El Salvador's National Assembly passed a law this week which criminalizes being a member of a gang. The law, endorsed by president Funes, was passed with the votes of 78 of the 84 deputies in the National Assembly. Membersship in a gang can be punished with up to six years in prison, while being a gang leader is punishable with a prison term of up to ten years. The LA Times reports on the bill's passage:
Simply belonging to a gang is about to become a criminal offense in El Salvador, a country where street gangs that incubated in Southern California terrorize neighborhoods and contribute to a high homicide rate.
The measure was prompted by outrage over gang attacks on two buses in June that killed 16 people. Congress approved the law Thursday, and it now awaits the signature of President Mauricio Funes, which probably will come soon. Funes was an early sponsor of the bill.
But several human rights activists and groups that work with gangs complained that the law emphasized punitive measures over tackling root causes.
"The history of El Salvador is the more government repression, the more violence we have," said Maria Silvia Guillen, head of a foundation that specializes in gangs and legal issues. To continue "with exclusively repressive measures, without taking into consideration prevention and reintegration [into society], is to continue making mistakes."
Antonio Rodriguez, a priest who runs a violence-prevention program at his parish in one of San Salvador's most troubled neighborhoods, said the government would do better by financing rehabilitation projects.
"This kind of law does not frighten the gangsters," he said
Others criticize the law for vagueness in defining what proof will establish that someone is a gang and for violating constitutional protections of freedom of expression. It is a law which lets the government appear to be doing something about the gangs, which gives the police another tool, but it does little to eliminate the root causes of gang activity or provide mechanisms for rehabilitation.