El Salvador Proposes Gang Rehabilitation Law

Officials in El Salvador have formally proposed a gang rehabilitation law, but the country’s current security conditions — along with the mixed results of similar initiatives elsewhere in the region — suggest this legislation is unlikely to provide a viable solution to rising gang violence. 

On October 26, El Salvador’s Security and Justice Minister Benito Lara presented a bill called the “Gang Reinsertion Law” to Congress, reported La Prensa Grafica.

For gang members who comply with the law (and have not committed serious offenses, such as homicide or crimes punishable by 10 or more years in prison), authorities would suspend judicial proceedings against them on illicit association and terrorism charges, which carry a potential prison term of eight to 15 years.

Secretary of Presidential Communications Eugenio Chicas said the initiative “is in no way an amnesty” for gang members, and that those who have committed serious crimes will be held accountable.

The proposal also offers programs and benefits to former gang members and at-risk youth, such as education and job training.

According to Defense Minister David Munguia Payes, El Salvador has 60,000 gang members, with around 10 percent of the country’s population linked to gang structures in some way, reported EFE.

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There are several major obstacles that would likely prevent the proposed gang rehabilitation law from succeeding in El Salvador. 

First, there is little reason to believe El Salvador’s harsh anti-gang policies — including the reclassification of the Barrio 18 and MS13 as terrorist organizations — have pressured gangs members to the point they are looking for an exit strategy. In Panama, officials are currently discussing targeting gang structures that refuse to participate in a government program aimed at rehabilitating gang members. Such a strong-armed approach in El Salvador, however, is unlikely to accelerate gang “demobilization,” considering years of anti-gang legislation has failed to control the spread of gang activity and violence. 

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The second issue is the financial feasibility of the program. If large numbers of gang members begin turning themselves in, implementing the rehabilitation law would be costly. Salvadoran officials assert funding for the program falls within the new security initiative, “Secure El Salvador.” Launched in July, Secure El Salvador will cost an estimated $2.1 billion over the next five years, and there are serious questions about whether or not the government will be able to finance the initiative in its entirety. 

These are not quaint concerns; logistical problems have previously derailed gang rehabilitation efforts in the region. A 2012 government-funded gang truce in Belize, which provided work opportunities for some 200 gang members, collapsed after funds dried up. The subsequent spike in violence demonstrates the risks an underfunded reinsertion program poses.