Three months after the government passed a tough new law criminalizing gang membership, El Salvador’s Attorney General has yet to enforce it. Despite criticism from the press and other governmental organizations, the Attorney General says he simply has not yet been given enough evidence to prosecute a case using the new law.
President Mauricio Funes signed the anti-gang legislation on September 10, which makes gang membership punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The first article of the law explicitly bans street gangs like “the self-styled Mara Salvatrucha, MS-Thirteen, Eighteen Gang, Machine Mara, Mara Mao Mao and groups, criminal organizations or associations such as the "Black Shadow."
On Monday the Legislative Assembly’s Security Committee went to the office of Attorney General Romeo Barahona, seeking an explanation for his inaction in prosecuting the regulation. Barahona justified the lack of prosecution by citing article 345 of the country’s Penal Code, which passed alongside the anti-gang law and requires assistant prosecutors to undergo a lengthy investigation process before a case can be prosecuted.
Despite this claim, critics say that prosecutors have yet to cite the hardline bill in courts because they are waiting on the Attorney General’s office to supply legal processes that invoke the law. Barahona is quick to point out that, even without invoking the new law, his office is still taking on organized crime. “We are attacking criminal organizations not only for the crime of illegal association and the applicability of the anti-gang law, but also through other grave crimes such as homicide, extortion, kidnapping and robbery,” he told El Mundo.
In recent years, civil society organizations have criticized the government’s "Mano Dura," or "iron fist" approach against crime, claiming that it unjustly focuses on association, resulting in the rounding up thousands of youths based on their appearance, their social circle or address. Critics maintain that many of these arrests do not hold up in Salvadoran courts and only serve to sow a distrust of authority in marginalized, poor communities. In turn, this isolation may result in accelerated recruitment for the gangs themselves.
As part of an ongoing effort to crack down on crime, the government also launched a prison corruption sweep this week, resulting in the arrests of hundreds of personnel. Once imprisoned, members of El Salvador's two most powerful gangs, the Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 are known to continue running their criminal enterprises from behind bars.