SAN SALVADOR — In the summer of 2016, 70,000 children from the Northern Triangle area of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were apprehended crossing the U.S. border. These children were looking for safety. Since the deterioration of the peace treaty signed between the major Salvadorian gangs in 2014, children have become the main resource over which gangs fight. In El Salvador, USAID fights gangs daily on the ground by providing help and alternative paths for these children.
There are 70,000 gang members in El Salvador. It has the highest murder rate of any country not at war, and 19 of every 20 murders go unsolved. Gangs have created a paradise of impunity for themselves and an insecure hell for the children.
Forced gang recruitment begins around grade four, and increasingly children as young as six years old are threatened with death if they refuse to join gangs. Almost 90 percent of schools report gang problems. Girls are under such constant threat of abduction into sexual slavery that 66,000 have switched schools or dropped out entirely. As one mother put it, “it is now a crime for a girl to be young.“
Children in gang-affiliated neighborhoods often fear the police as much as gangs. Incidents of police brutality including torture, abuse and harassment are commonplace. Studies of comparative armed confrontations between the government and gangs suggest that under the new hardline policy Mano Duro (literally meaning “hard hand”), summary executions are committed.
Larry Sacks, the head of USAID in El Salvador, said if children have safe community outreach centers in the most violent barrios, they can play, learn and be children. By giving students a secure place to go after school, the country becomes more secure. The U.S. currently supports 140 of these outreach centers in violent areas. Before planned budget cuts, it was designing and planning 100 additional centers. A young man in Ilobasco whose brother is in prison for gang activity credits the outreach center as the only reason he stayed in El Salvador, and the only hope that it can one day get better.
The U.S. should be protecting foreign aid budgets for the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala instead of the 40 percent budget cut proposed to USAID’s Western Hemisphere budget. Mass deportation of dangerous gang members back to El Salvador continues to destabilize the country as weak institutions allow murderers to return to the street and even re-enter the United States.
Whether it is providing mobile fingerprint scanners to police, or replacing a holding cell with adequate accommodation, USAID fights gangs in a variety of ways. The prisons are so overpopulated that guards cannot enter and gang leaders distribute the resources as they see fit. USAID must work to strengthen institutional capacity in order to build a credible justice system.
Any solution to El Salvador’s violence depends primarily on investment in youth programs to educate, train and give job opportunities in a country where informal work constitutes 75 percent of the economy. Even the rank-and-file gang members who kill on command make a miserable average salary of $40 a month. The government must reach children early in El Salvador and USAID’s GREAT (Gang Resistance Education And Training) anti-gang education program is successful in the United States for deterring poor kids from joining gangs.
USAID fights gangs in a multitude of innovative ways like the new USAID-LEGO Education partnership. This targets an innovative approach that teaches kids career skills in engineering, computer science, physics and math. The partnership sponsors local competitions where children invent solutions for the development problems facing El Salvador, ensuring a new generation of inventors with leadership qualities and technical skills can make safer cities.
– Jared Gilbert