September 2, 2010– Salvadoran lawmakers passed a bill that criminalizes membership in gangs. The measure was pressed by outrage over gang attacks on two buses in June that killed 14 people. Congress approved the law earlier this month and currently awaits the signature of President Mauricio Funes, who has been a consistent supporter of the bill.
Though thousands of gang members have landed in Salvadoran jails as a result of the government’s major crackdown against gang violence in July of 2003, membership in gangs was not outlawed. The new measure orders a four-year sentence for membership and up to 10 years for participating as a leader in a gang.
Youth gangs are considered a primary threat to public security in El Salvador. These gangs, or maras, are a product of social and economic factors that leave youth with little opportunity for alternatives to crime. El Salvador is estimated to have between 15,000 and 30,000 mareros, holding responsibility for upwards of 60 percent of homicides in the country.
Salvadoran NGOs and community leaders specializing in violence prevention and legal issues question the bill’s ability to deter gang activity, but emphasize that prevention and reintegration programs for youth and former gang members can positively contribute to efforts in defying gang violence. “The history of El Salvador is the more government repression, the more violence we have,” said Maria Silvia Guillen, head of a foundation that specializes in gangs and legal matters. “With exclusively repressive measures, without taking into consideration prevention and reintegration [into society], is to continue making mistakes.”
International organizations, such Amnesty International, were concerned with prior legislation under the Anti-Maras Act due to its negligence of minors under Mano Dura policies. Such zero-tolerance policies state that minors between 12 and 18 years old were to be tried as adults for committing misdemeanors. However, the passing of this new bill states that minors involved in these illicit groups will be tried according to the Child and Adolescent Protection Law (Lepina).
“We are not saying that the new law, on its own, is going to solve the problem,” public safety deputy director Hugo Ramirez said to The Los Angeles Times. “It is one more tool added to an integrated approach that we want to take, and must take.” Part of this integrative approach includes Mano Amiga, a prevention strategy for at-risk youth, and Mano Extendida, a rehabilitation strategy for gang members.
Seattle International Foundation supports Ashoka and the expansion of its Avancemos program to six additional cities in El Salvador, including the formation of 290 youth cooperatives over the next two years, directly involving between 1,500 and 2,000 youth. Ashoka Avancemos, also known as Youth Venture, supports young people between 14 and 24 years of age, many of whom are victims of violence and pressured into lives of delinquency and drug addiction. Ashoka provides the tools and leadership skills necessary to become agents of change in their communities.