EL SALVADOR: Military Service Plan for At-Risk Youth Raises Controvery

  • by Edgardo Ayala (san salvador)
  • Wednesday, June 29, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

Under the proposed scheme, some 5,000 at-risk youngsters between the ages of 16 and 18 would receive six months training from army officers in military discipline and physical fitness, but without weapons. They would be trained to work in civil protection and risk prevention efforts during emergencies.

They would then receive six months of courses in mountain climbing and other sports, first aid, and vocational and skills training. The entire process would take a year, and during that time they would receive 250 dollars a month and would stay in 'citizen training centres' specifically set up for the purpose and run by the army.

The focus is on social integration and harnessing the productive potential of the youths, while putting them out of the reach of criminal groups.

But the plan has drawn criticism.

The government 'has no idea of what it's about to do, and the big problem is that it will increase the risks faced by these young people, because they will emerge from the programme as skilled labour power for gangs and drug traffickers,' Benjamín Cuéllar, director of the Human Rights Institute at the Jose Simeón Cañas University (IDHUCA) of El Salvador, said vehemently.

Cuéllar told IPS a better idea would be to open sports facilities and skills training centres for young people, while guaranteeing them work, because after a year with the army they will return to the same poverty and crime-stricken surroundings, and the same pressure from gangs.

'To give my parents peace of mind, and for my own safety, I would go with the army,' Karen Liseth Martínez, a young woman who swells sweets on a Salvadoran street corner, who would be a possible candidate for recruitment in the programme, told IPS.

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world, with a murder rate of 52 per 100,000, according to the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Central American Human Development Report 2009-2010.

By comparison, the global homicide rate is nine per 100,000 people, and according to the World Health Organisation, any country with a murder rate above 10 per 100,000 population is suffering an epidemic of violence.

Like its neighbours Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador is plagued by the two biggest youth gangs in the region, the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara (or Barrio) 18, which constantly claim victims in their violent turf wars.

The gangs, or 'maras' as they are know in this region, originated in the 1980s among Salvadoran immigrants living in Los Angeles, California. They spread to Central America when hundreds of gang members were deported back to El Salvador, and later expanded to Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

In El Salvador, gang members are estimated to number around 40,000.

Around 70 percent of young people in El Salvador's cities have no opportunity to continue their studies and leave behind the cycle of poverty and marginalisation in which they have grown up, according to a 'Map of Urban Poverty and Social Exclusion' published by the UNDP in April 2010.

According to official statistics, the poverty rate in this country of 5.7 million people is 37 percent, and 18 percent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 19.

The plan announced early this month by Funes would cost around 55 million dollars. But it is not yet clear how it is to be financed.

Funes, the first-ever leftwing president of El Salvador, was elected as the candidate of the guerrilla group-turned-political party Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

A few months after he took office in June 2009, he sent 2,500 army troops onto the streets to carry out joint patrols with the police for an initial period of six months. In 2010 he expanded the number of troops and extended the period for which they would be on the streets.

'I continue to have full confidence that our armed forces can help our police in this battle, which I have called the good fight against common and organised crime,' Funes said Jun. 16.

The military training will provide the youngsters with 'civic and patriotic values, and will help them become self-disciplined and to have respect for other citizens, for society and for their country,' Defence Minister General David Munguía told the local press.

Article 215 of the Salvadoran constitution makes military service compulsory for all individuals between 18 and 30 years of age, while adolescents between the ages of 16 and 18 who want to join the military need the authorisation of their parents or guardians.

During the 1980-1992 armed conflict, the army used that legal provision to conscript soldiers, mainly from poor rural families, while youngsters from the middle and upper classes were virtually never drafted.

After the civil war, which left 75,000 people — mainly civilians — dead, 8,000 missing and 40,000 disabled, mandatory military service was no longer applied because on one hand the army no longer needed a steady flow of recruits, and on the other the scars of the conflict had not yet healed enough to continue with the draft, which was a constant source of discontent.

The defence minister said that in high-crime areas, youngsters as young as 12 years old are at risk of being recruited by criminal groups. However, their participation in the programme would require legal reforms.

But critics note that this would violate international conventions. Article 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child says 'States Parties shall refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of fifteen years into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, States Parties shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest.'

Experts say that in order to recruit young adolescents, El Salvador would have to withdraw from the Convention.

Óscar Picardo, an expert on educational issues who is the director of the Centre for Research in the Sciences and Humanities (CICH), told IPS that the government initiative denigrates the country's at-risk youth.

'This measure aimed at militarising low-income youth further stigmatises and antagonises these at-risk youngsters,' the academic said. 'Why not create a programme that combines education, sports, and skills and job training?'

Picardo added that if the plan was implemented, it would violate the rights outlined in the Ibero-American States’ 2021 Education Plan, which sets a goal of universalising primary and lower secondary education.

The idea to turn to the military to help fight crime is not new. During the governments of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which governed the country from 1989 to 2009, presidents Francisco Flores (1999-2004) and Antonio Saca (2004-2009) launched the Mano Dura (strong-arm or iron first) and 'Super Mano Dura' plans, respectively, to clamp down on youth gangs.

Under these hard-line policies, young people can be arrested simply for having tattoos that distinguish them as gang members, or for using certain hand signs to communicate.

But experts say these policies have failed because the focus has been on repressive strategies combined with overly weak social reintegration efforts.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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