A new report by a leading watchdog and policy group says that Central America's Northern Triangle governments should find a middle ground that balances the need for engaging with the region's violent street gangs, while still maintaining the rule of law and the governments' legitimacy.
The report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) enumerates several steps that the Northern Triangles countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador should take to curb gang-related violence and improve citizen security. One of the principal recommendations is to "engage transparently in confidence-building measures with the maras [gangs] without necessarily engaging in direct dialogue."
The report is careful to distinguish between "confidence-building measures" and the open-ended talks that led to El Salvador's so-called gang truce in 2012. The truce led to lower levels of violence, but critics say it bestowed greater political legitimacy upon the gangs. Violence began to rise precipitously after the breakdown of the truce, with the homicide rate eventually reaching over 100 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015.
"The unsuccessful truce process in El Salvador has stigmatized the notion of 'negotiation' with gangs," the report states. "But governments need not enter into direct dialogue with maras for a process of pacification to get underway."
The ICG argues the gangs should likewise adopt "goodwill measures" to show that they are serious about reducing violence. These include ending forced recruitment and permitting people to move through gang-controlled communities unmolested.
Here again, the ICG notes the potential negative side effects of implementing such a policy. The establishment of these safe corridors could become a way for the gangs to increase their "political and social clout."
The governments should also address chronic overcrowding in the prisons, the report states, by cutting down on the use of pretrial detention and finding alternatives to jail such as GPS tracking devices. This strategy would signal a shift away from the extremely punitive approach known as "Mano Dura" (Iron Fist) and place a greater emphasis on rehabilitation.
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Along those same lines, the ICG counsels the Northern Triangle governments to concentrate on high-impact crimes such as murder, rape and forced displacement. Authorities should respond to other, less harmful gang activities through the lens of crime prevention strategies that seek to address the underlying social and economic factors at play, the report states.
The report pays special attention to extortion, which it says is the gangs' "criminal lifeblood" and their "economic engine." In just El Salvador, extortion costs businesses an estimated $756 million per year, it says. Finding ways to integrate gang members into the legal economy, such as providing them with job opportunities, would reduce their economic dependency on illicit activities like extortion, the report adds.
But the ICG recognizes that providing "development aid in the context of gang-run communities poses huge challenges." The report cites examples of small business initiatives set up by non-governmental organizations in Honduras that were shuttered because they started receiving extortion threats.
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What's perhaps most noteworthy about the ICG report is that it provides few, if any, unequivocal policy endorsements. The document is not so much a call for a particular strategy as it is an attempt to explore alternatives to the current Mano Dura approach. Many of these alternatives carry their own associated risks, and the authorities would have to prepare for them accordingly. In the end, it concludes, there is no silver bullet to the Northern Triangle's gang problem.
"In seeking to address the insecurity and crime these gang perpetuate, states and the judicial system cannot ignore the conditions that have given rise to maras, nor expect gang identity -- and the existential gaps it has filled in young people’s lives -- to vanish," the report states.
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Nonetheless, there are promising initiatives happening in Central America and elsewhere that exemplify the type of recommendations made by the ICG. A 2016 meta-review of crime prevention strategies found that focused deterrence, which involves identifying the most violent offenders and having law enforcement officers repeatedly communicate with them and give them clear signals as to the consequences of continuing the violence, reduced homicides by anywhere from one-third to two-thirds in 90 percent of all interventions.
While that report only analyzed data collected in the United States, it was conducted by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in order to determine how this and other approaches could be implemented in the Northern Triangle. The founder of an innovative gang intervention program in Los Angeles has already begun adapting his model to the local security dynamics in Honduras and El Salvador.
While these programs won't break the endless cycle of gang violence in the Northern Triangle overnight, it may be a step in the right direction to focus authorities' towards the professionalizing the police and their approach so that they are focused on the small amount of the population that is committing a disproportionate amount of the criminal acts.