In a speech to the legislative assembly on June 1st, President Mauricio Funes provided commentary on his second year in office and proposed goals for improvement of the country’s state of security. Notable among these proposals is Funes’ plan to create a system of obligatory military service for youth at risk of being recruited, or targeted by gangs. If enacted, those deemed to be “at risk”, a denomination given at the discretion of the National Civil Police, would be required to complete a total of 2 years of military training without weapons (6 months), civil protection training, rehabilitation, and vocational training aimed to shape them into productive citizens. Funes believes that removing an estimated 5,000 at-risk members of society off of the streets and putting them through this program will resolve many of the country’s security issues caused by the prevalence and entrenchment of violent gangs in Salvadoran society.
While Funes’ introduction of the plan was only general, with details and logistics to be decided upon at a later date, some of the infrastructure necessary to implement it is already in place: the Salvadoran Constitution stipulates obligatory military service for citizens age 18-30, although this provision (designated as a “dead letter” rule) is not implemented The caveat is that recruiting minors is of the essence to the success of the plan; FBI statistics show that gangs often target middle and high school students for recruitment, who range from approximately 12-18 years of age. The program would theoretically need to work with at-risk youth before they join the gangs. These statistics and the need to recruit minors may necessitate some legal revisions. However, “youth” in El Salvador includes both minors and young adults, so it is unclear as to whether he plans on targeting minors, or if the participants would be over 18.
Funes’ plan, while controversial, does have proponents. Aída Santos, the former director of the National Public Security Council, in her interview with El Faro applauded Funes’ plan, citing that many adolescent members of gangs often feel like prisoners who cannot escape the constant threats and harassment they experience as gang members. She believes that military training will provide them with this escape, as well as the sense of community and support they may have been seeking to find through gang membership.
Those opposed to Funes’ plan for obligatory military service for at risk youth argue that the program will only serve to exacerbate gang violence, as when adolescents are recruited into the program, it is highly likely they will already be associated with a gang. This would effectively mean that the Salvadoran government would be training gang members and possibly providing them with resources and connections within the government. There are already reports of the police and the military being corrupt and having connections with organized crime and gang activity; this could have the potential to intensify that problem.
Others opposed to the plan make claims that it will violate human rights. Henry Fino of the Human Rights Institute at the Central American University (IDHUCA), also in an El Faro interview alleged that Funes’ proposed use of the army is unconstitutional, as the army is only meant to intervene in matters of public security in extreme cases. He believes that the prevention of crime is not an extreme circumstance, nor does he even consider it to be a matter of public security.
In addition, as Funes’ plan to impose obligatory military service on youth continues to develop and does, in fact, include minors, the President must be careful not to violate his treaty obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC, which El Salvador signed and later ratified in July of 1990, provides rigid protection for the rights of minors, of the sort that Funes seeks to recruit. El Salvador also ratified an optional protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflicts (A/RES/54/263) proposed in May of 2000 and signed and ratified by El Salvador by 2002. Article 2 of the protocol is explicit when it states, “States Parties shall ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.” The protocol in its third article also stipulates that any involvement of minors within the army must be “genuinely voluntary [and]…carried out with the informed consent of the person’s parents or legal guardians.” If Funes continues to pursue the development of such plan, he must be aware of his obligations to the international community and the scrutiny he will come under if he violates his treaty obligations.