Breaking Good: The transcendence of social reintegration programs for Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs’ members

Oscar is 29 years old and lives in San Salvador. He used to be a member of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang. Nowadays, he and his fellow ex-gang members spend their days working at a bakery.  Oscar is just one of the many ex-gang members engaged in reintegration projects, looking for a second chance. Carlos Arturo Aguilar discusses the role that such rehabilitation projects can have in reintegrating violent criminals back into the folds of mainstream society, and ultimately resulting in a meaningful and moving transformation.

 The MS-13 is the most significant street gang in the Western Hemisphere, extending from Central American nations through Mexico, the USA, and Canada. Recently, the Guardia Española detained 35 gang members in Spain accused of being involved in organised crime . The MS-13 has helped to make the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) the most violent place in the world that is not at war.

©United Nations Development Programme/Creative Commons License

©United Nations Development Programme/Creative Commons License

A decisive problem of the increase in the membership of gangs is poverty and inequality, exacerbated by famine and lack of jobs. The MS-13 emerges as a convenient option for thousands who end up as outcasts due to the absence of opportunities for social mobility. In turn, organized crime prohibits development.

It is hard to establish the exact number of maras. Associated Press and El País have calculated up to 60,000 in El Salvador alone. This figure carries more weight than seen at first glance.  Roberto Valent, the UN’s representative in El Salvador, says those 60,000 members might have as many as 300,000 dependants, which constitutes approximately 6% of El Salvador’s population. In social and economic terms these numbers and therefore the effect of gang involvement on the general population is critical.

A second opportunity

As previously stated, a strong motivation to become part of a gang is that little opportunities exist outside of gang involvement. If any hope of a transition exists, it rests on the creation of job opportunities, economic uplifting and social reintegration of those that have lost most of their youth and lives to gang warfare and criminal activities. International and local organisations, as well as specialists such as Clare Ribando Seelke have flagged up the creation of programs to foster such reintegration as an urgent action in order to encourage more current gang members (and their families) to quit the gang, offer alternatives to present prisoners to avoid recidivism, and tackle recruitment.

Such programmes have gained much attention and debate but little of this has translated into action. The Government of El Salvador is currently engaging in projects to restructure prison systems towards creating opportunities for rehabilitation of criminals and not just providing punishment. Yo cambio (I change) is an official initiative implemented at the municipality of Ilobasco, where the Farm for youths in conflict with the penal youth law has been established in order to receive about 800 prisoners, former MS13 and M18. At the farm they receive specialized attention (education, workshops, sports, health and mental treatment, family union courses, etc.).

©Natasha Padgitt/Creative Commons License

©Natasha Padgitt/Creative Commons License

The Minister of Justice, Benito Lara, remarks on the importance of transforming the judiciary system, particularly prisons to focus more on rehabilitation and social reintegration. The rehabilitation and reintegration of gang members has to be part of the the justice system and policies should reflect this. However, as Ribando mentions, government-sponsored gang prevention programs have tended to be small-scale, ad-hoc, and underfunded. Governments are still barely involved in sponsoring rehabilitation programs for individuals seeking to leave gangs, with most reintegration programs funded by church groups or NGOs.

María Luz Panameño, known as Alba, leads the Asociación de Desarrollo Comunitario de la Comunidad La Selva (ADECSELVA) in El Salvador. In collaboration with the municipality of Ilopango, 12.5 km from San Salvador, they set up a farm where about 40 ex-gang members learn about poultry farming. These programmes provide alternative sources of income for ex-gang members and are crucial for rebuilding lives.

Shared Responsibility

The two projects aforementioned are different one from the other but mark an important and essential aspect of the reintegration program’s theme. While the first example is an official effort, the second one is fostered by civil society. This highlights the necessity of collaboration between civil society and the government with the latter needing more involvement. Both agents share the responsibility for reintegrating gang members. Civil Society seems to be heading the majority of efforts, while governments show a keen interest, there is still a long way to go.  The MS-13 is a failure of the whole system. Therefore, a solution can only be the responsibility of the whole system. The development of such programmes is not only vital for the rehabilitation of gang members, but also for the healthy functioning of society.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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