A New Approach to Youth Violence?

The number of students murdered in El Salvador more than doubled from 52 students in 2010 to 126 in 2011. In January 2011, even before the increase of violence in Salvadoran schools, the Ministry of Education (MINED) and the National Civil Police (PNC) began developing a plan that would, in-part, put police patrols in the schools most affected by gang violence. In late January 2012, Sub-director of the PNC, Manuel Ramírez Landaverde, announced they would begin implementing the new programs for the 2012 school year, with the goal of reducing student violence and the murder rate.

One of the new programs is “Discipline through Sports,” which aims to bridge the divide between students and police officers. According to an expert on Salvadoran youth and gangs, there is a very common belief in El Salvador that the police are “corrupt to its core.” The source, which requested anonymity, said that many communities, rural and urban, believe the PNC has “been infiltrated by gangs, by organized crime, by narco-trafficking, and you name it.” The source also said, “police brutality is common,” and they also “extort kids in the gangs so they don’t beat them or their families, or investigate them.”

It is unclear what the new program, which police officials tout as both preventative and protective, will look like, but the goal seems to be to get police officers active in coaching or even playing sports with the kids. Through direct interactions with students, the PNC hopes to be more than just a police presence. Landaverde said that the program “will allow us to detect, before any warning or situation, a problem developing within any group of students.”

While it is important that the police recognize the divide between the police and youth, Discipline through Sports seems to do little  to address the reason for the divide – the perception that the police are the actual “bad guys.” Instead of addressing accusations of abuse and corruption, police officials seem more interested in gathering information and detecting issues early, rather than strengthening their relationships with youth.

The PNC and MINED have identified 300 schools as “high risk,” 166 of which are also considered the “most vulnerable.” The program will assign 160 officers to work on sports programs in the 300 schools, which is just over 1 officer for every 2 high-risk schools. The 160 officers will join another 400 officers who are patrolling the 166 schools that are already marked as the most vulnerable. Sub-director Landaverde also said that thousands of other personnel would continue supporting schools around the country with “patrols, control, education, and road security, regulating vehicle traffic around the schools.”

The program is part of the PNC’s effort to reduce El Salvador’s extremely high murder rate (66 per 100,000, second highest in the world). Police officials recently said they would reduce the murder rate by 30% in 2012, in part by reducing the levels of violence among youth. According to David Munguía Payés, a retired General who is now the Minister of Justice and Public Security, and other government officials, violence perpetrated by youth gangs accounted for 90% of El Salvador’s 4,223 murders in 2011. El Salvador’s Government Forensics Institute, former PNC officials, and several civil society organizations, however, assert that youth gangs account for only 10-20% of the nation’s murders. They attribute the majority of El Salvador’s violence to international organized criminal networks involved in trafficking drugs, guns, and people, money laundering, and other illicit activities. Though the 126 student victims only account for 3% of the murder in 2011, the PNC is focusing on schools because they believe them to be recruiting centers for the gangs. They hope that by increasing the police presence, active gang members will no longer have the access that they once did, and youth will focus more on their studies instead of turning to gangs and violence.

The focus on murdered students may also be a good public relations move for the PNC and Funes Administration. Highlighting the tragic murders of these students,  the PNC and other officials are able to continue casting youth gangs as the heinous enemy and justify the same kind of draconian security plans implemented in the past (Mano Duro, 2003 and Super Mano Duro, 2004 – both laws were found to be unconstitutional by El Salvador’s Supreme Court). In just the past month, the Funes Administration has militarized the country’s domestic security institutions in a manner not seen since the Peace Accords were signed in 1992.

In 2011, the Funes Administration proposed to steer youth away from gangs by requiring “at risk” youth ages 16-18 to participate in a military training program. Activists and experts rejected the plan arguing that the youth would emerge from the program as skilled laborers for the gangs and drug traffickers. Instead of putting youth into a military program, the PNC’s latest idea puts the police into the schools.

Teachers, organizations and other experts, however, have criticized the PNC’s proposal fearing that it will only lead to more police brutality. A spokesperson for Bases Magisteriales, a teacher’s union, shared a recent story from the Joaquín Rodenzo school in downtown San Salvador as an example. He said that police would hit students and even put their service weapons to the student’s heads. The Bases Magisteriales spokesperson said that schools simply don’t have the resources to support the PNC presence and protect the rights of the students.

Salvador Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador’s Vice President and Minister of Education, signed off on Dicipline through Sports on January 30, 2012, and Security Minister David Munguía Payés hopes to see the plan in place within two months. Whether putting police officers into school sports programs and patrolling the hallways is something new that will deter involvement in gang activities or just another heavy-handed security measure that will result in more abuse remains to be seen. But with such uncertainty about who is responsible for the violence and the motive behind the crimes, there is plenty of reason to doubt the plan will help reduce El Salvador’s murder rate by the 30% officials are hoping for.

One thought on “A New Approach to Youth Violence?

  1. I’m so glad that you all posted this article. This is a lot of food for thought. I think that tensions between youth and the police are real and universal. My honest hope is that a program like this really will be able to help to establish trusting bonds with police and the youth, yet I can’t help but to always hold the slightest bit of skepticism. Nonetheless, my prayers are for the best/

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