Crime and Democracy in Central America

Yesterday, the Americas Quarterly blog posted a thoughtful commentary by Julio Rank Wright, in which he discusses El Salvador’s gang problem and the tension between effective crime fighting and protecting individual liberties.  What struck me about the article were the Guatemalan and Salvadoran governments’ estimates that each of their countries have approximately 15,000.  As Mr. Wright points out, this is a relatively low percentage of the overall youth population and the government and civil society ought to be able to stop the violence.

The Flores and Saca administrations both implemented anti-gang programs (Mano Duro and Super Mano Duro respectively) but each impeded on the basic human rights of all Salvadorans and overturned.  And as Mr. Wright noted, President Funes recently vetoed legislation that would have increase the maximum sentence for minors arrested for serious crimes. In addition, Salvadoran jails serve as more of a base of operations for many gang leaders, who call shots and organize activities while incarcerated, than a penal institution. Many Salvadorans believe that the police that are meant to protect them, take bribes from gangs to look the other way.

In past years, gang activities were limited to specific neighborhoods in San Salvador or other urban centers. Recently, however, our friends in rural communities in San Vicente, Cabañas, Morazán, Usulután, and other areas report growing security concerns.  One sleepy town in San Vicente has seen a drastic increase in gang violence, extortion, and other crimes.  The police, judiciary, and civil society seem relatively powerless in stopping it.

As the rates of crime and violence increase, and the government fails to prevent it, hopes for a strong democracy and the rule of law in El Salvador fade.

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