El Salvador moves against criminal gangs

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Simply belonging to a gang is about to become a criminal offense in El Salvador, a country where street gangs that incubated in Southern California terrorize neighborhoods and contribute to a high homicide rate.

The measure was prompted by outrage over gang attacks on two buses in June that killed 16 people. Congress approved the law Thursday, and it now awaits the signature of President Mauricio Funes, which probably will come soon. Funes was an early sponsor of the bill.

But several human rights activists and groups that work with gangs complained that the law emphasized punitive measures over tackling root causes.

“The history of El Salvador is the more government repression, the more violence we have,” said Maria Silvia Guillen, head of a foundation that specializes in gangs and legal issues. To continue “with exclusively repressive measures, without taking into consideration prevention and reintegration [into society], is to continue making mistakes.”

Antonio Rodriguez, a priest who runs a violence-prevention program at his parish in one of San Salvador’s most troubled neighborhoods, said the government would do better by financing rehabilitation projects.

“This kind of law does not frighten the gangsters,” he said.

Dozens of gangs with thousands of members operate in El Salvador, many with roots in Los Angeles. Gangs formed in Southern California were transplanted here in the 1990s when the U.S. stepped up deportation of foreigners who had been convicted of crimes. They’ve since expanded and multiplied.

Long active in carjackings, extortion and armed robberies, gang members have increasingly hired themselves out to drug traffickers from Mexico, further stoking the violence.

Though thousands of gangsters have landed in Salvadoran jails, membership in gangs itself was not outlawed. The new measure dictates a four-year sentence for membership and up to 10 years for leadership. It also allows authorities to freeze bank accounts and confiscate property of gang members.

In the June incidents, 14 the people killed were burned to death when assailants, allegedly from the Mara 18, group set a bus on fire, trapping the passengers inside. Two others died when gunmen opened fire on passengers on another bus on the same route.

A poll by the Institute of Public Opinion at the Jesuit-run University of Central America in San Salvador, conducted before the bus attacks, reflects the deep public anger at street violence, declaring “criminality” the main problem facing the country.

“We are not saying that the new law, on its own, is going to solve the problem,” public safety deputy director Hugo Ramirez said Friday. “It is one more tool added to an integrated approach that we want to take, and must take.”

Renderos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.