President of El Salvador Requests Anti-Gang Law.

June 18, 2004

SAN SALVADOR (AFP) – With twoweeks to go before the government’s provisionaland highly controversial anti-ganglaw expires July 2, new PresidentAntonio Saca has already started to pressureCongress to approve what he callshis new “super-strong hand” citizen securityand anti-gang bill.The provisional anti-gang law, a three-monthdecree implemented in April, hasbeen criticized by rights activists, lawyersand – most recently – the United NationsChildren’s Fund (UNICEF), which claimedit violates international children’s rightstreaties ratified by El Salvador.The criticism has not deterred Saca,who was elected earlier this year on thepromise that he would continue his predecessor’stough policies against gangs.“WHAT we hope is that theLegislative Assembly will approve thereforms to the Penal Code, the PenalProcessing Code and the Law of MinorTransgression to give us the judicial instrumentsto detain and judge the delinquentswho are robbing Salvadorans of our tranquility,”Saca said.The new anti-gang measure is a combinationof political repression and judicialreforms aimed at cracking down onthe country’s estimated 10,500 gangmembers, whom police blame for 70% ofall homicides.Despite the tough government crackdownthat began two years ago in ElSalvador, violent crime rates continue togrow here. This year’s murder rate so far isup from 2003, reaching an average ofseven murders a day, according to theNational Civil Police.“THE problem of gangs in not just apolice problem, but also a problem of allsectors of society,” said Police CommissionerRicardo Menesses, adding that the“super-strong hand” plan will ensure successagainst the delinquents.Aside from the obstacles presented byrights groups and lawyers, another problemin implementing the “super manoduro” plan is that El Salvador has no morejail space to lock up gang members.Already, the government’s gangroundups have resulted in massive overcrowdingof the country’s 21 jails, cramming11,732 prisoners into facilities meantto handle only 7,312.THE gang problem in El Salvador isamong the worst in the region. AlthoughHonduras has more gang members, withan estimated 36,000, all 10,000-plusSalvadoran gang members belong to oneof four massive gangs, compared to 112gangs in Honduras and 434 in Guatemala.The most dangerous and well organizedof the gangs operating in El Salvador areMara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, both ofwhich were formed in Los Angeles in the1980s and now operate through El Salvador,Honduras, Guatemala and southern Mexico.Currently, only Honduras and ElSalvador have anti-gang legislation. Butsimilar bills are being studied inGuatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

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