El Salvador Security Crisis Sees Rise in Children Tried as Gang Members

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The number of minors prosecuted for gang-related crimes in El Salvador has grown by over 50 percent over the past year, giving impetus to renewed debate over whether to try children as adults for serious crimes. 

Between January and September 2015, a total of 1,207 gang-members under the age of 18 were prosecuted in El Salvador, compared to 793 over the whole of 2014, marking a 52% increase with a quarter of the year remaining, according to figures from the District Attorney’s Department of Statistics reported by EFE.

According to official records, all but a handful of the gang member were linked to the country’s principal street gangs, or “maras,” with 616 members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 587 members of the various factions of the Barrio 18 prosecuted.

The rise in prosecutions comes against a backdrop of escalating violence and a security crisis linked to the maras, who commonly use minors for activities ranging from basic tasks such as collecting extortion fees to more dangerous and violent jobs, including assassinations. In response to this, representatives of the opposition ARENA party have proposed reforms to the Juvenile Penal Law, seeking to try minors (14-18 years of age) as adults for crimes linked to gang activity such as terrorism, possession of weapons of war and illicit association, reported La Pagina

Speaking in favor of the proposal, ARENA representative Patricia Valdivieso stated, “Minors in a criminal environment know that they can’t be tried as adults, and commit atrocities, protected by their age.”

InSight Crime Analysis

El Salvador is on course to be one of if not the most dangerous country in the world in 2015, largely due to the maras and the attempts of security forces to rein them in.

This conflict has seen a rise in prosecuting adult gang members as well as minors — with the number charged growing from 13,779 in 2014 to 15,368, according to La Prensa Grafica. However, the increase has been much steeper for children, although it is not clear if this is indicative of the growing involvement of children in gangs or of the security forces and judicial system targeting more minors.

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The security crisis has provoked a predictably hardline reaction from many politicians, including the proposal to try children as adults. While it is certainly true that part of the attraction of using children in gangs is the more lenient treatment they receive in the judicial system, it is likely such a move would prove not only ineffective in improving security but also quite likely counter-productive.

Trying children as adults not only risks stigmatizing and criminalizing the country’s youth, it also means they will come into contact with the hardened criminals of imprisoned gang members in the adult prison system. Conditions for youths in prisons and detention centers are already bleak, but treating them as adults would see them placed in prisons  that are essentially training grounds for gangs for gang members.

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