El Salvador’s government is proposing a law that would be the first of its kind, offering support to gang members who elect to leave.
On April 23, the Salvadoran government, via Hato Hasbun — who represents the office of the presidency on a national security council — sent the council a proposed law for the reintegration of gang members. The document — just a draft at the moment — could become the first law in El Salvador that provides former gang members with a legal status. The law would also design a public policy that provides economic, social, and job support to those who leave these criminal groups.
The proposal is explicitly directed at “gang members who display a willingness to leave and become rehabilitated, [and] have no pending criminal proceedings in court.” It is also directed at those serving sentences for crimes related to gang membership; to those just out of prison; communities or families who fear for their safety or who — due to certain social conditions — are considered at risk. In this last case, the government is offering these communities better public spaces, childcare programs, improved public services, and the implementation of “community, agricultural, and business” projects.
Gang members benefiting from this law earn the right to certain benefits, including money for school, scholarships for technical training, jobs, small business loans, and financing for improving or buying housing. Those who are still serving sentences for committed crimes may also be eligible for special employment opportunities.
Under the law, those who choose to leave their gang will be guaranteed counseling, therapy for drug addiction, and protection under the government’s special witness program. Those who undergo this rehabilitation will receive an official accreditation, issued by the Ministry of Justice and Security, indicating that the person in question forms part of the gang reintegration program and is considered innocent under the law.
To apply for these benefits, gang members must sign a personal statement expressing their commitment to stop all illicit activity. They must be fingerprinted and photographed, and provide verifiable information about their family and place of residence. The government will develop a different rehabilitation program depending on each person’s profile. In order not to be kicked out of these programs, applicants must refrain from frequenting so-called “places of risk;” be willing to perform volunteer work that helps the community, and fully complete all the steps required by their rehabilitation program.
El Salvador’s anti-gang law — approved in 2010 by President Mauricio Funes’ administration, in response to a bus burning that left 17 people dead — includes one section (Article 10) that allows for the creation of a supplementary law, one that would support those who attempt to quit gangs and become rehabilitated. During the tenure of Security Minister Manuel Melgar, Vice Minister Henry Campos prepared a special draft of such a law, but it was shelved and thus was never discussed in Congress or any other public body. During the 2013 gang truce, then-Security Minister David Munguia Payes also discussed the possibility of following up on Article 10, but never did so.
The fact that this more recent proposal was sent to the National Council of Citizen Security is the first clear step a Salvadoran government has taken towards creating an official policy for reintegrating gang members. In the letter accompanying the draft bill, Hato Hasbun did not detail when the Executive branch is planning on submitting its proposal to Congress, but gave members of the Council until April 28 to provide their comments or suggestions.
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Creating a National System for Reintegrating Gang Members
In order to implement this law, the government proposes creating three bodies. The first would be called the National Commission of Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration, and would be responsible for for approving the various plans and projects mentioned in the law, and for developing a national reintegration policy.
This Commission would consist of the heads of Congress and the Supreme Court; the Attorney General; the Presidential Minister of Communications and Governance; the Minister of the Interior; representatives of the private sector; NGOs that specialize in violence prevention, and churches. Each of these sectors would nominate their representatives, and the president would appoint the final candidate. Under the terms of the proposal, the Minister of Justice would head the Commission.
In order the implement the law, the Commission will have an advisory committee, a consulting committee, and an executive secretariat.
Due to the kinds of benefits that the proposed law will offer to ex-gang members, we can expect that implementing it will be costly. According to Hasbun’s draft of the law, Congress will need to include these costs in the national budget. In addition, the government would have to seek financial support from international organizations.
Congress recently approved up to $900 million in debt during a plenary session on April 24 — little of this will apparently be given to sectors like public security, social spending, the environment, or the payment of other short-term debts.
The Gangs Offer to “Garrison their Units”
On April 23 — the same day the government revealed its proposed reintegration law — the MS13 and factions of the Barrio 18 (the Sureños, the Revolucionarios, La Maquina, and Mirada Locos 13) released a joint statement assuring they had ordered gang members to cease all violence. In recent weeks, homicides had steadily increased in El Salvador (March was the most violent month in the past decade), and there have been repeated deadly attacks against police officers, as well as a series of armed clashes between security forces and suspected gang members — leaving more than 150 presumed criminals dead.
However, in their statement, the gangs assured that they accepted the discussion points raised nearly a month ago by former truce mediator Raul Mijango, who has launched several proposals — involving both the gangs and the government — aimed at stopping rising violence.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the El Salvador gang truce
Among Mijango’s discussion points were the following demands: that the gangs stop all killings, extortion, and recruitment; turn in their weapons; return illegally occupied houses to their owners; reveal all hidden graves; abandon the drug trade; and allow Salvadorans to move freely in gang territory.
In their statement, the gangs said they are ready to take on all these commitments:
We announce that from now on, we are giving instructions on the garrisoning of our units, the storage of weapons and all manner of gear. Now everyone, both inside and outside prisons, must focus on studying and discussing the 13 points that have been proposed, with the aim of achieving a consensus that will allow a satisfactory response to what society expects of us: fewer homicides, less extortion; in short: less violence. Depending on the conditions that will allow us to carry out this reflection, we will announce in due course what commitments we will assume before society, regarding every point.
Mijango’s proposal also included several demands that the government would have to meet — including creating a policy for the reintegration of gang members. Other points included the repeal of El Salvador’s anti-gang law; closing down the country’s only maximum security prison; and reviewing all criminal convictions based around the testimony of certain witnesses, among others.
The gangs’ press release was apparently signed April 20 — the same day that suspected gang members killed a soldier who was leaving a navy base, and seriously wounded two others. A day later, gang members threw a grenade at a police station in San Salvador. The next day, gangs threw another grenade at a police station in La Paz. No one was killed or wounded in these attacks. On April 23, officials said four gang members tried to massacre several bus passengers on the Panamerican Highway, but two armed passengers repelled the attack. Two of the attackers were killed. On April 24, a shootout between gangsters and police was reported along El Salvador’s Northern Transnational Highway.