How Multinationals Can Help El Salvador’s Ex-Gang Members

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Multinational companies could play a role in building on the peace brought about by El Salvador‘s gang truce by helping former gang members re-enter the labor force, as a new report sets out.

The 16-page briefing, released by the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA), examines the efforts of multinationals to provide job opportunities and training for former gang members in El Salvador. 

One of the case studies features Microsoft, which runs educational initiatives across the country to teach basic and advanced computer skills. Other organizations spotlighted in the briefing focus on hiring ex-gang members, including a fishing company that offers them jobs as dockworkers and sailors.

Companies have also helped former gang members by offering training programs, stress management classes, and discounted food and health services, the briefing notes.

El Salvador is believed to have 323 gang members for every 100,000 inhabitants, the briefing states. Although this is more than double the rate in neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador has managed to cut its murders by half in the last year, thanks in large part to a truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and  Barrio 18 gangs. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The truce could offer an opportunity for the private sector to help consolidate El Salvador’s security gains, by expanding its work with former gang members. As the briefing notes, the long-term success of the truce depends on whether meaningful economic alternatives can be found for former members of the “maras”, and those at risk of joining. Companies can take advantage of the current lull in violence to expand their social programs, and thus help build a more lasting peace inside the country, the briefing argues.

However, while multinationals stand to gain much from security improvements in El Salvador, their fundamental interest remains in making a profit. The briefing’s most significant finding is that these corporate social programs are most effective when both ex-gang members and the corporation stand to benefit. If the corporations aren’t gaining something from these social initiatives — more profits, more productivity, more hard-working employees — they will not be effective in the long term. As the briefing points out, corporations are fundamentally concerned with advancing their core business interests, and if their social initiatives aren’t made compatible with this, everybody ends up losing. 

While the briefing provides a wide range of examples of successful private-sector anti-gang programs in El Salvador, it sidesteps discussion of more serious challenges that corporations may face in running social programs.

As the briefing points out repeatedly, public security and violence prevention are ultimately the responsibility of the state. Still, the reality is that, especially in extremely poor areas where the state has long been absent, a corporation may end up being the most significant — if not the only — provider of services such as health, education, and job training. This could give local communities unreasonably high expectations of what to expect from a private-sector social initiative, and could help contribute to ill feeling against the company if these expectations are not met.

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