Authorities in El Salvador are proposing to toughen legislation against minors in order to combat the growth of gangs, a sign officials are ready to use the "iron fist" security approach against juveniles.
On April 7, Attorney General Douglas Arquímedes Meléndez Ruiz presented a reform to the country's Juvenile Penal Law that would enable prosecutors to order arrest warrants for minors, reported La Prensa Grafica. Authorities say this measure is intended to limit the effects of gangs who recruit children to commit crimes on their behalf. Currently, only a juvenile judge can order a minor's arrest.
Meanwhile, earlier this week Representative Guillermo Gallegos of the Great Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional - GANA) said El Salvador does not need to modify its laws or withdraw from international treaties in order to try youth delinquents as adults, reported EFE.
"I think that with the declaration by the [Supreme Court] which says that gang members are terrorists, there is the opportunity to process minors as adults," Gallegos said, referring to a decision last year by El Salvador's high court to classify gangs as terrorist groups.
The comments were prompted by previous discussion to lower the legal age of adulthood in order to prosecute suspects as adults at a younger age. Patricia Valdivieso of the conservative National Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista - ARENA) suggested lowering the age of adulthood from 18 to 14, while Gallegos proposed setting it even lower at 12.
InSight Crime Analysis
It's important to keep in mind the context in which these comments are being made. Homicide rates in El Salvador are reaching dizzying heights, and gangs are believed to be driving much of the violence. These gangs frequently recruit minors to carry out the most dangerous tasks and riskiest crimes, since youths face less severe punishment and are generally considered to be an expendable source of cheap labor.
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But if the recent measures proposed by Salvadoran authorities are intended to either protect minors or reduce street crime, their efforts are misguided. Lowering the age at which youths can be prosecuted as adults only incentivizes gangs to recruit from an even younger age pool. They have already shown a willingness to do so, with reports of gangs in Honduras enlisting members as young as six.
Likewise, introducing minors to the criminal justice system at a younger age only encourages greater delinquency. Hardline security policies known as "Mano Dura," or Iron Fist, led to the rounding up of large numbers of gang members, turning prisons into veritable centers for organized crime. If youths don't enter the prison system as hardened criminals, they are certainly more likely to leave as one.