How US can join El Salvador in combating international gangs

Key security threats plaguing Central America, especially gang violence and organized crime, affect the US as well. That's why American support is crucial for new initiatives such as the one in El Salvador that combats gangs by addressing social ills and rehabilitating gang members.

Ulises Rodriguez/Reuters/File
A member of the Mara Salvatrucha MS 13 gang poses for a photograph at a public ceremony in Zacatecoluca last July.

Central America is closer to the US southern border than some of America’s northern cities. This proximity has helped build strong cultural, economic, and political bonds. But it also means that key threats to national and regional security facing the United States and Central America are intertwined: chief among them, gang violence and organized crime.

Fortunately, the interconnectedness of the US and Central America also lies at the heart of the solutions aimed at combating these security challenges. El Salvador’s government has implemented fresh approaches to crime control, prevention, and rehabilitation of offenders that have the potential to transform communities and reduce international organized crime.

Beyond the need for launching more innovative violence-prevention programs (and more funding for them), the US can help to set a new paradigm for citizen security in all the Americas, a perspective that embraces the multidimensionality of the issue. That is why American political support for such initiatives is vital to progress and is in the best interests of the entire hemisphere.

The strong partnership between El Salvador and the US has allowed the implementation of important programs like the Partnership for Growth aimed at promoting broad-based economic growth and the first Compact of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which funds programs targeted at reducing poverty and stimulating economic growth in El Salvador. The US also represents the largest market for El Salvador’s goods and is home to approximately 2 million Salvadorans.

But Central America and the US also share security challenges. For example, as Rep. Elliot Engel (D) of New York, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, acknowledged in November, US drug consumption strongly influences the amount of drugs transported through Central America. And Salvadoran gangs created in the US have moved to El Salvador via deportations.

To combat this shared threat, we need fresh approaches to citizen security – and greater international cooperation. Police operations are only a part of the citizen security equation. The other is dealing with a social problem spread out in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras): gangs (maras). In El Salvador, estimates suggest that more than 60,000 Salvadorans have gang membership in a country of 6 million inhabitants. The challenge gets even more complicated if we take into consideration that an estimated half million out of 6 million Salvadoran citizens have links to or are dependent on gang activities.

For more than two decades, El Salvador’s approach to public safety was merely to use tough police and army crackdowns, as if they were the only solution. In March 2012, the administration of President Mauricio Funes launched a new, three-track policy for combating gangs: 1) Crime control; 2) Social crime prevention and; 3) Rehabilitation of gang members. A truce between the gangs, brokered by a bishop of the Catholic Church and other members of civil society and supported by the Organization of American States, provided the opportunity for implementing the policy.

The flagship strategy in El Salvador, called “Municipalities free from Violence,” began integrating the different community actors at the micro level. If each of the actors decides to take part in the program, they will begin a process of discussing solutions with other sectors to alleviate marginalization and poverty in the communities. This process also takes into consideration the demands presented by the gang members, in exchange for their commitment to give up violence and extortion. The most common gang petitions are technical training, jobs, and micro loans for small businesses.

The Salvadoran government will fund the “Municipalities free from Violence” initiative in order to prevent social violence and cooperate in the recuperation of youth at risk.

The US could play an important role in supporting Salvadoran citizen security policy. We recognize the concerns several American counterparts have that the Salvadoran government negotiated directly with the gangs to bring about the recent truce, as was portrayed by several news reports. But we maintain that the government of El Salvador did not negotiate the truce; rather it was done by civil society groups. And our administration did not compromise law enforcement and criminal prosecution.

We are simply looking for more effective and innovative tools to combat violent crime that take into account the social roots of the phenomenon. From our perspective, the prevention of violence through alleviating socioeconomic factors among our youth and the discussion of solutions within the community should be the main topic of discussion on how to improve citizen security in the Americas.

Based on our experience, we believe that the Western hemisphere needs – and deserves – an open discussion on alternative approaches to combating gangs and promoting national and regional security. In that sense, the US could become a leading force in bringing new ideas and encouraging the debate on alternative approaches. This means building a new hemispheric agenda that prioritizes the common socioeconomic challenges in the Americas.

El Salvador’s – and Central America’s – relations with the US cannot overlook the root causes, such as youth marginalization, that facilitate crime on both sides of the border. This might require a breakaway from outdated ideas that limit security initiatives to police operations, intelligence gathering, and military capabilities. But to improve the lives of millions of youth in the Americas and combat international gang activity, it is a risk worth taking.

Rubén Zamora is ambassador of El Salvador to the United States.

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