The Gang Problem

Two articles this week present lengthy descriptions of the gang problem in El Salvador and the rest of Central America. The LA Times has a lengthy article describing the gang violence in El Salvador and describes both pro and con views of the government's Firm Hand anti-gang policy. The Copley News Service runs a story which focuses on the connections across borders between the branches of the various gangs.

The statistics are depressing: Almost 30,000 gang members in El Salvador. An average of 5 gang killings each day. At least part of the wave of gang violence relates to the deportation since 1998 of 12,000 Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States who brought gang culture and prison-hardened attitudes back to El Salvador.

The past few years have seen the Salvadoran government adopt first the Firm Hand (Mano Dura) and now the "Super Firm Hand" policy to deal with gangs. These get-tough approaches to gang-violence have included wide-spread round-ups of suspected gang members and the use of the military to support police crack-downs. The policies have been politically popular although their effectiveness is subject to dispute.

An editorial by the Director of the Institute of Public Opinion at the University of Central America in the conservative El Diario de Hoy asserts the failure of the government's Firm Hand policy towards the problem of gangs in El Salvador. Although the policy responded to a grave concern about gangs among the general public and had a large role in the ARENA party's success in the recent presidential election, the policy has failed to reduce crime or to slow the rising murder rate. The essay declares that the government's policy of fighting violence with violence only escalates the cycle of violence and does nothing to promote the safety of the general public.