New study of Central American gang problem
USAID, the agency which coordinates US economic and humanitarian assistance to other countries, has released a new comprehensive study of the problem of gangs in Central American countries. The report looks at causes, effects, initiatives and proposals for this vexing problem. Here are some excerpts from the section of the report dealing with El Salvador:
The hard-line law enforcement approach has not had the desired effect of curbing gang violence or reducing recruitment. Gang membership seems to be rising, despite frequent roundups of gang members. Additionally, media obsession with gang violence in effect helps gangs to publicize their criminal acts and build the status of gang members portrayed in the media. The constant showcasing of gangs on the front pages of Salvadoran newspapers serves as a recruiting tool for gangs to increase their rank and file.
Gang activity has encouraged the expansion of some services, however. Private security companies, for example, have grown exponentially in the last several years. As of September 2004, there were 158 private security companies with 18,244 active guards. The National Police, in contrast, has a total of 16,800 officers, with approximately 5,000 on active duty at any given time.
The media has tended to over-exaggerate the problem of the gangs while not focusing on other important social issues. While the media bombards the public with news accounts of gangs involved in criminal activity, there is little analysis of the origins and proliferation of the gang phenomenon. Instead, gangs are often the scapegoat for all social ills, which limits the publicÂs deeper understanding of gangs and other issues affecting the country.
Gangs often dominate the most marginalized urban areas. In some cases, poverty levels in these areas contribute to the ongoing activity of gangs. Other factors that contribute to gang domination are breakdown of the family, social and community structures, lack of basic services, and lack of opportunities for jobs or recreational activities. Gangs are able to control these territories, which are mostly isolated areas, with relatively little challenge from law enforcement.
Hard-line approach? What hard-line?
1. In ES, demonstrated gang murderers under 18 years of age are typically let go or merely hand-slapped. In the U.S., young murderers typically do hard time and courts routinely try them as adults.
2. In cities such as Chicago, there are 470 cops per 100,000 people. In El Salvador, we have 253 policemen per 100,000. How can you even have "hard-line enforcement" when you hardly even have any cops?
The LAC/RSD at USAID is peddling facile notions and passing them off as "research." This is immoral, because they know their opinion holds sway over our rather ignorant politicians.
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USAID says the media over-exaggerates the consequences of gang activity? What do these enlightened gringos suggest? That our media sweep the whole thing under the rug?
USAID: wasting US taxpayer money and providing lousy "advice" and commentary to El Salvador.
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This would not be the first time that we get idiotic advice from the US government: apparently, the despicable LAC/RSD at USAID are the intellectual heirs to the US-based "advisors" that recommended we do an Agrarian Reform.
Funny enough, you never hear any gringos advocating agrarian reform and other Socialist policies in their own country, even though a few entities over there control huge tracts of land ---Archer Daniel Midlands and Cargill come to mind, not to speak of International paper and others.
But these gringo "advisors" routinely prescribe us stuff they wouldn't dare mention at home. Malignant "advisors" indeed.
I’m curious how a libertarian like yourself can be enthusiastic about increasing the size of the police state. Also, it appears that the hard-line approach refers not to the scale of law enforcement, but to the encroachment on civil liberties. People are being targeted merely for being members of a gang, rather than committing a crime (other than wearing a tattoo). Do libertarian values not extent to freedom of association and body art?
I don’t think the report makes any insinuations about whether or not the media should “sweep the problem under the rug,” it simply points out that media reporting creates a perception of a greater threat than is justified by the data. It speculates that this may glamorize gang life and serve as a recruiting tool. I have no idea if this is true, but I am not offended by the suggestion.
As for the 1980s agrarian reform, that was a strategy for ending a peasant insurrection. The threat of peasant insurrection in the U.S. lies with the puritan hoards outraged over Bill Clinton’s sex life, illegal immigrants and removing God from the pledge of allegiance. How would agrarian reform pacify these rednecks?
This is not Mary go around situation, we have to see our social problems as the main cause of related gang activities in our cities.
Many said that gang members have second chance, I said, THEY NEVER HAD ONE, We need to give better opportunities from day one not until the problem has gotten up.
Education? Do they have the Education that every boy and girl deserve in El Salvador? Do we have the right resources to help improve education? Do we have a mentallity in educate our kids about social services, sciences, marriage and children, love and compassion, country service, sports, a housing programs, government programs, business people involved, Funds Availability to assist gang member in ideas related to improve their lives, increase job opportunities and affordable housing, An increase in mentoring and vocational-training programs and a partnership with ANEP-FUSADES and PNC?
Do we have faith-based organizations helping these people, Do we have high and middle school students getting clases about the problem our contry is facing, Do we have internal education about our national plan in our PNC, national Assambly, and Supreme court about gang related problems? are we implementing the county's gang-prevention and weapons-reduction programs in city schools, cinemas, parks, mall, party or festivals? Are we traying to discourage juvenile delinquency and an ongoing substance-abuse-prevention campaign aimed at youths?, Developing a protocol with the city and rural area regarding the placement of children whose parents have been arrested.
Are we Encouraging greater coordination between the city and big companies and economic-development agencies for joint-planning purposes including sports, art, theatre, music, tourism, political education?
Pointing out is a easy way to solve situations? A million police officers is NOT THE SOLUTION!!
What is going on with US? Are we ignorant people? Do we really want to solve our mess?
Gringos will come with their ideas, those which are not good for our country.
We have to get together, (TOGETHER) IF WE WANT TO PASS OUR GRADE during our life time. I don't want to leave a worst country to my children when I pass.
"I’m curious how a libertarian like yourself can be enthusiastic about increasing the size of the police state."
Thanks for the curiosity. Methinks there is a difference between a police state and a state with police. I have no problem with a state that is full of policemen, so long as the cops are legally prohibited from unwarranted searches. But the minute someone breaks the law...
Important distinction: a libertarian is not necessarily an anarchist.
"a greater threat than is justified by the data."
44 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in El Salvador per year. Highest in America. It seems a fairly large threat to me. I grant that hardier souls are entitled to think otherwise.
"Also, it appears that the hard-line approach refers not to the scale of law enforcement, but to the encroachment on civil liberties."
I agree that Mano Dura et al are not the happiest legislation enacted by our Assembly. Nonetheless, this legislation is a natural response to a general attack on civil society, and it is unexceptional when compared to the personal freedom restrictions enforced by the U.S. Executive and Congress in the hours and days immediately following 9/11. The U.S. addressed its problem within a few weeks, whereas ES has not addressed its own since the Flores administration.
Nonetheless, it was never my intention to defend our State: on the contrary, I strive to point out that we have NO mano dura: first, as the report states on Annex 1, p.13, our wimpy judges have refused to enforce the statute, and second, we do not have the cops required to enforce the statute effectively. Therefore, it is fallacious of any parties to argue that hard-line approaches have failed. We haven't even tried.
"As for the 1980s agrarian reform, that was a strategy for ending a peasant insurrection."
In realpolitik terms, you are quite right, of course. In terms of what was peddled and is still taught in schools and naively taken at face value in public discourse today, it was a fulfillment of human rights, economic equality, and other Socialist notions.
Do you know of any US government agencies that have publicly disavowed land reform as practiced in ES? Didn't think so. Therefore, the realpolitik justification may as well not exist, and only the overt U.S. advice remains: "Salvadoreans, expropriate from those who have, and give away to those who do not."
A line of advice that just does not work (yet) in the U.S. Therefore, hypocritical.
Thanks for your reasoned responses.
El Visitador said
“I have no problem with a state that is full of policemen, so long as the cops are legally prohibited from unwarranted searches. But the minute someone breaks the law...”
Agreed. However, we still need data showing that the number of police officers leads to reduced crime. We also must consider whether the state has the resources to properly train new officers and pay them enough so that they are not overly tempted by corruption.
“this legislation is a natural response to a general attack on civil society, and it is unexceptional when compared to the personal freedom restrictions enforced by the U.S. Executive and Congress in the hours and days immediately following 9/11.”
Libertarians in the U.S. are outraged at the U.S. government response to 9/11.
“Do you know of any US government agencies that have publicly disavowed land reform as practiced in ES?”
Why would they disavow land reform? Land reform would serve no purpose in the U.S. political environment. It may or may not have served its realpolitik purposes – communism has collapsed as a force in El Salvador – but that is in the past anyway. As far as I know there are no new proposals for land reform. Its impact has been looked at by US based economists (I think Claudio Gonzalez’ group at Ohio State University). While the reform has hurt productivity, the Dutch disease caused by the remittances is a bigger factor in the decline of Salvadorian agriculture.
“In terms of what was peddled and is still taught in schools and naively taken at face value in public discourse today, it was a fulfillment of human rights, economic equality, and other Socialist notions.”
I would be interested in learning more about what is taught in schools. Let me know if you have something about this on your blog.
"Salvadoreans, expropriate from those who have, and give away to those who do not."
It seems that your biggest concern is the moral argument against expropriation, rather than economic efficiency. I mostly agree with you on this point. However, the more eloquent members of the left (Tim, perhaps you could make this argument better than I) will argue that the land was not bought from the peasants at fair market value in the first place (100 years ago). They will argue that it was consolidated into large private coffee plantations through legal tricks and on questionable economic efficiency grounds. The accuracy of this history might be worth addressing in your blog.
1. I have said before that I agree that El Salvador's abysmal record of arresting and prosecuting those who commit murders is a major problem and I have no doubt that it contributes to the high murder rate. If there is less than a 10% chance that you will be caught and prosecuted for a murder, there's not a lot of deterrent, is there?
That's why I don't understand all those who protest the International Law Enforcement Academy which is designed to increase the professionalism and crime-fighting skills of the police. E-S needs that.
2. But enforcement-only remedies only deal with the symptom and not with root causes. Let me try an economic approach to the analysis -- if you are a young man with no hope for a job and no prospects of getting out of your marginalized slum neighborhood in the ring around San Salvador and you have the option of joining a gang where there is money, camaraderie and machismo -- I think it is not surprising that so many choose gangs. But doesn't it also stand to reason that if we improve the prospects of getting a job, improve education, improve the neighborhood conditions, then the number choosing to joing gangs must decrease?
An enforcement only approach advocated by E-V increases the cost of joining a gang, but can it increase the cost of joining a gang so much that it overcomes the allure to someone facing unemployment and marginalization in the slums? I don't think so. You have to make the gang choice less attractive by making staying out of gangs more attractive.
3. Agrarian reform? I think it is awfully hard to parse that one out. How do you distinguish what was recommended, what was implemented, what efforts were undertook to subvert it, and more? At the risk of showing how little I know about the issue, I'll simply state my belief that neither USAID nor the Salvadoran government did anything sensible in the area of agrarian reform.
Dealing with the gangs in a truly effective manner would undermind the current government's agenda of making the rich richer while the rest suffer.
You frame the dilemma quite nicely. Now we just need to look at the research to determine which is more effective a marginal increase in spending on sticks (police) or a marginal increase in carrots (job training, recreation opportunities, etc.). I would suggest taking into consideration the fact that job training and soccer fields make life better in ways other than reducing crime, while additional police create an intimidating presence and fear that they will return their terrorist tactics of the 1980s. However, if the cost/benefits show that additional police is the best place for the government to put its money, I have no problem with that.
I'll refer back to some of the open questions and see if there is an opportunity to gather data and make a post of it in my blog, when I get a chance.
Thanks to all.
Now, to the point, I live in El Salvador and as an entrepreneur I am very concerned with the security situation. Economic studies have shown that increased NON-CORRUPT police presence, combined with a functioning NON-CORRUPT judicial system that effectively prosecutes true criminals have a significant positive effect on reducing crime. Steven Levitt gives a pretty thourough treatment of this in his book "Freakonomics" (then again, he also finds the same relationship with legalized abortion, another area where El Salvador stacks the odds against itself in terms of crime...). I highly recommend the book as it is relevant to the discussion of quantifying causal relationships among social issues and policies.
That said, it is also clear that such a police force must be professional and non-repressive, as this will fuel the machista blood and get everybody calling for a revolution (a favorite Latin pastime, it would seem...). Basically, people's perceived happiness is strongly related to their social standing, often measured by income (see this week's Economist Magazine). For these kids, who have no shot at climbing the economic status ladder, the gang community can bring high social status within its own "parallel society". Not much of a stretch, really. As long as this is the case, even the punative approach will only go so far (once again, costs vs benefits). I think that it is fair to say that yellow journalism such as that practiced by the dailies here (esp. Diario de Hoy)serve only to feed this sense of status and self importance. That's why you have to give these kids alternative paths to success and their own version of "status" or "purpose" in life that does not include killing each other. This could be religion, sports, academics/intellectual pursuits, community service, or a combination of all of these. Right now, many of Salvador's youth (rich and poor)lead a very shallow existence, based upon shopping, going to clubs, and drugs/sex/alcohol. (not that there is anything wrong with any of these things in moderation, as long as they don't define one's existence). Without any greater sense of purpose or passion, this society will continue to be sick, whether it be por kids killing each other with guns, or wealthy adults killing themselves with alcohol while the maid raises their children.