"Strong, United Families Will Soon Relegate Youth Gangs to History"

30 Nov 2016

Families should be the essential guarantors of children’s rights, supported but not supplanted by the State. Maria Jose Benítez studies how violence in El Salvador has changed family structure and how public policy can better support family units.

María José Benítez Chávez (29, El Salvador) was kidnapped two years ago. It was an express kidnapping – just three hours– but it became an experience that motivated her still more to study gang violence in El Salvador. With a degree in law, postgraduate study in criminology and a master’s in children’s rights, Benítez has now embarked on the Master’s Program in Social Science Research with the help of a grant from the Social Trends Institute. Her aim, she says, is to apply what she learns to constructing better forms of planning and evaluating interventions in this area.

Why did you choose this field of study?

Because it combines my country’s need to understand its current reality and my professional passions and interests that I’ve prepared for academically and professionally. Since I decided to study law, I’ve wanted to become a defender of Human Rights, specifically those of children and adolescents. I believe that El Salvador is a wounded country, but also a very optimistic and brave one, with the family as one of its main pillars. That’s why my research will center on describing how violence has changed family structure and how public policy can better support family units as such, rather than only their separate members.

Are public administrations dealing correctly with with the problem of youth gangs in El Salvador?  

There have been important advances in building a safer country. El Salvador’s government set up the National Council of Public Safety and Peaceful Coexistence. It brings together not only government functionaries but also representatives of civil society, academia and private enterprise, as well as representatives of international cooperation. From there, the Safe El Salvador Plan was constructed, which was launched in 2015, addressing the issue of youth gangs in various ways, from prevention to prosecution and rehabilitation.  Nevertheless, the resources are limited, which forces them to prioritize.

Is it hard for a boy in El Salvador to resist joining a youth gang?

It’s very hard to resist, especially because many boys and their families are threatened if they don’t join one of the gangs. Furthermore, we are now up against the second generation of gangbangers. The children of the first gang members have lived within this culture from earliest youth. I’m referring to a lifestyle accustomed to getting things “the easy way.” For example, a teacher told me that a boy who got a bad grade at her school approached her and took her picture on his cell phone. He told her his father was in a gang and if she didn’t change the grade, he would wait for her outside school. This type of behavior is seen as normal. Nevertheless, I’ve also run into cases where gang members do not want their sons to follow their footsteps, because they realize that their way of life is easy only insofar as it alleviates a lack of education or employment, but the weight of being involved in so much criminal activity is not easy to bear. 

The task of changing this situation will be long and arduous…

That’s right. Many young people who have joined gangs come from destructured families. Often their parents have emigrated improve their economic situation. But this abandonment and solitude renders them easy prey for the gangs. So, even though economic stability is very important, so too is family unity. 

Which is more important to keeping El Salvador’s boys from winding up in gangs:  the State or the family?

Without doubt, the family. It is quite telling to consider the cases of boys who live in violence-ridden communities and yet do not get involved. The boys in these cases come from stable families. I want to analyse what these strong families have, and how public policy can help increase their numbers. I myself –2 years ago– was the victim of a kidnapping. This led me to consider that I was able to get over it thanks to my family and the fact my environment was not dangerous. But I also thought about all the young people who do live killings within their families or are themselves victims of violence – in the fears they must experience and teh difficulty of overcoming it without family support and while living in the same environment woth their aggressors. 

So the key to doing away with youth gangs lies in strengthening families and the State applying effective policies to that end?

That’s how it should be. Families are the building blocks of society, as is legally recognized by El Salvador’s Constitution. Values and self-confidence are learned in the family. If all boys and girls get these lessons from earliest youth, soon we will see gang-free generations. As it stands, families are also crucial to holding back the normalization of violence. In general, families should be the essential guarantors of children’s rights - supported but not supplanted by the State.