In El Salvador, under recent laws aimed at reducing crime in the country, children between the ages of 12 and 16 can now be sentenced to 10 years in prison and serve their sentences in adult prisons. However, as a developmental psychologist, I argue that strict policies on crime, especially those targeting children, do not work – especially in a country where relationships between society and the family are at odds.
El Salvador has been under a 30-day state of emergency since the country saw a spike in homicides at the end of March. Within 24 hours, 62 murders were committed; It’s the bloodiest day since the end of the Civil War. Constitutional rights, such as freedom of assembly and access to state-funded defense, were suspended. Human rights activists have criticized these measures, saying they violate the civil rights of Salvadorans. Children are particularly vulnerable to harassment and categorization by the civilian police and military.
Activists’ concerns are not exaggerated. Parents reported that their children were subject to arbitrary arrest and search and that their basic rights were not respected. In fact, some said they were unable to reach or contact their detained children.
These changes to juvenile criminal law are part of a series of tougher crime laws called manu dura (“Iron Fist”). First enacted in El Salvador under the administration of Francisco Flores in 2003, these laws give the military more leeway in civil affairs. It also allows the Salvadoran Armed Forces to implement abusive policies that allow for suspicion of “gang membership” based on their physical appearance.
El Salvador is not the only country resorting to this type of practice. Similar policies have been established in the United States. In the early 2000s, police departments from Washington State, Washington County, Maryland, and Virginia came together to form the Northern Virginia Task Force (NVG). The protocols developed by GTVN targeted individuals with “gang-related characteristics”. Most of them were black and/or Latino. Despite this repressive approach, since 2006 in the United States, the number of individuals affiliated with gangs has continued to increase.
In El Salvador, the large number of incarcerated gang members turned prisons into places for recruitment and training, exacerbating the situation. In the past two weeks, 13,000 suspected gang members have been arrested, exacerbating the country’s prison overcrowding problem.
If Manu Dora’s policies prove unsuccessful, but exacerbate the problem, why should the Salvadoran government – which claims to bring about change and innovation – turn to outdated and ineffective practices?
On the other sideEfforts must address the root causes of youth gang involvement. For El Salvador, this means addressing the underlying collective trauma suffered by families and communities affected by the 12-year civil war (1980-1992).
An estimated 75,000 civilians were killed by government armed forces in the war against the coalition of leftist groups known as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. According to the United Nations, violations of basic human rights, such as the torture and kidnapping of civilians suspected of sympathizing with the FMLN, were ubiquitous during this period.
Government forces forcibly recruited children, while others joined the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. About 80% of the government forces were from the palace, while they made up a fifth of the fighters of the National Liberation Front. In both cases, many children actively participated in combat in war zones at critical times in their development. Despite the large number of former child soldiers at the end of the war, they were completely excluded from many government social programs and NGOs aimed at supporting people due to their age. Unfortunately, the children are left to fend for themselves, not knowing how to deal with their traumatic experiences.
For those who immigrated to the United States, support was reduced to a minimum, as they were denied refugee status. In the absence of an adequate care structure, Salvadoran children have not been able to deal with the gangs’ recruitment manipulation strategies. Negative childhood experiences, such as war, can have negative consequences for an individual’s life. It has a negative effect on health, and can lead to premature death, changes in the development and functioning of the endocrine glands, the immune system and the nervous system. Dealing with the traumatic events of armed conflict was essential for this generation of children who witnessed the horrors of war, at a critical time for their social, emotional and cognitive development.
According to Bronfenbrenner’s ecosystem theory, immediate environments, relationships, and social and political context influence children’s development. Attachment theory, originally developed by John Bowlby, revolves around two central components. It shows that children form their sense of trust and security through their relationships with the adults in their lives. Moreover, these different attachment styles have implications for our future relationships as adults. These processes help us form our moral sense, our beliefs, our values, and our identities that are ultimately passed down to the next generation. Without proper follow-up to support and treat the post-war psychological effects, the trauma is transmitted to future descendants. Not surprisingly, generations of Salvadoran children have been recruited into gangs.
Despite the outbreak of war more than 40 years ago, children and families in El Salvador and the diaspora can still feel its effects today. The “current gang problem” in El Salvador does not reflect the particularity of the Salvadorian population. On the contrary, it testifies to the lack of interest in children in the politics of El Salvador, the war-torn and post-war country.
Studies show that children involved in criminal organizations have experiences similar to those of child soldiers. Moreover, the international community and researchers consider children joined with gangs to be child soldiers. UNICEF defines them as:
Any person 18 years of age or younger who has been recruited or used by an armed group in any capacity whatsoever. Children’s role in armed forces conflict is often direct combat, but they also work as spies, cooks, messengers, porters, and sex slaves, among other roles.
Any person 18 years of age or younger who has been recruited or used by an armed group in any capacity. Children’s role in armed conflicts is often direct combat, but they also work as spies, cooks, messengers, porters, and sex slaves, among other things.
Also, children cannot really agree to join a gang because of the social and political power that adults exercise over children in society.
It is time to change the way we approach this problem and look to more effective frameworks that can bring about meaningful change. This includes changing the way we view children involved in criminal organizations.
The option of using Manu Dora-type policies against gang violence is neither new, nor innovative, nor effective. On the contrary, it is a new iteration of the failure of adults in power versus Salvadoran youth. If Najib Boukil’s management wants to see significant changes, it must invest in the future of young people.
Recent amendments to the Juvenile Criminal Code and cuts to social programs show that history is repeating itself. The solution to gang violence does not lie in increased surveillance or the same Manu Dora policies that have failed us in the past. It is initiated through positive youth development, trauma-informed psychological care, and supportive spaces for children and families.