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Central America: A Job Instead of a Gun

(AP Photo)

December 13, 2012

Nine months after a gang truce more than halved the daily homicide rate in El Salvador, a new agreement between the maras and the facilitators of the peace process promises to pave the way for a long-term solution to the criminal violence that has gripped the country since the end of the civil war. The Dec. 4 pact will create 10 nationwide peace zones in which gangs will commit to end all homicides, extortions, thefts, and kidnapping.

The plan is intended to provide a first step in which gang members (mareros) will begin to reinsert themselves into society.

But where do they go? Former gang members — often tattooed and with little or no formal education or work experience — are at an inherent disadvantage in competing for jobs. In a country with high youth unemployment and underemployment, businesses are understandably either reluctant to take their chances in hiring former gang members or do not have the right employment opportunities.

A new Americas Society policy brief, Security in Central America’s Northern Triangle: Violence Reduction and the Role of the Private Sector in El Salvador, finds that despite these challenges some courageous businesses are adopting policies to integrate former gang leaders into the labor market, in ways that both improve productivity and provide the best hope for peace and stability in El Salvador.

Download the policy brief here.

Citizen security and violence prevention are responsibilities of the state, but the private sector, especially at a local level, can be an effective partner in improving community safety. This is true in El Salvador as well as in its violence-prone Northern Triangle neighbors of Guatemala and Honduras.

Grupo Calvo (tuna), League Collegiate Wear (apparel) and Rio Grande Foods (food distribution) are at the forefront of private-sector gang member reinsertion efforts in El Salvador. Each company works with faith-based institutions, local community groups and either directly or indirectly with the government to reintegrate youth into communities and into the labor force.

It is a big gamble — but one that has paid off.

These companies have discovered that former gang members possess unique personal traits, such as respect for authority and efficiency in carrying out tasks, which can be applied in the workplace.

Grupo Calvo employs 90 rehabilitated former gang members in its El Salvador plant — about 5 percent of its staff — and has opened the door for an additional 100 former gang members to get jobs with their suppliers. These workers are some of their strongest and most productive employees.

The same is true at League Collegiate Wear, where 15 percent (40 employees) of its Salvadoran workforce have joined the company through its reinsertion program. Work teams comprised of ex- mareros are 15 percent more efficient than those of other employees, according to Rodrigo Bolaños, League’s general manager in El Salvador.

Reinsertion programs also benefit local plants or factories by helping to create a safer community.

Still, one of the greatest challenges for reinsertion efforts — as well as for programs directed toward high-risk youth — is for private industry to coordinate with the public sector. Working with the Ministry of Justice and Public Security to build on comparative advantages and to avoid overlapping efforts is critical in El Salvador and throughout the Northern Triangle.

Collaboration is especially necessary as El Salvador prepares for the potential of peace zones, which gang leaders say could improve security for up to 900,000 Salvadorans (15 percent of the population). Still, nationally-driven efforts should not take the place of local strategies, which can quickly adapt to on-the-ground developments.

The truce, although not a long-term solution to permanently ending violence, offers an historic opportunity to show that alternatives to the gangs exist in society. Despite unemployment and underemployment, the private and public sectors can build on the reduction in violence to help provide these youth with the skills to enter the labor market. That will not only bring greater security but it will help to generate greater investment as well.

Jason Marczak is director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and senior editor of Americas Quarterly.