The approach adopted by former President Mauricio Funes’ administration to combat crime is probably the least popular crime control strategy in Central America’s northern triangle. Salvadorans first learned details of the strategy in March 2012, when news reports suggested that the government of El Salvador had negotiated a drop in homicides with gang leaders who, as a result, were being relocated from the maximum security penitentiary in Zacatecoluca to different, less secure facilities.
Authorities have, since then, offered various explanations for the massive relocation of criminals to less restrictive correctional environments—sometimes accompanied by special concessions, like flat screen TVs and conjugal visits, or benefits to gang members’ families living on the outside.
Funes and his security cabinet deny that the state negotiated with gangs, and say that they merely facilitated a truce between gangs. However, Luis Martínez, El Salvador’s attorney general, recently revealed that a criminal investigation launched by his office indicates that the government paid gangs to reduce homicides. Moreover, recordings leaked to the press and opposition politicians by a hacker that allegedly feature prosecutors interrogating former public safety officials about government-gang negotiations, expose even more benefits provided to gangs by authorities as part of the negotiation—both inside and outside correctional institutions.
Recuerdo que, hace algunas décadas, las palabras más temidas por alumnos de secundaria eran: “preparen papel y lápiz para una prueba sorpresa.” Confieso que en alguna ocasión, en silencio elevé una plegaria para pedir una intervención divina que no dejara al profesor enunciar esas palabras.
Jamás me pasó por la mente que existiese la posibilidad de que otro docente, por ejemplo, ante los potencialmente devastadores resultados de las “pruebas sorpresa,” pusiese a alumnos dispuestos a hacer trampa en contacto con un conserje corruptible (con llave maestra de las instalaciones), con la finalidad que negociasen un intercambio de beneficios a través del cual se accedería a las preguntas de los exámenes con anticipación.
El que una figura de autoridad facilite el contacto y la coordinación entre dos actores “malos” para hacer algo indebido, implica una dosis de inmoralidad que hace que la situación antes planteada sea poco relacionable para la mayoría de personas y, por lo tanto, inimaginable. Esta torcida dinámica es la realidad que opera detrás de la iniciativa central de seguridad pública instaurada por el gobierno de El Salvador durante los últimos años.
Government officials in El Salvador and Guatemala speculate that there are approximately 15,000 gang members in each country. Meanwhile police officials attribute the majority of homicides, extortions and kidnappings to these groups, which are mainly comprised of young males between 13 and 26 years of age.
This means that mara (a regional term for gangs) membership is low when looking at overall youth demographics; in El Salvador, for example, there are over 1 million young men and women. Most young people are either going to school or working, not engaging in criminal activity. But there’s a flipside: these countries represent ample breeding ground for mara recruitment.
These 15,000 gang members also represent a complex problem. How is it possible that so few individuals have entire countries on their knees? Why haven’t governments and civil society been able to retaliate with police force and effective crime prevention programs? And certainly, how are judicial systems maintaining the interest of the majority and not that of young criminals?
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.