Written commentary on the web by television reporters recently has offered some good additional analysis of the gang problem in El Salvador.
María Elena Salinas is a news anchor for Latin America network Univision. In a recent column she writes that:
The strategies used by El Salvador [to fight gangs] have their unique risks. In El Salvador, where the gang population is believed to be around 15,000, the strategy used against the maras has resulted in more violence. While the hard-line strategy is supposed to be accompanied by rehabilitation and prevention efforts, those programs have been dismal failures. They have resulted in rival gangs -- who previously were busy fighting each other -- joining forces to fight against a common enemy: the government.
Salvadoran President Tony Saca is asking for more help from the United States. He wants the U.S. to stop deporting gang members to El Salvador. Saca, a close ally of the Bush administration, will have a tough time persuading the U.S. to do that, since deportation is a prime component of the U.S. plan to fight gangs. More than 800 Salvadorans were deported in January of this year; more than 550 of them had a criminal record. The tactic is not only fueling a vicious circle of violence but could be counterproductive for the United States. In many cases, gang members who are returned to El Salvador quickly find themselves back in the U.S. committing more crimes.
National Geographic Explorer recently broadcast a program on Mara Salvatrucha called The World's Most Dangerour Gang. While the program itself bordered on the sensationalistic, correspondent Lisa Ling wrote journal entries from El Salvador which are more insightful than the program itself:
The root of this problem is social inequity. There need to be other options for children who grow up in these barrios, under the influence of gangsters who command both respect and fear. As for the spread of gangsterism, it is based on nothing but pure crime and murder. Gangs espouse no revolutionary ideals nor do they seek to benefit anyone but themselves. They murder without conscience, extort hard-working members of their community and have no respect for authority or the rule of law. They thrive on terrorizing. And most tragically, they view incarceration as a badge of honor—how does a society administer punishment in this light?
Some have compared the indoctrination of young gangsters to that of suicide bombers or drug traffickers. But I disagree. For suicide bombers, there’s to some degree a higher religious or political mission. Gangs don’t have any of this. Gangs have no moral or social values, nor do they espouse any. Extorting one's own people and killing one's own people, is the ultimate form of barbarianism and manipulation. I understand the brotherhood that evolves and I get that gangs often fill a void that parents don’t, but they have no redeeming social value, nor do they seek to provide any to younger generations.
The globalization of trash culture run amok has piqued an appetite for the same kinds of material excess. And all anyone cares about is the fastest way to achieve it...criminal activity notwithstanding. Gangsterism has always been around, but the ability for it to globalize through our plethora of ways to communicate has made it so much easier.
Having said all of the above, I felt God last night. We went hesitatingly to a church service filled with former gang members. It was incredible – a miracle actually. I know what you're thinking... church? Working on this story has been very emotional. I had felt such a lack of hope from the second we arrived. But meeting these gangsters who had killed people and then risked their own lives to leave the gang and turn their lives around gave me a little bit of hope and faith in the human spirit. None of us on the filming crew are religious, but we stayed for three hours and were all so moved. I have never felt the presence of a higher spirit more than last night. To watch these former killers in such anguish over the path that they had previously chosen, and emotion that spouted from their hearts was nothing short of...amazing.
I think I understand faith a little better now.