El Salvador’s hard-line law against gang activity officially took effect on Sunday, although the Attorney General’s Office told La Prensa Grafica the legislation is not yet being enforced due to technicalities.
The new law doubles the maximum prison sentence for minors, declares gang membership illegal, and gives authorities permission to freeze bank accounts and seize the assets of gang members. So far the strongest reaction against the law was the three-day assault against bus companies that temporarily halted most transport across the country. New reports show that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, usually rivals, agreed to collaborate in enforcing the bus strike, which resulted in the destruction of three buses and the arrests of 80 people, according to IPS.
The maras have rallied against the new gang-enforcement law, but have also used it as an opportunity to attack previous legislation that increased security measures in prisons. So far there is no sign the government is interested in listening, although the director of El Salvador’s penal system commented to Prensa Grafica they may reconsider some of these statutes, and possibly allow rival gang members to house together in the same penitentiary. The government has tried to keep MS-13 and Barrio 18 separate since massive prison riots rocked the country in 2003.
Other than the expected backlash from the Maras, one of the more preoccupying effects of the law may be migration. The Maras have already spilled over into Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, and authorities in all of these countries have expressed concerns that El Salvador’s tougher legislation will cause another mass exodus. As IPS reports, these neighboring countries are all grappling with rising homicide rates and frequent, gang-related attacks on bus companies. Honduras already has a anti-gang membership law, in effect since 2003, and Guatemalan Congress is also considering passing similar legislation. It is too early to say whether El Salvador’s new bill will cause a “balloon” effect, but it is likely that concern over border security will grow significantly in the region.