Articles by: Donna DeCesare (text and photographs)

November 23, 2009

Newly elected Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes inherited a country that is not only facing the worst economic crisis in its history, but also astronomical levels of violent crime. With overall homicide rates for 2009 up 35% over 2008, Funes knows the security question can easily become the FMLN’s Achilles’ heel as he tries to introduce prevention and rehabilitation policies aimed at reducing youth involvement in street gangs. This follows years of repressive mano dura (iron fist) policies implemented by ARENA governments. Instead of focusing on the social origins of gang involvement and pursuing community-based harm reduction, mano dura painted gangs as the country’s greatest threat and criminalized anyone with tattoos—spilling over into a more general suspicion and stigma against youth in a country where 40% of the population is younger than 18, according to the 2007 census.