CRS: New anti-violence work in Latin America shows promise

San Salvador, El Salvador, Jan 27, 2013 / 01:06 pm (CNA).- New, interpersonal approaches to preventing drug violence in Mexico and gang violence in Central America show promise where harsher measures have fallen short, a Catholic Relief Services expert in Latin America said.

In El Salvador, the overseas relief agency for the U.S. Catholic Church is working with the government to create a system to prevent violence and create opportunities for young men drawn to gangs, Rick Jones, deputy regional director for global solidarity and justice for CRS in Latin America, told Catholic San Francisco.

After years of ineffective punitive measures, the government of El Salvador negotiated a truce last year with the country’s two major gangs, MS and 18th Street. The truce has held since March 2012 and the homicide rate has dropped to 40 per 100,000 people – still double what is considered epidemic by the World Health Organization but “a positive step forward” for the tiny Central American nation, Jones said.

Now, CRS is joining forces with the U.N. and the government to work with high-risk young Salvadorans and their families to address the roots of gang involvement. The approach is modeled on gang prevention and youth development work that has shown success in Los Angeles.

“Kids join gangs for a sense of identity, belonging and empowerment and a sense of adventure – same reasons kids join a lot of different groups,” said Jones, who visited San Francisco last week in part to meet with University of San Francisco and Santa Clara University faculty who are working with CRS under partnerships between the schools and the agency.

Gang problem has roots in civil war
He said the gang problem in El Salvador started at the end of the nation’s civil war, which was settled with a truce in 1992. Salvadorans who had fled the fighting in the 1970s and ’80s and had started gangs in Los Angeles were among the deportees.

When these gang members showed up in El Salvador in the mid-90s, they started recruiting.

“Most young men were at below poverty line and most kids had a sixth grade education and were out of school and out of work, and that is a recipe for disaster,” Jones said.

The government responded with a zero-tolerance policy in 2004. “The first year homicides went up 25 percent,” Jones said. “And they instituted another super-iron fist and homicides went up another 30 percent. Because violence won’t solve violence.”

What will make a difference is a process of healing and reconciliation to work with individuals and families to stop kids from joining gangs in the first place, Jones said.

“It’s taken a long time and a lot of heads being butted up against the wall to understand that you can’t stop this through repression,” he said.

Helping kids find work, start businesses
Working the U.N. Development Programme and the government, CRS is part of any effort in the capital of San Salvador to help kids find work and start micro-enterprises.

In Mexico, a project to address drug violence has begun in the Diocese of Acapulco, which has experienced a high level of bloodshed. “Listening centers” have been established to help people talk through the fear that paralyzes action, Jones said.

The centers “help victims deal with their grief and become more secure, and they end up being agents of change,” he said. “Who better to speak out about it?”

The centers are part of a larger effort by the church in Mexico to address violence. The bishops of Mexico issued a pastoral letter on violence, and CRS is helping them design a strategy to put the letter into action. The work started with training in peace building.

“We’ve taken a lot of lessons over our experience over 15 years in CoIombia to train both parishes in how to help victims and the people who have been victims, because the shortest way to being a perpetrator is to be a victim,” Jones said. “If you don’t process that, what you want is vengeance.”

Helping improve the welfare of migrants and helping agriculture deal with the effects of climate change are the other two main lines of CRS work in Latin America.

In Mexico, CRS is helping the church make U.S.-bound migrants less vulnerable to criminal exploitation. People migrating to the U.S. face horrendous conditions because of the drug trade, Jones said. In 2010, the Catholic Church uncovered 9,000 kidnappings of Central Americans traversing Mexico – the work of gangs out to steal the travelers’ money. Kidnappings doubled the following year.

CRS is supporting a new project for migrants to enter the U.S. for agricultural work. Linking migrants and employers and thus cutting out middleman scams, the project began on the border near Yuma, Ariz., and has spread to Washington state and the Carolinas.

Posted with permission from Catholic San Francisco, official publication of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Calif.

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