In thinking about the problem of gangs in El Salvador, it is worthwhile to review the various theories about the factors which have promoted the growth of gang violence in the country. Set out below are a number of those factors -- there is no doubt that it is the combination of many of these factors, and not a single factor, which is driving the problem.
- Poverty. Gangs and crime are a product of the unemployment and poverty which impacts many areas of the country. With jobs difficult to come by and with great disparity in the distribution of wealth, young men turn to gangs as a way to survive. Gang members come from the poor communities, not from the children of the rich.
- Violence of Salvadoran society. Another theory, which appeared in several of the comments this week, is a view that Salvadoran society it simply more violent than others. The gangs are an expression of this innate violence.
- Materialism. Salvadoran media and advertising is filled with images of a consumer-driven "good life." These images, which place the acquisition of money and things above other values, create feelings of frustration in youth who don't have the means to live that dream life. The gangs and their illicit sources of income offer a way to satisfy that desire for material things.
- Disintegration of Salvadoran families. In the past decades, traditional family structures have been breaking down in El Salvador. Single mothers are raising children in poverty. One or both parents have emigrated to the US leaving children with less supervision. Gangs provide a social network which replaces family units for some youth.
- US exporting its problems to El Salvador. The US had a gang problem in Los Angeles. Rather than addressing the root causes of Latino gangs in Southern California, the US simply deported its criminal element to El Salvador, who continued what they had learned in the US.
- Lack of hope. If you grow up young and poor in the ring of poor colonias around San Salvador, it is difficult to have hope. Without hope, human life is cheap.
- Failed ARENA government policies. There are no areas where the ARENA government has had any success in dealing with the gangs. Firm Hand and Super Firm Hand policies result in occasional sweeps and mass arrests in gang-controlled areas, but little progress. The majority of murders are never solved. The government has no working program for rehabilitation. The prisons are warehouses at best, and training grounds for the gangs at worst.