Blogging has been light since Saturday and will continue so until Thursday. I’m in San Salvador, courtesy of the UN Development Program, talking about how to craft drug policies to minimize violence.
El Salvador has developed a serious youth-gang problem — apparently based on operating styles brough back by Salvadoran deportees from Los Angeles — and Salvadoran police now claim that the country has 30,000 gang members in a population of 9 million.
Naturally, there is much debate about what to do about it, and especially about a temporary anti-gang law passed six months ago and now up for renewal.
As happens so often, the debate is being carried out in largely legalistic terms: Does making gang membership a crime violate the Salvadoran constitution? And, also as usual, the legal categories may matter more to the jurists than they do on the ground. Figuring out a way to impose collective responsibility is clearly central to controlling gang activity, but it’s far from clear that criminalizing membership is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for collective accountabilty to work.
As David Kennedy has argued in print and shown in practice, since gang members tend to be multiple offenders, it’s not necessary to prosecute them as gang members if the police are capable of picking out gang members — or rather, the members of specific gangs that have done specific bad things recently — for vigorous enforcement of the ordinary laws. Tell each gang that any shooting by any of its members will lead to vigorous targeted enforcement against all members, and you can reverse the social dynamic that makes the shooter a hero to his homeboys.
Naturally, as a highly qualified expert — i.e., someone who lives more than 1000 miles away — I’m being listened to with a flattering amount of attention not available to me closer to home. So I’m trying to get people to ask the right questions rather than look to the visitor for answers.