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Violence spreading like an oil slick in El Salvador

1 May 2015 - Guadalupe Cortés Vega

Last month (March 2015) was El Salvador’s most violent month for a decade. There were a total of 481 homicides; an average of 16 homicides a day in a country with a population fewer than 6 million. Most of the victims (92%) were men aged between 18 and 30 years.

But while cities have become notorious for gang warfare, what is worrying is that more and more murders are being committed in rural areas as violence spreads like an oil slick across El Salvador.

Yet on 26th March, responding to a call by the National Council of Citizen Security and Coexistence (an advisory group organised by the president and facilitated by the United Nations), thousands of Salvadorans marched through the streets of its main cities demanding peace.

The month also marked the 35th anniversary of the murder of Óscar Romero, a universal pacifist, who will be canonized by the Catholic Church in May.

A mural featuring the late Oscar Romero

Violence and gangs

Violent clashes with gangs are claiming an increasing number of lives on both sides of the law. Between January and March the number of police killed tripled compared with the same period last year.

Violence has plagued the country for decades, but now the gang violence is at an all-time high and leaving thousands of families, often from poor communities, in mourning each year.

In El Salvador most young people (especially those aged between 9 and 12 years) join a gang because membership gives them a sense of identity and power, and, in a country with few employment opportunities, it gives them something to do and a way to earn money through illicit activities. Some even join for the notoriety of seeing their faces in the media.

Combatting the real issues

Jeanne Rikers of Christian Aid partner FESPAD explains, “There is a huge need to create positive alternatives for young people, and this requires a significant investment of resources on the part of the State”.

Revenge killings are responsible for a large proportion of the recorded homicides and are not only carried out by gang members but friends or family of the victims.

Rikers says, “The factors related to these homicides are many and complex, and cannot be addressed either through retaliation with further violence - whether that be by the State or individuals seeking revenge.

It is the country’s social, economic, political and cultural structures, which lead to social exclusion, the availability of arms, drug trafficking, the stigmatizing of youth and the ever present issue of ‘machismo’.

“The culture of impunity also means that there is no discouragement from joining gangs because so few people are prosecuted.”

How we do it

FESPAD works in communities across the country that suffer from social exclusion, building trust between residents in order to promote peace.

They arrange meetings between community leaders and the authorities to discuss solutions to the violence, and where they can mediate between community leaders - who are sometimes also gang leaders - and the state.

They also offer training to the police, prosecutors and judges to ensure they apply penal law with respect for human rights.

A vital part of their work involves the rehabilitation and social re-integration of ex-gang members, providing them with opportunities to earn a legal income which helps discourage them from returning to the gangs.

What is needed is a country-wide integrated approach, focused on generating structural and cultural changes, as well as changes in attitude. The National Council of Citizen Security and Coexistence launched a “Plan for a Secure El Salvador” in January this year.

FESPAD, along with governmental institutions, the private sector, churches, political parties and social organisations, fed into this plan which hopes to tackle the violence by reducing exclusion and inequality.

With a $1.7m annual budget for five years it will introduce over a hundred recommendations such as educational programmes in prisons and increased police presence in the 50 most violent cities.

Working together

Civil society organisations across the country are making efforts to understand the gang phenomenon and to share their findings and knowledge.

Initiatives, such as those run by FESPAD, focusing on enterprise, culture, sport and art are important contributions, demonstrating change is possible both at an individual and community level. 

The concern for all those working on the issue of violence in El Salvador is that if the violence continues to seep out of the cities and into rural areas every part of the country will become infected by gang violence and it will become harder and harder to contain with the limited resources pledged to tackle the problem.

This blog first appeared in the New Internationalist

About the author

Guadalupe Cortés Vega is a Programme Officer for Christian Aid in El Salvador

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