Television reporters on the gang problem

Written commentary on the web by television reporters recently has offered some good additional analysis of the gang problem in El Salvador.

María Elena Salinas is a news anchor for Latin America network Univision. In a recent column she writes that:
The strategies used by El Salvador [to fight gangs] have their unique risks. In El Salvador, where the gang population is believed to be around 15,000, the strategy used against the maras has resulted in more violence. While the hard-line strategy is supposed to be accompanied by rehabilitation and prevention efforts, those programs have been dismal failures. They have resulted in rival gangs -- who previously were busy fighting each other -- joining forces to fight against a common enemy: the government.

Salvadoran President Tony Saca is asking for more help from the United States. He wants the U.S. to stop deporting gang members to El Salvador. Saca, a close ally of the Bush administration, will have a tough time persuading the U.S. to do that, since deportation is a prime component of the U.S. plan to fight gangs. More than 800 Salvadorans were deported in January of this year; more than 550 of them had a criminal record. The tactic is not only fueling a vicious circle of violence but could be counterproductive for the United States. In many cases, gang members who are returned to El Salvador quickly find themselves back in the U.S. committing more crimes.

National Geographic Explorer recently broadcast a program on Mara Salvatrucha called The World's Most Dangerour Gang. While the program itself bordered on the sensationalistic, correspondent Lisa Ling wrote journal entries from El Salvador which are more insightful than the program itself:

The root of this problem is social inequity. There need to be other options for children who grow up in these barrios, under the influence of gangsters who command both respect and fear. As for the spread of gangsterism, it is based on nothing but pure crime and murder. Gangs espouse no revolutionary ideals nor do they seek to benefit anyone but themselves. They murder without conscience, extort hard-working members of their community and have no respect for authority or the rule of law. They thrive on terrorizing. And most tragically, they view incarceration as a badge of honor—how does a society administer punishment in this light?

Some have compared the indoctrination of young gangsters to that of suicide bombers or drug traffickers. But I disagree. For suicide bombers, there’s to some degree a higher religious or political mission. Gangs don’t have any of this. Gangs have no moral or social values, nor do they espouse any. Extorting one's own people and killing one's own people, is the ultimate form of barbarianism and manipulation. I understand the brotherhood that evolves and I get that gangs often fill a void that parents don’t, but they have no redeeming social value, nor do they seek to provide any to younger generations.

The globalization of trash culture run amok has piqued an appetite for the same kinds of material excess. And all anyone cares about is the fastest way to achieve it...criminal activity notwithstanding. Gangsterism has always been around, but the ability for it to globalize through our plethora of ways to communicate has made it so much easier.

Having said all of the above, I felt God last night. We went hesitatingly to a church service filled with former gang members. It was incredible – a miracle actually. I know what you're thinking... church? Working on this story has been very emotional. I had felt such a lack of hope from the second we arrived. But meeting these gangsters who had killed people and then risked their own lives to leave the gang and turn their lives around gave me a little bit of hope and faith in the human spirit. None of us on the filming crew are religious, but we stayed for three hours and were all so moved. I have never felt the presence of a higher spirit more than last night. To watch these former killers in such anguish over the path that they had previously chosen, and emotion that spouted from their hearts was nothing short of...amazing.

I think I understand faith a little better now.


Hodad said…
great doatribe by Mr. Ling
without faith, we have nothing
one of my proposals for Colombia AND El Salvador is to enjoin a former guerilla,'para'. and/or gang memeber with a fisherman
they would both benefit from this
see you soon
Viva El Salvador
Anonymous said…
I will be moving to El Salvador from the United States soon with my husband who is from there. This article makes me a little scared. I mean, is this an issue (the gangs) that I am going to have to face every morning when I wake up there? We will probably be there for a year. We will not be living in the city and to be honest, the thing I've worried most about is not having running water or clean water to drink...and then I read all the info about the gangs here and I'm having a change of heart. Does anyone have any advice?
Tim said…
Similar to the US, there are good neighborhoods and there are bad neighborhoods. Similar to the US, common sense tells you there are places you should not go at night and other places where you are perfectly safe. I don't want to minimize the crime problem, because it is a definite plague on the country, but if you take the advice of people who live there, I think you should be all right.

Any one else want to chime in with a perspective from life in El Salvador these days?
El-Visitador said…
To anonymous:

Gangs are mostly an urban problem. It is also a problem that impacts the urban poor more than others: it is largely a poor-on-poor crime problem.

This does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that if you live in better-off areas or in the countryside you are completely safe: it just means that the types of crime you may face are of a different nature.

El Salvador is a dangerous country, make no mistake about it. At the same time, your ability to choose (1)where you spend your time and (2) how you spend your time and (3) with whom you spend your time is a major determinant of your personal risk.

The urban poor have none of these choices, so their risk is highest.

My mother was, until her recent retirement, a grade-school teacher in a public school in a slum surrounded by a wealthy urban neighborhood. I am happy to report she has never had safety issues, and she was the person in my immediate family at highest risk.

Running water can be an issue, especially if you are hooked to a government tap, as most people do. Nonetheless, if you have a choice in housing, look for one with a big enough cistern. Provided that there is water during at least a few hours a day, the cistern gets refilled, your home taps never run dry and you will never even know the government taps ran dry.
Anonymous said…
Please don’t fall into the common cliché of the third world countries. We aren’t all the same, and problems aren’t infinite or equally spread all around. As "El Visitador" points out, there are certain problems, but its not only problems we face.

Returning to the gangs:

Is it time for the vigilantes? I think not, but depending on the problem, the people might take action.

I think its time to be real. Gangs are product of a careless government, which has been interested in proving certain goals, to benefit the minority of the wealthy. Thanks to that, we now face a TRUE ARMY of hoodlums. I think we should put in action two plans, simultaneously: Education and recreation, as well as incarcerations. We can’t have an army of 15,000 punks with weapons, running around. I shall tell you a bit of the Texan government and jail system. They faced and overpopulation in their jail system, and with the help of private investors who built their own jails (regulated of course) and leased it to the government, they managed to solve their overpopulation problem, incentive their economy, grow economically, and decrease the crime rates, unsolved for the lack of incarceration. The police force is too small? Get the military out of their garrisons and patrol. Lets stop the fear of repression that some leftist argue, and face the problems. How shall we do that? Put the military under the command of the civil community. Not giving them independence. I truly believe they are less corrupt (At least in the lower levels) than the cops are.

What about the education and recreation plan? We should give those kids growing up, a true opportunity of education and self-improvement. Re educate them, and in general, get them into school, and plan their source of labour once they complete school. Easier said than done? Well someday we have to start.