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Essay II
Last Updated: 03/23/2009
Gangs in Central America: the Salvadorian Case
Sharon Lopez

Key words: youth violence – gangs – maras – anti-maras law – plan Mano Dura – sustainable peacebuilding – La Cordinadora

During the last decades a new solid phenomenon of violence has quickly and dangerously spread in Central American countries, especially in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The proliferation of gangs, more commonly known as “maras”, has significantly impacted the increase of violence in the region. Lately, in every day news, maras have been directly associated with acts such as assassinations, sexual offences, drugs, kidnapping and so forth.  Maras are the result of emigration, acculturation, drugs, poverty, dysfunctional families, and a culture of violence, among others. In El Salvador, it is incumbent to first, develop a better understanding of this phenomenon and second, create effective mechanisms not just to control this arising problem but to propose alternatives for resolution.

Gangs have been part of all Central American countries since the 1980s, but it was not until the early 90s when the “maras” were recognized as organized groups, and lately, groups closely associated with organized crime. Some researchers suggest there is a causal relationship between mass deportations from the United States and the rise of maras in Central America, “these deportations have allowed maras to duplicate the criminal and violent behavior of the gang culture found in US cities” (Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, 2006).   The most famous and biggest “maras” in both the United States and the Central American region are the M 18 (Mara calle dieciocho) and the MS (Mara Salvatrucha).  In his report for Children in Organized Armed Violence (COAV), Carranza (2004) informed that “the M-18 is the Hispanic gang with the longest trajectory in United States which arose as part of the Chicano gang movement that was mainly formed by Mexicans and during the 80s, the massive immigration and establishment of Salvadorians in Los Angeles originated the Mara Salvatrucha.” 

In the past, gang fights used to involve fists, feet, chains, some knives and maybe a few guns.  Sadly, gangs nowadays are well armed. Especially in countries like El Salvador where after the civil war arms were easily obtainable for civilians in general. “Maras’ criminal activities involve weapons with blades and …other type of arms include high caliber arms such as AK-47 machine guns, Uzi, Mini-Uzi, and Galil Rifles or automatic pistols” (Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, 2006).  Furthermore, gang members usually consume drugs like cocaine, which make them more violent.  They are also related with drug distribution, which can be a way to get “easy money”.

One of the most relevant characteristic of these types of gangs is that their members are mostly young urban males between the ages of nine and twenty-five (Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, 2006). This population is extremely vulnerable, especially due to a “need of belonging and seeking for identity” that characterize this age. If adolescents do not have assertive bonds with family members as well as members of their school and community, they are going to seek those in other groups.  “…Within the gang you are noticed and recognized and usually given a moniker to re-enforce your identity” (Paladin Press, 1995). Thus, young people in gangs have several characteristics that differentiate them from other youth and even other gangs under which they reinforce the sense of belonging, for instance, the use of tattoos, which are usually the name of their maras, loose clothes, the use of “Spanglish” (mix of Spanish and English), and graffiti which they use to mark their territories.

Despite the fact that maras are the most visible expression of violence in the region nowadays, the violence in El Salvador is not new.  The increase of violence during the 80s was the obvious result of a war that lasted more then ten years, but even before the civil war the violence in this country reached high levels.  The Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress (2006) stated that in the Pan American Health Organization report El Salvador had one of the highest murder rates during the 70s; and by 1996 the International Development Bank stated that the murder rates in El Salvador could have reached 139 violent intentional deaths per 100,000 individuals. As Victor Valle (2006) affirmed, “Urban violence arises within the same society”.  Youths not only face the direct violence that is well represented in the abovementioned statistics, but they also face the structural violence from a government that does not provide programs to reduce poverty or opportunities for equal education, health programs and jobs, and the social violence imposed within the families, schools and communities. “Legitimizing the use of force as a means to solve conflict subsequently legitimizes violence and gradually makes it a socially-acceptable behavior,” (Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, 2006) and violence within family definitely contributes to seeing this behavior as normal.

After the civil war, the Salvadorian government started a process of “post-war reconstruction”. According to Oliver Ramsbotham (2005), “post-war reconstruction is made up of the negative task of ending continuing violence and preventing a relapse into war, and the positive task of constructing a self-sustaining peace,” from this perspective the Salvadorian government has failed achieving any of these two tasks.  Some of the factors that contributed to this failure are (a) The National Reconstruction Plan whose objective was to reconstruct the economy in former conflict areas, was characterized by waste, corruption and ineptitude; (b) unwillingness of the government to investigate the possible resumption of death-squad activities; and (c) judicial corruption (Hancock & Mitchell, 2006).

More recently, the government, in an attempt to decrease the violence, has promulgated laws known as “anti-maras” laws and implemented ‘Plan Mano Dura’.  This legislation has provoked an adverse reaction from different civil society organizations and organizations in the human rights areas. Some of the results of these laws are also questionable. First, with the implementation of these laws the amount of prisoners in the jails has increased enormously. In 2003, in La Esperanza Prison the population was 3000 prisoners and the capacity of this center was only for 800 prisoners (Carranza, 2004). Jammed cells substantially increase prisoners’ resentment and anger.  Second, since 2001, gang members in jail and also in juvenile “re-educational” centers, have been separated to avoid conflict and violence between them (Carranza, 2004).  There are no records of programs developed in jails to reconcile the gang members, or to positively reinsert them into society. According to Carranza (2004), in the juvenile centers there has been some military training. Pedro Ticas, a sociologist, suggested that this type of training only reinforces the organizational structure of gangs (Carranza, 2004).  It is important to mention that keeping the members of the two gangs (M18 and MS) separated is not going to help in the process of reconciliation, though a long and difficult process, “individuals and groups including former enemies will in most cases have to learn to accommodate difference and live together” (Ramsbotham, 2005).  In order to reach this point government and different sectors from society must actively and positively respond in developing programs for reinsertion, reconciliation, and prevention.

 Sustainable Peacebuilding in El Salvador

As abovementioned, maras are the result of the failure of government and society to provide young people plenty of opportunities to develop healthy and positive experiences.  In the words of Paulo Freire, “…dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny, but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed…sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so” (Hancock, L & Iyer, P, 2007).  To start a process of sustainable peacebuilding the Salvadorian government needs first to understand that maras are the result of the violence and not vice versa, and second, they must accept that they are, to a large extent, responsible for pushing young people to participate in delinquent groups by not creating programs that integrate youth in the political and economical development of the country. As Carranza (2004) stated, the government has no budget directed to the youth sector.  In 2003, the INSA, (Instituto Salvadoreno para el Desarrollo Integral de la Ninez y la Adolescencia) organism that guards children and adolescent integral development, got US $4 million to invest in children and adolescent programs, which, according to Carranza, was just 0.5% of the total budget of the country.  Carranza also suggests that there is a lack of interest from the government to develop these programs. During 2003, the International Development Bank offered the Salvadorian government a loan of US $27 millions to be invested in programs to prevent delinquency in the communities and to create re-adaptation projects in the jails which was never approved by the Legislative Assembly.     Third, the government should acknowledge that its repressive police actions developed in the last years may help them contain the maras but these strategies will not end the violence in El Salvador. Recapturing Hancock’s idea of sustainable peacebuilding, there must be a recognition that embedded cultures and economics of violence provide more formidable barriers to constructive intervention. In these conflicts, “simple” one-dimensional interventions … are unlikely to produce comprehensive or lasting resolutions (2007).

In addition to this, it is extremely important to get the community involved in creating positive alternatives for youth, and to also get young people engaged within the process. Thus, youths will feel they are actively involved in the decision-making process that affects them directly and that their thoughts and ideas are being heard and respected by the other members of the community; by doing these youth will feel more confident and empowered.  An example of this is La Coordinadora, which was formed in 1996 as an attempt to find solutions to the problems that Salvadorians faced after the end of the war. As one of the alternatives, a Local Zone of Peace (LZP) was established.  This type of zone, as Hancock (2007) suggested, is a temporal zone, established in the post-conflict environment, that attempts to address a number of issues, including those related to ongoing violence. Moreover, the success of this project would be based on the establishment of programs by the members of the community rather than the government or other elite groups.   It was clear that soon they would identify the maras as a key challenge. Some of the positive actions taken by these communities are (a) the creation of the Culture of Peace Program, that was focused on educating for peace, using methods for transforming conflicts, and creating new organizations for grassroots participation for peace; (b) the Rays of Light Youth Art Project, which was designed to give students concrete skills in drawing and painting, and, in 2005, La Coordinadora sponsored the opening of an art gallery on one of El Salvador main highways; (c) in 2004, Adios Tattoos was created to help former gangs members remove their tattoos to help them easily reintegrate into the community; (d) also, in the same year, they started the Cybercafe, which provides computer learning, printing services, and Internet access; (e) furthermore, they founded a radio station, Radio Mangrove, staffed by sixteen youth volunteers, some of them former gang members. In the disaster, response and prevention area, La Coordinadora had built in 2001 a forty-eight-bed disaster center and by 2002, they finished building 200 concrete block homes. In the area of sustainable development, in 2000, they began working on alternative irrigation systems to help farmers during the dry season and they created a school of agriculture where the use of environmental friendly techniques is promoted (Hancock, 2007).

Finally, violence has been part of Salvadorians lives for more that one hundred years; it needs more than individual attempts to eradicate it. The anti-maras law is a repressive intervention that only demonstrates how fearful the government and members of the community are. It may be seen as a solution right now but it is not going to succeed as a long term solution especially because there are no reconciliation or reintegration programs placed in jails.  On the other hand, La Coordinadora is an excellent example of community efforts to eradicate violence. It also demonstrates that youths can be active protagonists in this process. However, programs like this one not only need the support of the government but also the support of the private sector because investments are so important to create more jobs and educational opportunities. Integrated policies are needed through the whole territory as well as the participation of the different groups of the society, from the grassroots to the higher levels: religious authorities, teachers, schools, media, social workers, local leaders, police officers, government, activists and the international community. 


Arias foundation for Peace and Human Progress. (2006). The face of urban violence in Central America (1st ed) Costa Rica: Editorama S.A.

Carranza, Marco. (2004). Detencion o muerte: hacia donde van los “pandilleros” en El Salvador. Instituto Universitario de Opinion Publica. Retrieved on September 7, 2008 from

Hancock, Landon E & Mitchell, Christopher R. (2007). Zones of Peace (1st ed) Bloomfield: Kumarian Press.

Ramsbotham, Oliver et al. (2005). Cotemporary Conflict Resolution (2nd ed) Cambridge, UK.

Moser, C & Winton, A. (2002). Violence in Central American Region: towards an Integrated Framework for Violence Reduction London UK.

Paladin Press. (1995). Street gangs: The Law Enforcement Guide to Today’s Urban Violence. Colorado: Paladin Press.

Hamburg, David. (1999). Preventing Contemporary intergroup Violence and Education for Conflict Resolution New York: Carnegie Corporation.

Valle, Victor. (2006).  Las Politicas Publicas para Abordar la Violencia. Univesidad para la Paz.

Sharon Lopez’s background is in education, with more than ten years of teaching experience in elementary, secondary and university level. While teaching in USA she had the opportunity to work with immigrant children, mostly Latinos, and she also worked at The Hispanic Learning Center, a non-profit organization devoted to improve the quality of life of Hispanic children and their families. Recently, she has participated as facilitator in Alternatives to Violence and Creative Conflict Resolution Programs in the 50 most violent schools in Costa Rica. She is currently an MA candidate at the UN mandated University for Peace.