 20 straight days passed in one municipality without any homicides.

Furthermore, when those arrested have been taken from their miserable cells and sent to the courts, the judges often have to absolve them for lack of evidence and release them. Most of the people arrested have been illegally detained, merely because they “looked suspicious” in the eyes of security forces. The figures thus far are alarming: seven of every ten gang members detained have been released. This is a sign of inefficient police work in this area, shaped more by the political interests of certain police chiefs than by a desire to do a professional job, respectful of the Constitution and the law.

Anti-gang plan vs. municipal budgets

If the goal is to win the next presidential elections, both of El Salvador’s two leading political parties have already defined their respective “winning issues.” Sparked by a fear of losing power, President Flores and ARENA have chosen the fight against gangs as their rallying cry in their crusade to hold onto the presidency. ARENA has openly contrasted its anti-gang plan to the well publicized and justifiable plan presented by the FMLN and some civil society organizations to give greater financial and administrative responsibilities to the country’s 262 municipalities. In the pre-electoral debate, ARENA has perversely linked the two issues, portraying those favoring the municipal budget increase as not only tolerant of the gangs’ criminal operations, but also complicit in their crimes.

Flores is finishing his term by playing a doubly dirty game. Irresponsibly using Salvadorans’ fear of gangs to try to win electoral advantage, he has set a trap to make the FMLN look like an obstacle to eliminating one of the “social tumors” the population fears most. If the government’s campaign has the desired effect, the FMLN’s proposal to assign 8% of the national budget to the municipal governments could cost it dearly.

Getting beyond the “winning issues”

These “winning issues” are being touted for electoral ends in place of serious, comprehensive and responsible programs, which impoverishes El Salvador’s incipient democratic culture. ARENA’s lack of imagination and crisis of legitimacy are revealed by the fact that the party is simply offering more of the same. Whatever creativity could once have been found in the party has withered; its thinking men and women seem to have jumped ship some time ago, and the course is now set by brute force as the party reaffirms its authoritarian, excluding vocation. The party’s self-analysis in the wake of its poor showing in last March’s municipal elections has not allowed it to overcome old patterns set by long years of practice.

The Left has not been up to the call either. Its language remains contradictory, its promises sketched out in a sea of ambiguity. The FMLN would do well to move beyond ARENA’s model of “winning issues” and present a clear, serious and responsible government program. Otherwise, it will fall into the trap set specifically for it.

Authoritarian nostalgia, justified fear

ARENA’s anti-gang crusade seems to have found fertile ground in a certain authoritarian nostalgia that has always come to the surface at critical moments in the country’s history. From the time coffee was introduced into El Salvador at the end of the 19th century through the years all the way up to the Peace Accords, it has emerged under various guises: social control and cleansing; political, racial and ideological persecution; military and police repression; and more recently, the stiffening of laws and establishment of the death penalty. Some of this can be clearly seen in the anti-gang law presented by Flores, who owes a debt to this authoritarian tradition.

Unfortunately, the government’s anti-gang crusade—an opportunistic, desperate measure—might well carry the day for it. State repression is being fed by Salvadorans’ generalized and justified fear. The criminal actions committed by youth gangs have cost many lives, not only of their members but also of hundreds of innocent people. The rightwing media have exaggerated the phenomenon, which is really just one side of the complex problem of crime and violence in El Salvador. Reducing this complexity to the problem of gangs says a lot about the government’s short-sightedness and political opportunism, but may nonetheless prove an effective strategy.

A society in fear

Is it still possible to find comprehensive solutions to a problem as complex as the marginalization of youth, which has taken the visible form of youth gangs? Does it still make sense to talk about structural problems and solutions that will be sustainable over the long term?
The government and the country’s most conservative sectors reject any integral solution. This is why they have chosen to pursue gang members during a 180-day operation and arrest those who at the discretion of the authorities seem to be potential criminals, even before the law has been approved and gone into effect. Dominant groups in this country have long demanded the same authoritarian, exclusive scheme, especially when the possibility of a change in government threatens their privileges.

Their fear of losing their privileges and the fear among poor Salvadorans who are defenseless against crime feed into the authoritarian nostalgia. For the upper class, the law provides an opportunity to get rid of elements that are no more than an annoyance: gang members don’t paint graffiti on their houses, surrounded by high walls; nor do they assault their children, who don’t go into the densely populated neighborhoods where the gangs operate. In contrast, fear may lead the poor, who most often live in close contact with gang members, to sacrifice even their own children, the children of fear.

The UCA’s Human Rights Institute Responds to the Government Plan

The following is a statement released by the Human Rights Institute of El Salvador’s José Simeón Cañas Central American University in response to the government’s “Hard Hand” plan:
* The violence and impunity afflicting Salvadoran society are serious problems that go beyond the limits of tolerance and place their victims in a situation of impotence and frustration.

* The real fight against crime in all its forms requires a comprehensive set of measures that includes not only repressing the crime—using the full force of the law—and ensuring that the relevant institutions operate effectively, but also prevention and rehabilitation. This is the only true way to end the impunity that has favored all kinds of violence in our country for years.

* The tools needed to accomplish this task are available in the national legislation already in effect, including laws that specifi-cally protect human rights. There is thus no reason to establish special, temporary laws.

* To prevent and prosecute crime more effectively, certain immediate measures should be considered, including a review of how the relevant institutions operate to make whatever adjustments are required, the protection of witnesses and reparations for victims. Certain reforms to the penal or penal processing code may also be considered, including changes in the area of punishments, as long as these are technically justified and form part of a broader, comprehensive strategy.

* The “frontal attack on gangs” promoted by the executive branch is an attempt to cover up the significant failings in the government plan launched nearly four years ago, known as the Alliance for Security. It testifies to the fact that during these four long years the administration has been either unwilling or unable to deal seriously with the criminal acts committed by members of these groups.

* The Hard Hand plan is not a real solution to the problem. It is instead a temporary, populist solution designed to make people believe—through a costly publicity campaign and the implementation of highly visible round-ups—that the approval and application of the law on gangs proposed by the executive branch will ensure peace in their communities. It is thus a deceit, similar to previous ones, whose full dimensions the victimized com-munities themselves will discover in time. The plan’s real objective is described in a secret document produced by the ARENA party and accidentally made public, which explains that “the great support for this initiative will put the party in the best possible position to reach voters of all parties. THE GOAL: To position ARENA in the public mind as the party that takes the hardest stand against crime.”
* The special, temporary legislation known as the “Anti-Gang Law” includes as crimes several actions already in the Penal Code, such as robbery and extortion. The difference is that the executive branch has given them different names and proposes sanctioning them with fewer years in prison. This belies the law’s purported “toughness.”
* The government has irresponsibly failed to mention that the high levels of violence and crime in the country are not only due to the existence of gangs. The situation largely has to do with the government’s own unwilling-ness to attack these evils at their roots by seriously fighting impunity and corruption and ensuring the proper functioning of state institutions within the true rule of law that works for the common good.

* The initiative that executive branch President Francisco Flores presented contains no plan to attack either violent or “white collar” organized crimes: those routinely committed in serious violation of human rights up until a few years ago; the many serious crimes still being committed by organized crime, such as the executions of Ramón Mauricio García Prieto, Lorena Saravia and the Carías brothers; the deaths caused by wealthy young criminals in their “car races” or the multi-million-dollar robberies of the Salvadoran population by government officials like Carlos Perla. Poor criminals are hit with a “hard hand” while criminals with power are handled with silk gloves.

* The end of the war did not put an end to impunity. On the contrary, it was strength-ened by the Amnesty Law Francisco Flores refers to as the “cornerstone of peace.” Many current criminal acts are related to the high level of government tolerance towards the war criminals of our recent past. This was pointed out several years ago by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which felt that the Amnesty Law “prevents the investigation and punishment of all those responsible for human rights violations, and the provision of reparations to the victims.”
* To make this country viable, it is necessary to deal firmly and seriously with the problem of impunity once and for all: by decidedly attacking the causes of crime, repressing its manifestations and applying the full force of the law against criminals without distinguishing among them on the basis of their social status, but bearing in mind that the state has the constitutional obligation to respect their rights and encourage their rehabilitation.

* In expressing its observations on the “Hard Hand” plan and proposing more serious and responsible actions to deal with the phen-omenon of crime committed by gang members, the Central American University’s Human Rights Institute is not acting to the detriment of the Salvadoran population. On the contrary, it is confirming its commitment to so many Salvadoran victims who, in addition to suffering from violence in the past and present, have also suffered from lies. This has been the Human Rights Institute’s course ever since it was founded 18 years ago by another victim, Father Segundo Montes: to abide by the truth and work for justice.

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