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Conflict Resolution work with Gangs: Lessons from El Salvador

Craig Zelizer

June 15, 2009

On the eve of the inauguration of El Salvador’s new government on June 1, 2009, a communique appeared, emanating from the country’s two largest gangs. Totaling seven very well written pages, the communique is entitled «We are human beings with very pronounced faults and potentials that are generally ignored». Word up!

The letter was sent on behalf of thousands of Salvadoran gang members, commonly albeit mistakingly singled out for the bulk of crimes committed in the country, including one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Gang members have been the focal point of a stark militarized campaign in El Salvador for the last several years. The two gangs that they belong to – MS and 18 – have counterparts also in Guatemala, Honduras and the USA, and they have been in a bloody feud since the 1980’s, and remain so today. Despite many a stumbling block, the two gangs managed to attune themselves sufficiently to produce a communique quite out of the ordinary.

They ask for equality before the law. They demand unconditional respect for their human rights, and an end to «unnecessary mistreatment against youths in general», and the «persecution and harassment against our family members and friends».

They mention the «deliberate negligence of the police in investigating» when a gang members is the victim of a crime, and ask that cases of extrajudicial executions be investigated. They exhort that it not be the profiles of the victim and victimizer that determine the course of an investigation, but the nature of the criminal act.

El Salvador’s new president, Mauricio Funes, was elected on a familiar slogan of «change». Directed not least to him, the communique reads «There are many of us who wish to recognize and accept responsibility for the acts that we have committed but we cannot carry the responsibility for all of the country’s problems». They want to «be part of the dialog about solutions», where they «may be heard and propose alternatives», and they ask «to hear some of the proposals that [the new government] has been working on».

There is no doubt that members of the MS and 18 should change many a thing that is firmly under their control – extortions, thefts, assaults, homicides; the list is long. But the basic human needs and the human rights of an individual are not conditioned on its behavior, but nonnegotiable guarantees. Their legitimate claims remain legitimate whether combined with changes on their part or not; one actor’s incompliance does not justify that of the other.

From speaking with gang members – also those who wrote this recent letter –, I know for certain that we are not in these backwaters due to the «lack of will» of gangs and gang members. Their criticisms have been suppressed, their proposals denied a voice, for decades. They are, despite «very pronounced faults», builders of peace, and «ask in the most respectful way that we be given the opportunities that have always been denied us».

In a purely pragmatic sense, the most sensible road ahead in most conflicts usually entails engaging directly or indirectly with our perceived opposites. «We will not negotiate with terrorists» is a tragic fallacy that gives priority to hard-headed moralizing, rather than future-oriented constructivism. No human being is devoid of the capacity to criticize and propose.

It is not necessary, and certainly not advisable, that potential new processes in El Salvador – of first listening, later on dialog, later on who knows – be carried out between the maximum levels of government and (non-existent) consolidated, unified leaderships of the gangs. There is a working group in place on prisons, where gang members and their family members are strongly represented. Open a working group on police reform with the police, on health with health authorities, on education with education authorities, on different forms of justice and reform of laws with legislature and judiciary, on economy and productive participation, on «convivencia y construcción de paz» – coexistence («living together», in Spanish), and peace building. This way, firstly, very specific challenges could be worked on, and, secondly, if one process fails, it wouldn’t necessarily entail the failure of the whole.

As individuals and institutions of civil society, we should place ourselves at the service of those who want to be a part of building peaces and transforming conflicts. As guarantors and ombudspersons, as facilitators and communicators, for accompaniment and advisory. As servants to those who hold the greatest stakes, and including to those whose «potentials are generally ignored».

The gangs’ communique declared that «we will do our part, [and] although the processes might advance slowly, we wish to be a part of the effort to demonstrate that there are more intelligent ways of resolving problems». Neither the Salvadoran government nor civil society may fail to meet such a challenge.

Originally on TRANSCEND Media Service, June 14, 2009: http://www.transcend.org/tms/article_detail.php?article_id=1400

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