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Interviews OIJJ - Mrs. Aída Luz Santos de Escobar. President of the National Council of Public Security. El Salvador.

Thursday 28th of April 2011 | National, Salvador

Mrs. Santos de Escobar states that delinquency in El Salvador has increased and that the majority of criminal acts are not committed by young people. In this way, she asserts that juvenile delinquency has its base in an exclusionary social system without opportunities in El Salvador. Finally, our collaborator explains the measures of reinsertion anticipated for young people in conflict with the law in El Salvador from a multi-sectorial perspective of the opportunities of global integration of the minor.

Mrs. Aida Luz Santos de Escobar, President of the National Council of Public Security (CNSP) is Lawyer, Juvenile Magistrate, columnist and editor of laws in the field of family and juvenile law. Currently, she forms part of the cabinet of the government of president Mauricio Funes. She started her career as a legal assistant in the Penal Courts, since then she has worked as Head of the Departments of Legal Consultation of Minors in the Salvadorian Council of Minors and as Minister of Justice. She has also acted as First Judge of the Executive of Measures for the young Offender in San Salvador.

Her constant training and investigations in situ have made her an accredited lecturer and panellist while assisting on multiple occasions in national and international conferences, forums and meetings about Juvenile Delinquency and the phenomenon of pandillas, among other topics.

QUESTION.- Could you give a brief introduction of your activities regarding juvenile justice, as a professional involved in the Presidency of the National Council for Public Security (CNSP)?

ANSWER.– Among my duties as the President of the Council, the first I can name is that of advising the President of the Republic on the topic of public security and government institutions and Local Administrations on the topics of the social prevention of violence and delinquency. On the other hand, I also participate in drawing up public policies and legal bodies that affect young people who might be at risk and in conflict with the law. Similarly within the CNSP there is a reinsertion and rehabilitation programme which has two components: the clinic for the removal of tattoos and the Izalco agricultural school; the latter was founded in order to continually train people in conflict with the law, mostly young people, who want to receive multidisciplinary training. Apart from this, the CSNP also carries out a programme for the social prevention of violence, which is mostly aimed at young people at social and criminal risk.

Q.- In recent times there has been a lot of talk of the conduct of the maras and gangs due to violent activities that have been happening in your country which are carried out by these gangs. What is the current state of juvenile delinquency in El Salvador?

A.- Delinquency in El Salvador has certainly tended to increase, however it is important to point out that the majority of these criminal acts are not caused by young people in the way that they have been stigmatized up to now, proof of this is that of the sum total of persons who are deprived of liberty and kept in detention in penitentiary centre, ten or fifteen percent belong to gangs or are young people and only eight percent of offences committed are attributed to minors. Furthermore with regard to the above it is important to mention that juvenile delinquency has its basis in a social system which tends to exclude this group and which, without opportunities which other administrations have contributed, turns young people into victims and killers.

Q.- Through the published news in our press room, the IJJO has noticed a constant effort to combat the situation of the maras in El Salvador. In what socio-cultural context do these groups develop and what methods or strategies has the government put in place up until now? What have the results been?

A.- The gangs or maras develop in social contexts dominated by the breakdown of families, the abandoning of children during long work days, a lack of adequate education and where, in many cases, formal education is not affordable or excludes kids and adolescents. In addition to the above, there is evident economic instability, an absence of basic services and where they are offered they are insufficient, young people are being stigmatized socially, there is a lack of opportunities at every level, there is insufficient access to jobs, a lack of values, constant persecution of public authorities, among other things , resulting in these people losing their sense of purpose, freedom and the hope for better conditions of life. At the moment the government of the Republic, in accordance with the Justice Policy, Public Security and civic coexistence, is developing actions aimed at the repression of criminal acts of these groups, to such an extent that an Anti-gangs Law was declared by the Legislative Assembly in order to outlaw these groups. However this governmental policy develops other important and transverse components in the fight against crime such as a) the social prevention of violence and crime, b) rehabilitation of persons in conflict with the law, c) ample attention to victims of offences and felonies and d) legal reform and strengthening of institutions- Besides all this, a great many institutions of the executive powers carry out projects focusing on the social prevention of violence and on rehabilitation .

Q.- Why does a young person join a gang? What type of measures is the government taking so that young people don´t come to this point? What resources does the state of El Salvador provide in order to help prevent juvenile delinquency?

A.- A young person becomes a gang member due to social, economic, cultural, and educational factors which are very pronounced in Salvadorian society including the breakdown of families, lack of parental control, parental absence because of long work days, lack of opportunities for social mobility through education, extreme poverty, social exclusion, inequality in the distribution of wealth, recruitment by organized crime, drug trafficking, abuse of illegal drugs, living in run down areas, lack of employment, absence of health and basic services, among others. The Government is developing preventive action in order to reduce these risk factors, through programmes of social prevention of violence, which are of a multidisciplinary nature that develop and strengthen sports, cultural, and artistic activities and moreover promote entrepreneurship, self employment, vocational and professional training and the recovery of public spaces that have been abandoned or taken over by groups outside the law. Currently the Salvadorian state employs a policy of justice, public security and civic coexistence that establishes the outline of a framework for the fight against crime in all its forms as well as everything related to social prevention of violence and crime, the rehabilitation of people in conflict with the law and attention to victims. In addition to this, for the first time we have a national strategy for the social prevention of violence and delinquency.

Q.- What are the most common offenses committed by these groups or organized gangs? Are there studies or statistics on this topic?

A.- According to the reports of the PNC and the FGR, the most common offences that the gangs or maras commit are extortion, robbery, petty theft , possession of illegal substances, trafficking illegal substances, and homicide. At the moment, no governmental institution has statistics on this phenomenon. However, there are national and foreign studies that allow us to visualise this social group on different levels.

Q.- The new “Law prohibiting maras, gangs, and groups, associations and organizations of a criminal nature” was passed on the 2nd of September 2010. What are the sentences that will be applied to these groups targeted by the law?

A.- This law does not in itself establish punishments but it refers to the Penal Code in order to establish sanctions. However this legal body establishes the ban on the existence of groups or associations which operate outside the legal system while the regulatory framework defines what must be understood by these groups, in what manner they can be identified, the bans on actions and legal actions for these associations among other sanctions.

Q.- The Law cites the following criteria for the detention of a young person belonging to a gang: regular meetings, marking segments of territory as their own, having signs or symbols as means of identification, marking their body with scars or tattoos. What reaction has there been in the social environment and the tertiary sector (NGOs) regarding the stigmatization of young people by the new law?

A.- Civil society, through its representation through NGO, has formulated reiterated observations against the approved legislation by the Legislative Assembly, it points out that they may be unconstitutional defects as the persecution of the crime through the persecution of the delinquent is modified completely, that is to say, persecuting the individual only for belonging to these groups and not for the deeds or actions they commit which can be classified as crimes creating a double effect: a stigmatization against any social group that may be in line with these requirements and who are not maras or gangs and the modification of this behavior by others to avoid falling under the supposed hypothesis of the norm. For NGOs this law marks a backward step towards heavy handed and very heavy handed structures, where the penal system known as the perpetrator-centred penal system was favored, when the Constitution of the Republic establishes a criminal law of action.

Q.- In what way does the action of condemning a person for being a member of a gang or mara, from what one gathers from this new law, mean an increase in the prison population of El Salvador?

A.- Condemning a person due to their membership of a gang or illegal group would not mean an increase in the prison population but practically a rise neither predicted nor contemplated in regard to these type of living quarters, given that the prisons of our country currently find themselves saturated and in many cases in excess of their real capacity, this type of legislation could generate an explosion in the population of these places due to the high number of cohabitants in a small place and the scarcity of the basic elements which are necessary for the survival of a human being.

Q.- How has the approval of the new law facilitated preventative intervention against delinquency in the context of gangs in El Salvador?

A.- Art.10 of the law orders the approval of another Law of Rehabilitation and Reinsertion of gang members, which when it is approved will allow the incorporation of organizations, that work for the recovery of gang members and provide an income for more young people, in governmental work. The policy on prevention against violence that is carried out on a general premise and includes young people in gangs.

Q.- In what way will the underage members of the maras or gangs benefit from a specialized treatment, taking into account the age of criminal responsibility?

A.- Juvenile penal law establishes that minors under 12 will be will be legally exempt and following the passing of the “Ley de Proscripción de Maras”, LEPINA as it is called was approved, which creates a national system for the Protection of Childhood and Adolescence that permits the coordination of efforts, the monitoring and carrying out of action in favor of children and teenagers, granting them rights, and which orders state institutions to defend, watch over and protect them, among which these minors can access the benefits which are mentioned. In addition to this there are regimes of protection that the General Attorney of the Republic must promote. Apart from this, special treatment for minors is taken into account in Juvenile Penal Law, given that from twelve to fourteen, measures are established in line with their cognitive and psychological maturity and other types of measures are established for those who are between fourteen and eighteen.

Q.- What type of alternative measures are envisaged in the carrying out of the “Ley de Proscripción de Maras, Pandillas, Agrupaciones, Asociaciones y Organizaciones de Naturaleza Criminal”? What happens to young adults who are detained?

A.- Art.10 of this legal body orders the creation of further legislation that establishes conditions for withdrawl and abandonment of these groups such as the rehabilitation of members, and consequently the benefits that they will enjoy due to this voluntary abandonment. Currently a Bill of rehabilitation exists that is undergoing analysis and studies by all the sectors that have an effect on in the field: Legislative Assembly, Executive Body, NGOs, Churches etc., with the objective of presenting a proposal that may be attractive to this faction and as a result they may decide to abandon membership of these groups.

Q.- What measures are envisaged for the reintegration of Young delinquents in society? Could the recognition of the youth gang as a cultural association and recognised entity be a sustainable manner of avoiding delinquent or violent activities of gangs as was proposed in Spain?

A.- The measures of reinsertion are brought about in a multi-sectorial field of opportunities that the new government hopes to stimulate and that institutions such as the CNSP have already implemented, such as the example of the Granja Escuela located in the municipality of Izalco, where they carry hold workshops of every type: welding, bench work, industrial mechanics, baking, entrepreneurship, etc., under the vision of the reconciliation of these young people with society and upon finishing the course, in most cases they try to give initial or seed capital so that these people have the opportunity to convert themselves into small business owners.

Q.- According to the news, different formulas are being adopted for the reinsertion of young people and their disassociation from gangs, for example, removing old tattoos that show connections with groups. Have good practices in the socio-professional insertion of young ex-members of youth gangs been identified? Are there facts in regard to their integration?

A.- With regard to the removal of tattoos, the reinsertion of a large part of the young people who belonged to these types of groups is successful due to the gradual elimination of marks that identified them with a gang or another group, as they start to experience a significant reduction in the stigmatization to which they were subjected, thus it is possible for them to access formal jobs or generate microenterprises. On an emotional level it has been discovered that people who participate this treatment experience a rise in self esteem.

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