Friday, April 01, 2005

Addressing root causes

A former Chicano gang member from Los Angeles writes an opinion piece in the New York Times which emphasizes the role of US policy in the growth and spread of Central American gangs like Mara Salvatrucha:

MS-13 is a result of our policy in Central America, specifically the policy that fueled the civil wars that sent more than two million refugees to the United States in the 1980's. Some of their children confronted well-entrenched Mexican-American gangs in the barrios where they landed. For their protection, they created their own groups, emulating the style of older Chicano gangs like 18th Street. MS-13, for instance, was born in the crowded, crack-ridden Mexican and Central-American community of Pico-Union, just west of the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.

After the Los Angeles riots of 1992, government officials declared the main culprits to be young African-American and Latino gang members. In the mid-90's as many as 40,000 youths accused of being members of MS-13, 18th Street and other gangs were deported every year to Mexico and Central America. Sophisticated, tattooed, English-speaking young men raised and acculturated in the United States were sent to countries with no resources, no jobs and no history with these types of gangs.

Soon the deported members of MS-13 and 18th Street began recruiting among homeless and glue-sniffing youth who had never been to the United States. In a few years, these new members were making their way to the United States, ending up in far-flung corners of the country and recruiting a new generation. When the Department of Homeland Security deports the men it arrested last week, the cycle will start again.

The author looks for solutions not in "firm hand" solutions advocated Salvadoran and US law enforcement, but in work and opportunity programs which address the root causes for gang culture:
Today we're confronted with the same choice: we can continue the repression, arrests and firm-hand policies that only guarantee more violence and more lost youth. Or we can bring gang youth to the table and work to create jobs and training, providing real options for meaningful work and healthy families. In other words, we can help sow the seeds of transformation, eliminating the reasons young people join gangs in the first place.

We have the means to do both. Both have great costs. But one choice will worsen the violence and terror; the other will help bring peace, both in the streets of the United States and in the barrios of America's neighbors.

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