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El Salvador’s Gang Problem: A Difficult Artifact of Globalization

El Salvador’s gang problem is a reminder of the country’s ongoing position as economic punching bag.

Last December, the government of El Salvador announced its plan to implement a new youth violence prevention project that will combine work training, institutional strengthening, gang member rehabilitation and reinsertion programs.

The proposal is a positive shift from the previous administration’s punitive Mano Dura policies used against gang members (mareros) for years. Under those policies, teenagers even marginally suspected of being associated with gangs could be incarcerated, and rehabilitation was not a priority.

It has been one year since the historic gang truce between El Salvador’s two biggest gangs (maras) MS-13 and Barrio 18 dramatically decreased levels of violence throughout the country. Now the question is whether these second-phase programs can build a lasting peace and permanent social reintegration for former gang members.

Landscape of Rehabilitation

Funded by a $45 million Inter-American Development Bank loan, the project features a number of “communal programs that include sports, art and training in the prevention of intra-family violence” designed for at-risk youth, ages 15 to 25. In addition, one of the key pieces in the program is a rehabilitation component for prisoners – the construction of “farm-jails.”

Farm-jails are not a new feature on the country’s incipient rehabilitative landscape. The first one opened its doors on February 1, 2012, in the department of Sonsonate as part of the “Yo Cambio” initiative that seeks to decrease incarceration rates. The idea is to relieve the overwhelmed national prison system, while providing work and life skills critical to social reinsertion.

One hundred women currently reside at the Sonsonate site. The inmates work in agricultural production. One day of work is validated as two days of time served, and inmates are given a $50 stipend. The site is designed to house 1,000 women. Two other sites are slated for construction in Santa Anna and Zacatecoluca and plan to house 4,000 inmates of both genders.

IDB funds will expand these programs that officials boast have low expenditures, high impact and positive returns – an estimated $2.5 dollars for every dollar invested. More importantly, rehabilitative farms are an avenue to provide the work and subsistence asked for by gang members in the gang truce enacted exactly one year ago.

Other initiatives not funded under the IDB loan dot the rehabilitative landscape. These include inmate-run bakeries, trade shops in the prisons and private-public partnerships for ex-prisoners in the country’s leading industries.

From Good Intentions to Hard Reality

The gang truce was negotiated around the time of legislative and municipal elections. It is unclear whether the administration of El Salvador President Mauricio Funes directly orchestrated the truce or facilitated the meeting between the main negotiators. Recent constitutional crises and anxieties over the upcoming presidential election have converted the dialogue on judicial and penal system reforms and program initiatives into heated debates about political posturing rather than public policy discussions seizing on an opportunity.

But it’s El Salvador’s economic future that will determine much of what happens with the attempts to rehabilitate and reintegrate gang members. As much as 20.6 percent of its GDP currently comes from remittances, and the important textile and food production industries are being increasingly outpaced by cheaper Asian and Latin American competitors.

Held back by both the global recession and high levels of violence, El Salvador is currently the slowest-growing economy in Central America. Standard & Poor’s rates the former lead coffee exporter at “BB” – three levels below investment grade and in the same category as Vietnam. The country’s high dependence on trade with the United States and remittances sent by nationals living abroad makes El Salvador more vulnerable to the strains and fluctuations of the global economy.

The recent reversal in violence is viewed as overwhelmingly positive by investment brokers, but the optimism for El Salvador’s lead employment sectors may be short-lived. In the next three years, the textile and apparel sector could lose about 22,000 direct jobs and another 15,000 indirect jobs across the supply chain if the Trans-Pacific Partnership(TPP) comes into force, allowing Vietnamese textiles to enter the US market with no tariffs.

The textile and apparel sector accounts for 45 percent of total exports and contributes 18 percent to industrial GDP and 13 percent of the total private sector jobs in the country. Employment generating opportunities in the sector have led companies like League Collegiate Wear to play a key role in forging private-public partnerships focused on gang member reinsertion. A recent article in The Miami Herald highlighted that 15 percent of League’s employees are mareros. According to Rodrigo Bolaño, League’s general manager in El Salvador, work teams that employ mareros are 15 percent more productive. Unfortunately, the promise of these programs may be cut short if the TPP is put into effect.

League Collegiate Wear’s program was established in 2009 after the Pennsylvania-based college wear company opened a manufacturing plant in Ciudad Arce. The initiative is multi-faceted and includes the collaboration of religious groups, psychologists, drug rehabilitation services, on-site child-care and residential facilities, and salaries above minimum-wage levels. While the program is successful, it required extensive business knowledge and money to establish.

The League program and others like it are considered the next step on a rehabilitative continuum, after formal institutional intervention. Inmates learn entrepreneurial skills through prison work initiatives that include shoemaking, carpentry and baking bread to better prepare them for working in places like League. Grupo Calvo (tuna) and Rio Grande Foods (food processing) also employ former gang members, but often employers’ fear of taking on gang members leads to few opportunities for former prisoners to find work and reintegrate into society.

“Crime and violence has filtered into all levels of society, resulting in a collective fear that not only impacts the personal life of each person, but also the country’s economic growth. Investors seek safer places to put their money and capital. It is estimated that the private sector spends 4.5 percent of sales in security costs and losses due to crime,” said Mario Chavez, Security Area Coordinator for FUSADES, a public policy think tank based in San Salvador.

According to Chavez, El Salvador’s potential areas of investment include the recently approved expansion of the Comalapa International Airport, the concession of the port of La Union and transforming the country into a power-generating hub for the region. This focus on infrastructure investment for the future indicates that the current scope and orientation of rehabilitative work in the prisons may be too narrow. In farm jails, the work centers on agriculture and food production. However, 95 percent of fruit and vegetables consumed in El Salvador are imported from abroad, along with 30 percent of beans and 40 percent of corn. The Funes administration has proposed measures to achieve “food sovereignty,” but until those programs see returns, the skills learned by gang members in farm-jails may be irrelevant to current market needs that demand greater entrepreneurship and technical, computer, English and customer-service skills for an expanding service-sector economy.

But frequently, the first rehabilitative steps are saturated with enough problems that secondary or tertiary steps seem utopian. One example is with the baking facilities at the high-security facility in Ciudad Barrios, where only one of three ovens work, allowing only 30 of the total 2,400 prison population a chance for employment. While other avenues for gaining work experience exist, like shoemaking, sewing and carpentry, the programs rely heavily on donations and face problems getting enough sewing machines and heavy-duty sanders for inmates to ply their would-be trades. A percentage of the money generated by selling bread and shoes through these prison-led ventures is intended to help inmates support their families and theoretically prevent their children from resorting to crime. However, it’s unclear what percentage stays within the prison system to support these businesses and what percentage – if any at all – makes it to the hands of inmate families.

The Role of History

The dual discussion of how to reduce gang violence and how to obtain needed economic growth have led to a chicken-and-egg problem in El Salvador. It’s critical to decrease violence and gang membership so that investors gain confidence and the overall competitiveness of the Salvadoran market increases. But to achieve lasting advances in reducing criminal activity, the economy must provide options for youth. In a country where youth unemployment hovers at 34 percent, it takes time to foster new areas of the economy to attract investors and create new employment sectors, and the need is immediate.

Both Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) are swollen with the ranks of unemployed, undereducated youth, ages 12 to 35. Their generation struggles within an education system that provides outdated technical and trade skills, if any at all. Employment opportunities are limited. Many urban youth are employed in the informal economy, where the risks for violence and extortion are high. If they work in retail, they can earn an average of $192.10 a month, $187.73 in industrial sector jobs and $166.82 for apparel assembly. In agriculture, the situation is even worse – the average monthly income is only $89.86 in agriculture. Comparatively, gang membership is a lucrative proposition. According to the Attorney General’s Office, gang members can earn $5 to take a cell phone to those higher up in the chain, $25 a day from extortion and up to $200 or more to commit murder. At $50 a month, the current stipend system for rehabilitative farm workers is below the minimum wage for agricultural workers. Most gang members are located in pricier urban areas. The monthly amount raises questions of how effectively recipients benefit from the program – both inside and outside of prison. However, the amount is somewhat better than what American prison work program participants make. Comparatively, inmates in the United States earn between $.23 and $1.15 per hour, or $6 and $35 a month. In El Salvador, recent complaints within the farm-jails about unsafe working conditions and wage theft raise questions of mismanagement and exploitation.

Another problem is the influx of offenders. Since 1998, nearly 200,000 convicts and undocumented immigrants have been deported from the United States to El Salvador. In 2010 alone, 21,049 Salvadorans were deported, 6,306 of whom had been convicted of a crime. Interventions for deported at-risk youth and convicts are virtually nonexistent, and the capacity of prisons and law enforcement to deal with a steady stream of potentially active offenders is minimal. The Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Agency and Salvadoran agencies have begun to share lists that include the names of suspected gang-member deportees, which are then distributed to the national police and other groups. Yet communication between these agencies often breaks down.

In a press statement, spokespeople for the MS-13 and Barrio 18 said, “Despite the mistakes we made, for which more than 10,000 our members are serving sentences in prisons, society cannot deny that we are also Salvadorans and we are a by-product of social policies and the disastrous socioeconomic consequences of the models that have been implemented in El Salvador for many years, the very same that took us to war in the eighties. We are the children of this war, because most of our members lost their parents in that conflict, and others came from disintegrated households due to the migration of their parents and themselves to other countries and the uprooting that resulted from being moved from their places of origin.”

Many gang members fled the country at a young age during the civil war and joined gangs in Los Angeles. Once they were deported from the United States, they imported a culture that guaranteed income, a peer group based on membership, protection and power in a country with high economic inequality and rigid, social stratification that remained unchallenged and unaddressed upon their return. While these factors are improving, the poorest 10 percent earn just 1 percent of national income, compared with the 37 percent of national income earned by the wealthiest 10 percent.

Gang rehabilitation requires both immediate measures like the rehabilitative farms and the tackling of more systemic socioeconomic problems. The current gang problem is a blunt reminder of the serious repercussions of ignoring life at the margins of national development – especially youth. As the country transitions from Mano Dura to Mano Segura (iron fist to a steady hand), the ability to effectively address social problems that directly impact gang association remains to be seen.

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