El Salvador, a nation with over 6 million people, is about to become the most violent country in the world. Gang violence has become the norm in a country where the devastating civil war ended in the 1990s. Over 600 people were victims of gang violence in May. Furthermore, over one million people have ties to gangs. Since the end of the civil war, gang violence has made a comeback, despite the truce made between the two biggest gangs in El Salvador and the government in 2012. The gang leaders agreed to stop mass killings in return for lenient punishments for their members as well as reintegration and rehabilitation programs. With the enactment of the truce, murders in El Salvador decreased from 117 in 2011 to less than 60 in 2012. The success of the truce gave hope to the millions of El Salvadorians, many of whom had been imprisoned in their homes for fear of escalating violence. The truce crumbled in 2013 and El Salvador is again facing the revival of gang violence. According to reports, attacks between the two rival gangs have sparked increased violence throughout the entire country.
In a country where gangs rule the streets, the life of crime offers a way out for youth. From a young age, boys are recruited and lured into gangs with the promise of excitement and glory. Poverty and the lack of economic opportunities and progression make it easier for gangs to recruit youth. Gangs also victimize women. Women look to join gangs because they believe that the members will protect them from violence. However, their notion of seeking protection from gangs is ultimately harmful. Girls as young as 12 are sexually assaulted and their bodies are thrown in unmarked graves.
Gangs are not only attacking civilians but police officers and government officials as well. Their willingness to attack the state not only intimidates society, but also demonstrates their immense power and influence. In addition, the police force of El Salvador is unequipped to facilitate and respond to emergencies. The forces have limited staff and so far have only installed 400 cameras – too few for the vast territory that the gangs operate. Further, criminals often go unpunished with a 90% impunity rate in the country. What is most troubling is El Salvador’s response to the rising violence is that police officers have been given permission to shoot criminals and gang members without fear of punishment. This ultimately sends the wrong message: force should be used against force. Increased violence amongst police encourages gangs to use force against the state as retribution. Although the state has the right to use force to combat crime, it also needs to establish social programs to reintegrate and educate gang members. This can include rehabilitation programs for criminals and government funded youth programs to prevent child recruitment into gangs. Schools should be free from gang interference and focus on providing a safe environment to deter children from turning to gangs. Currently El Salvador does not offer social programs to aid families that have experienced homicides. Counseling programs would help individuals affected by homicidal violence, by providing the professional aid they need to continue living their lives. In addition, El Salvadorians live in violent towns, where they are too afraid of venturing outside their homes for fear of being attacked. This is a sad and degrading way to live. In this instance, community interdependence would tie individuals to the same cause and develop solutions to combat the escalating violence. Governments should intervene and develop programs that help communities as a whole as well as find solutions to rehabilitate criminals to reenter society. These plans, as good as they may seem in the long run, may be too much of an economic burden to El Salvador at this point. As the problem of gang violence keeps rising, the government must act quickly so that the country does not fall apart completely.