This piece will appear in the April 2017 edition of Ottawa’s Eco-Latino.

Calling all researchers: the world needs you.

Last month, I examined the legacy of El Salvador’s civil war, one which includes an ongoing gang problem that has no end in sight.

Why has the country’s gang problem gone on for so long?

Many researchers point to failed anti-gang strategies; specifically, right-wing ARENA’s “Mano Dura” (“Hard Hand”) strategies introduced in the 2000s, which focused too much on incarceration and not enough on rehabilitation or bridging social gaps—gaps which have existed since El Salvador became a country in 1841.

A few weeks ago, I picked up Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, a book written by Mexican-based researcher Sonja Wolf. Like many commentators, Wolf argues that at the heart of the gang problem are the socio-economic issues that plague the country. Simply put: El Salvador can hunt gangsters all it wants, but if it doesn’t address the conditions that give birth to gangs, the problem won’t go away. It’s putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

What struck me about her argument was how mainstream news media pushed for ARENA’s “Mano Dura” policies even though they were flawed from the very beginning. It’s alarming—for instance, she suggests that the two leading newspapers in the country, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Grafica, failed to question the effectiveness of these policies because the owners of each paper had entrenched interests with ARENA. As a result, the public saw “Mano Dura” and “Super Mano Dura” as legitimate anti-gang options.

It’s unfortunate that this is only crystal clear in retrospect, but in a country where inequality has historically been “the way it is,” it’s easy to see gangs as the source of evil that require the holy fist of the state.

But let’s be clear: gangs are bad, but the governments that have been unable to bridge the social gaps—the same governments, on the right and left, that have been caught literally stealing millions of dollars from public funds—are arguably worse.

This is where researchers can fill the gap that Salvadoran journalists can’t. El Salvador lacks independent journalists and media outlets, and because of so many aligned interests are held by its biggest news outlets, it’s difficult to find ones that critically examine anti-gang policies and hold presidents accountable. It’s easier said than done, but it’s necessary.

Media producers, for good or bad, select particular stories to follow. Imagine if mainstream news outlets were our only sources for information? There’s a reason why some of my friends identify Trump vs. Mexico as the most important story in Latin American affairs right now, while being unaware of the ongoing food crisis in Venezuela.

So I’ll tell you what I used to tell my students: read your books. Knowledge can go a long way.

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