What's the Best Way for El Salvador to Handle Gangs?

Author: Heather Asiala

Person Tom Hare Sm

In a recent publication of the Latin America Advisor, a daily publication of The Dialogue, the Pulte Institute's Tom Hare answer's the featured question about the best way for El Salvador to handle gangs.

Question: Authorities in El Salvador have arrested former Defense Minister David Munguía Payés in connection with a pact involving the country’s main gangs in 2012, during which the homicide rate fell from about 14 killings per day to five. Meanwhile, a recent report by International Crisis Group suggested that the drop in the number of killings in El Salvador during President Nayib Bukele’s first year in office might be partially due to informal nonaggression agreements between gangs and the authorities. How powerful have gangs become in the Central American country? To what extent are deals with gangs the only realistic way to bring down the murder rate in El Salvador, and what implications might this bring in terms of security and the rule of law? What has Bukele’s government done right, and what has it gotten wrong, in its fight against organized crime?

Tom Hare, senior technical associate at the Pulte Institute for Global Development: “The question should be: how do we empower gang members to be part of the solution? After close to two decades of repressive, heavy-handed tactics, it is clear that the militarized approach to gang suppression doesn’t work. What if we had spent the past decade increasing the agency of young adults—providing them with the skills and opportunity to choose a nonviolent path? What if we had increased modest and often-pilfered budgets for education and social services, provided psycho-emotional services that increase resilience and reduce impacts of trauma, and focused efforts on rehabilitation versus demonizing gang members and prisoners as the Bukele administration has done? According to numerous studies, including those by the International Crisis Group and our own research with the Pulte Institute, the reduction of violence and recidivism is most successful when young adults are actively engaged in problem-solving, when their self-confidence and resilience is built and supported. This is not news. Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have shown that self-admission and discussion of a problem are the first steps in recovery, and an example of de-escalation and dialogue in Colombia shows promise. Instead of questioning the power gangs have, we should question whether those with power recognize and respond to the humanity, dignity and rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized. We’ll know that we’ve made progress when mainstream society provides the protections and structures currently offered by gangs. That begins with talking more, not less, with at-risk youth and gang members.”

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Originally published at thedialogue.org on August 12, 2020