Reducing violence in El Salvador: What it will take

By Ian Brand-Weiner, Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre; Katharina Ross, Project Officer Latin America & Asia, Plan International Deutschland e.V; Francesca Cárdenas, Head of Public Relations, Plan International El Salvador; César Pineda, Grants specialist, Plan International El Salvador

A young woman is being trained through the Youth Employability and Opportunities initiative.

Violence holds El Salvador’s economic and social development potential hostage. Violence and inequalities often reinforce each other in Latin America: countries with higher levels of inequality tend to have higher rates of intentional homicides (Figure 1). El Salvador, however, stands out. Its homicide rate is disproportionately high compared to its level of inequality. The small Central American country surpassed Honduras and Venezuela in 2015 to become the most violent country in the Americas, with 108 homicides per 100 000 inhabitants.

The violence and its consequences are costing the government, households and enterprises 16% of GDP annually. These costs include expenses for public and private security, extortion, medical treatments, preventing and combating violence, the penitentiary system, and the opportunity costs for those in prison or forced to emigrate. These costs exclude the intangible ones, such as the suffering of victims and their families, the long-term fear and psychological effects impacting their employability and that of future generations, and decreased trust in the community and state.

Figure 1: Correlation between homicide rates
and inequality in Latin America, 2014-15

Figure-1-el-salvador-planSource: OECD Development Centre (2017) Youth Well-Being Policy Review of El Salvador

Youth gangs, so-called maras or pandillas, fuel El Salvador’s violence and insecurity to a great extent. In past years, the gangs became powerful, well-organised crime syndicates challenging the state’s territorial control and monopoly on the use of force. The country’s post-civil war economic and social challenges (few job opportunities and torn families) were fertile grounds for the gangs. In a context of insecurity and economic hardship, gangs attracted the most vulnerable youth, offering them ‘safety’ and creating a sense of belonging and identity.

In reality, violence and insecurity magnify the challenges Salvadoran youth face. The recent OECD Development Centre’s Youth Well-Being Policy Review of El Salvador shows that a quarter of Salvadoran youth are neither in employment, education or training (NEET), one of the highest rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of the working youth receive low wages and work in precarious jobs. In 2014, 73.2% of Salvadoran youth worked informally. Although Salvadoran youth improved their level of education in the last decade, more than half still leave school without finishing secondary education. Teenage pregnancy and motherhood are above the Latin-American average paired with strict anti-abortion laws. Young people’s trust in institutions decreased in recent years, and few take advantage of the spaces the state created for civic participation. Additionally, young people lack safe spaces for leisure activities. Young gang members in particular are more likely to have poor social skills, abuse substances, be NEET, and come from broken families with scarce resources.

So, what can be done to reduce violence in El Salvador and steer youth away from gangs? The answer involves both stopping violence before it starts and providing second chances to those caught up in the violence culture.

First, investing in prevention. One of the most effective approaches to reducing violence is preventing youth from becoming gang members in the first place. In El Salvador, the scarce economic opportunities and lack of life skills have been identified as main challenges for youth and amongst the main reasons they join gangs.

Prevention programmes are difficult to scale and require co-ordinated engagement of numerous actors, including NGOs, institutions, faith-based groups and private companies. Consider the example of Plan International’s Youth Employability and Opportunities initiative, which seeks to equip 900 young people with the skills needed to find jobs and/or start their own business. With financial support (for the three-year period of 2017-2019) from Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the initiative complements and supports the national violence prevention plan El Salvador Seguro. Plan International and the faith-based Asociación Agape de El Salvador are implementing the initiative as they ally with private companies to provide jobs to vulnerable youth. Take, for example, the case of Lilian, a 19 year old Salvadoran living in a municipality with poor employment opportunities and a high rate of violence. Because of Youth Employability and Opportunities, she found employment in one of the country’s most prestigious restaurants, thanks to training in hotel management and tourism.

Generating job opportunities not only offsets the economic pressures and reduces the “need” to join gangs but also validates the personal aspirations of young people, who become role models for their peers. With the programme’s support, Lilian developed a life plan that includes continuing higher education. When asked about what it means for her to have graduated and have a job, she says, “I feel motivated, and I hope in the future to support other young people.” Working young people are seen as more trustworthy and valuable members of society, which helps strengthen inter-generational trust throughout society as a whole.

Second, investing in second chances. The Ministry of Defence estimates that as much as 10% of the population are directly or indirectly associated with gangs (members, their family, kin and other close relationships). Such a large share of the population cannot be ignored and has to be offered economic and social alternatives, including second chances, to break the cycle of violence. Currently, young people serving prison sentences receive support for their reintegration into society. Such support focuses on education, psychosocial help, family and health care, and acquiring life skills. However, the OECD finds that the provision of social support is weak, due to the poor management of detention centres and shortages in resources and youth specialists. Public institutions still struggle to engage gang members in their social reintegration programmes; youth with gang ties usually refuse to participate in programmes given loyalties to their “family substitute” and the fear of retaliation.

Embracing prevention and second chances is key for Salvadoran society to overcome the challenges posed by violence. On the one hand, successful prevention programmes have to be tailor-made, respecting the nature of the challenge, local contexts, target groups and social dynamics. On the other hand, while the Government´s strategy of El Salvador Seguro creates a path for the long-term eradication of violence, the prosecution of juvenile offenders is being prioritised currently instead of offering second chances. Second chance programmes need more financial and human resources, family and community involvement, and the breaking down of prejudices and social stigma rooted in society. Ultimately, the ongoing national dialogue in El Salvador can benefit from diverse contributions and experiences. Enforcing young people’s rights and providing them with opportunities away from violence will require creating job prospects, reducing prejudices, and increasing trust in public institutions and society.