Why Salvadorian Teens Join Brutal Gangs and How Courts Make Things Worse

Salvadorian Teens Join Brutal Gangs
El Salvador had a rate of 103 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. (El Tiempo Honduras)

EspañolThere were 30 murders in El Salvador on March 15 in El Salvador. Just on March 15.

Afterward, Justice and Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde came out saying the country will have to face some rough days and hard times if it is ever going to win against the country’s widespread problem with violence.

In 2015, El Salvador had a rate of 103 murders per 100,000 inhabitants and 81.7 in 2016. There are an estimated 60,000 gang members in the country. The Mara Salvatrucha gang has 30,000 members in El Salvador and another 50,000 around the world, of which between 8,000 t0 10,000 live in the United States.

On March 16th, a study titled “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador,” was published by the Kimberly Green Center for Latin America and the Caribbean, in coordination with the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at the International University of Florida.

The study is based on a survey of gang members and former gang members and seeks to explain why they join a mara (gang). For the study, 1,196 imprisoned gang members were interviewed, both retired and active, in six prisons.

Hay diversos motivos que impulsan a alguien a pertenecer a una pandilla.
Graph 3.7. Reasons to join a gang (in percentages)


More than 62 percent of men who have joined gangs or maras in El Salvador did so for “leisure” or “friendship.” They wanted to be accepted and when they see how bad it can get, 19.6 percent said they felt they could not get out. Twenty-one percent of women, however, entered gangs “due to family problems” and 12.3 percent said they joined because they were forced.

How to rehabilitate a gang member?

James Garbarino is an expert on children who commit crimes. He gave an interview to the Salvadorian media outlet La Prensa Gráfica, during which he spoke about violence in El Salvador.


One statement that is often made about children who have committed murder is that they are “monstrous” human beings. However, in a study done by Gabarino, he tried to give a humane explanation for those actions.

La proporción de hombres en pandilleras es muy superior a la presencia femenina. (FIU/Funde)
The number of men in gangs is by far more than women. (FIU/Funde)

“I have worked with many judges and I notice that whenever juries have this conception of ‘absolute evil’ it is more complicated for them to dictate more accurate sentences,” he said.

According to the expert, the appropriate action to take with these children is to give them rehabilitation, not condemn them to continue in a cycle of violence.

“There are only a small percentage of individuals that cannot be rehabilitated, and in psychology the classic term for these people is psychopaths.”

In El Salvador, few people believe in the rehabilitation of gang members, the conception of them being that they are more or less psychopaths. However, others want to give them a second chance.

Gabarino has studied the psychological evolution of adolescents who were sentenced to a life in prison for having committed a felony in their adolescence. And in the last 20 years, he has become convinced that rehabilitation is possible. He showed that it requires learning and spiritual experiences, reading and meditation — something that changes your conception of the world.

The expert asked teenage murderers how their lives would have gone had they not been locked up. Most agree that they would have remained in crime and would not have survived. At age 25, the brain is reportedly more mature and can better analyze situations than when committing crimes at a younger age.

Datos sobre los encuestados. (FIU/Funde)
Information about the interviewees. (FIU/Funde)

When a person is imprisoned, they have the option to change their lives. In El Salvador, there is no such opportunity, because the prison system is broken.

“When these people go to prison, they have to make a decision: to become savage barbarians or become monks. In some prisons in the United States, inmates are given facilities or spaces for the latter. If we look at a spectrum of prisons from Scandinavia, which are focused on human rights and rehabilitation, and we go to the other extreme, to the United States (we can see that) that the issue of rehabilitation is not just a psychological issue, it is also a political issue. “

According to the expert, the only way to achieve real rehabilitation is to change the mentality we use to construct prison systems.

“It is possible to change the social environment inside prisons,” he said. “It does not happen by force, but rather through reflections, meditations, through a respectful approach.”

Source: La Prensa Gráfica

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