Neighbors Band Together to Fight Crime in El Salvador
In the small Central American country of El Salvador, the greatest threat to national security comes in the guise of school-aged boys and girls falling into the ranks of criminal gangs.
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Homegrown gangs regularly terrorize citizens through kidnapping, robbery, rape, and extortion.
The government of El Salvador has traditionally responded by expanding law enforcement, courts, and prisons to handle more offenders. But recently it has added a new strategy: community-based prevention.
RTI leads the four-year El Salvador Crime and Violence Prevention Program for monitoring local crime, mobilizing community groups to plan and execute projects promoting public safety, and offering boys and girls alternatives to gangs. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), RTI and its partner, the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI), are assisting Salvadoran municipalities to build these community crime-fighting forces.
Strength in Neighbors
"The only way to solve the problem of crime and violence is if the parent is talking to the teacher, the teacher is talking to the mayor, the mayor is talking to the police officer, and everyone is not going their own way," said Aldo Miranda, RTI-Central America office director.
To initiate these neighborhood conversations, CVPP targeted seven of the most violent municipalities in the country: Armenia, Izalco, San Salvador District 6, Santa Tecla, and the Altavista Residential Community, which includes parts of three different municipalities. Each had its own barriers to building community trust.
First CVPP sent in a facilitator to raise collective awareness of citizen security problems and generate enthusiasm for doing something about it. Working over several months with members of at-risk barrios, municipal staff, civil society groups, and the police, plus representatives from the Ministries of Health, Education, and Justice and Public Safety, the facilitator was able to form an inter-institutional work group in Altavista to discuss crime and violence. They called it a mesa de prevención.
"People were initially reluctant to be part of a group that would confront gang activity, for fear of retaliation," said Sonia Silva, CVPP Chief of Party. "But giving up would be equal to letting the gangs take over their lives, and they are not ready to do that."
CVPP formed mesas in the other municipalities and with each facilitated a participatory diagnostic of the local security situation, providing crime statistics and listening to feedback from youth, parents, police, and others. Based on the diagnostics, each mesa crafted a unique mission statement and vision for preventing crime and violence in their community.
With guidance from CVPP experts, they then generated a list of prevention activities that CVPP would fund with small grants. The mesas’ range of activities included after-school arts and cultural programs, vocational training for out-of-school youth, youth entrepreneurship training, psychosocial counseling, renovation of community spaces, and conflict-mediation workshops.
"All these activities are intended to reduce recruitment of young boys and girls into gangs, which are mainly responsible for the high rates of crime and violence," said Patricia Echeverría, CVPP grants manager.
In its prevention plan, the Altavista mesa emphasized recovering public spaces that had become run-down and dangerous: empty parks and fields without lighting, landscaping, tables, or benches.
"These abandoned spaces provided a perfect environment for gangs to gather at night," said Silva. Furthermore, without public parks, the community had no space for recreation or social gathering to build healthy bonds among neighbors.
So, between 2008 and 2009, the Altavista mesa renovated nine local parks with CVPP grants. Now, the public schools use the parks on weekdays for children’s recess, physical education classes, and after-school sports practices. On weekends, the municipalities host sports tournaments or family events, like concerts and movie nights.
In Santa Tecla, RTI is enhancing the existing local crime observatory’s capabilities to monitor and map crimes and to use that data in its prevention programs. For instance, a grant was used to install 165 street lamps in areas that were identified as dangerous by locals and confirmed by crime data gathered from the observatory.
In each municipality, RTI is building the capacity of the mesas to manage grants. The mesas issue requests for proposals from local organizations, evaluate applications, and monitor project execution. Two of the mesas—in Armenia and Izalco—were legalized by local ordinance, making them the official institutions in charge of crime prevention and youth development activities for their municipality.
Replicating the Model
The lessons learned from CVPP’s interventions in the seven municipalities are being noticed at the national level.
"Our project has helped the government to introduce municipal crime prevention councils—based on the CVPP mesa—as the new model for local crime prevention," said Miranda. "At this point, 50% of municipalities across the country are developing their own council working groups."
A training manual documenting the CVPP mesa approach has been published by the project team. The project’s support to the Santa Tecla crime observatory has sparked interest in replicating this work in other municipalities. Meanwhile, CVPP is conducting a comparative analysis of national crime prevention policies from across Central America to inform El Salvador’s own Policy on Justice, Security and Citizen Coexistence, being developed by a cross-cutting work group of national and local government stakeholders.
The project has expanded its intervention to reach five new municipalities, plus more communities in its existing areas.