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?
Just over a month ago a photo reporter from one of El Salvador’s largest newspapers witnessed a street brawl between two young students (17 and 19 years old). In the photographic sequence—taken in a commercially busy area of San Salvador at 5:00 p.m. under the watchful eyes of passersby—a young male was stabbed three times and killed for his t-shirt. The reporter’s presence provided crucial evidence to jail the attacker, but the newspaper was fined for publishing the assailant’s face and name due to him being a minor.
The debacle created tremendous debate…and rightfully so. A judicial system must be modern and always maintain the interest of the public over a young criminal’s right to privacy. The same juvenile judge had only recently released three gang members accused of dismembering two 16-year-old girls. In that case, despite the overwhelming physical evidence, “there was no eye witness.”
These events have led some to plea for an increase in juvenile sentences. The El Salvador Congress did approve an increase in jail time (to 15 years) for specific crimes, but President Funes vetoed the resolution.
At the core of the discussion is an evident denial to recognize that crime and violence are a clear and present danger to the governance and democratic stability of Central American nations. The main challenge is ensuring effective crime control programs without compromising the already fragile individual, economic and political liberties that have been built in the past two decades.
* Julio Rank Wright is guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org and is an author in the Winter 2010 issue of Americas Quarterly. Read his AQ article.