El Salvador has reversed its controversial policy of segregating prisons based on gang affiliation, but with a new report indicating social factors are driving criminal activity, it is unlikely this strategy will significantly improve the country’s burgeoning security crisis. 

On April 21, under heavy security and with nearby streets blocked off, Salvadoran authorities transferred 650 members of the MS13 street gang to a prison in the western city of Izalco, which until then had only held members of their archrivals the Barrio 18, reported La Prensa Grafica.

Authorities also moved 1,177 Barrio 18 inmates from Izalco to a prison that previously housed only MS13 members in the northeast city of San Francisco Gotera, according to El Salvador.com.

Authorities stated that the placement of inmates would now be based on their level of risk to society, rather than gang affiliation, reported The Associated Press. El Salvador’s prison directorate told AP that as of April 21 a total of 2,427 inmates had been transferred to three prisons in different parts of the country.

These transfers mark the reversal of a policy that has shaped El Salvador’s prison demographics for the past decade. In 2004, the Salvadoran government began officially dividing some of the country’s prisons between the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs, a controversial measure that has not been replicated anywhere else in the region.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren said the decision to desegregate the prisons was made in order to shuffle the locations of gang members and prevent them from “running criminal operations” from behind bars.

These changes in prison policy fail to address the social issues that are at the heart of El Salvador’s security crisis.

As early as July 2014, there were signs El Salvador would do away with prison segregation. That month, El Salvador’s Security and Justice Minister Benito Lara said prison segregation had been a mistake and would be ended in the “not too distant future.

El Salvador has also recently sent several MS13 and Barrio 18 leaders back to the Zacatecoluca maximum-security prison. This move reversed the policy of the previous administration, which had agreed to transfer at least 30 top gang leaders from Zacatecoluca to lower-security prisons as a part of the country’s 2012 gang truce.

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El Salvador’s deteriorating security situation likely influenced the timing of the government’s decision to desegregate the prisons. Homicide rates in El Salvador have been climbing ever since the breakdown of the gang truce in early 2014, and March 2015 was the country’s most violent month in the past 10 years. Sanchez Ceren appears to be looking for ways the government can respond to this surge in violence without returning to the negotiating table, a possibility his administration has rejected several times.

The government’s decision to desegregate the prisons and transfer gang leaders back to Zacatecoluca could help lower violence, but likely only to a limited degree. The segregation of the prisons is widely believed to have strengthened both gangs by enabling better coordination among incarcerated leaders, who order gang members on the outside to carry out murders, disappearances, and other criminal activities. Disrupting this chain of command could weaken the ability of the Barrio 18 and MS13 to coordinate attacks on police and rival gangs.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

However, these changes in prison policy fail to address the social issues that are at the heart of El Salvador’s security crisis. Many of the inmates filling Latin America’s most overcrowded prison system (pdf) never had the opportunity to make a decent living in the formal sector. 

According to a new report by the University of Francisco Gavidia on El Salvador’s prison demographics (pdf), over 38 percent of inmates had never attended school or had not completed elementary school by the time of their first arrest. Just a tiny fraction of El Salvador’s prison population (1.2 percent) had a college degree when first incarcerated.

What’s more, the lack of education extends beyond the classroom: an astonishing 68.2 percent of prisoners had either little or no comprehension of what was happening during their judicial proceedings. This could explain, in part, the fact that over a quarter of all inmates (26.7 percent) said someone had used force to get them to change their plea or to plead guilty.

However, one of the authors of the study, Carlos Vilalta, told InSight Crime that the makeup of a prisoner’s nuclear family is the most telling predictor of criminal activity in El Salvador. “The family composition of prisoners […] is conducive to violence and criminality,” Vilalta said.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

As an example, Vilalta stated that the percentage of inmates who grew up in a household in which a family member had spent time in prison (26.8 percent) was “much higher” than in other parts of Latin America. The study also found that 37.7 percent of Salvadoran inmates left home at least once before age 15. The most common reason for leaving was domestic violence (31.9 percent), followed by seeking employment opportunities (21.6 percent). Almost 10 percent of prisoners reported that they had begun working before age 9.

The findings of this study reinforce statements by gang leaders that high levels of crime and violence in El Salvador are the product of social inequality.

“We are a social group. We see ourselves as a large part of society. We believe that the problem here is social exclusion, discrimination, lack of education, lack of employment and unequal treatment by the law,” Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias “El Viejo Lin,” told InSight Crime during an interview in 2012. “We think that if you resolve these problems, the violence between gangs will end.”

Indeed, violence and crime are deep-rooted problems in El Salvador that cannot be eradicated by simply incarcerating more gang members or moving those who are already behind bars from one prison to another. 

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