New York Review Of Books’: In El Salvador, A Town Combats Gang Violence
El Salvador is a country that’s riddled with crime. The town of San José Guayabal is commended for combating gangs. NPR’s Kelly McEvers talks with Madeleine Schwartz, a reporter for The New York Review of Books, who visited the country.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
El Salvador is one of the deadliest countries in the world. There are more than 14 murders per day in a country that’s home to just 6 million people. That’s about how many people live in the Houston metro area. But the mayor of one Salvadoran town, San Jose Guayabal, says only one civilian has been killed in his town in recent years. The town has a population of 11,000.
Reporter Madeleine Schwartz went to the town to find out if what the mayor says is true and if his plan could work in the rest of El Salvador. She wrote about it in the NYR Daily. That’s the online companion to The New York Review of Books. And she’s with us now. Welcome.
MADELEINE SCHWARTZ: Hi. Thanks for having me.
MCEVERS: So just tell us why El Salvador is so violent.
SCHWARTZ: Well, there’s a very big gang problem in El Salvador with two main gangs that have been fighting over a turf war for several decades now. These gangs control a lot of the country and really try to make their presence known. At the same time, the government’s approach to fighting these gangs hasn’t always been particularly successful. And a lot of people think that they’ve really exacerbated the situation.
MCEVERS: Explain what you mean by that.
SCHWARTZ: Well, since about 2003, the government has taken a very hardline approach to these gangs – what they’ve called the mano dura approach, which means hard fist – and gone after all gang members as if they were all very terrible criminals. When a lot of human-rights experts say that the real thing to do would be to focus on things like youth unemployment and rehabilitation programs, most of the government’s resources have gone to militarization of the police and really going after gang members, putting them in jail and often killing them indiscriminately.
MCEVERS: So tell us about this mayor of San Jose Guayabal. How is he taking a different approach? Is he not using this hardline approach?
SCHWARTZ: So this mayor has his own strategy that he’s been employing for several years, which is, as he explains it, to use gang tactics to fight the gangs. So what that means is that he claims to have set up his system to basically police itself by asking different people in the town to act as antennas, which is a gang term for, basically, a lookout. He supplied them with phones and asked them to report what they know about each other and then uses that information to try to identify gang activity in the town.
MCEVERS: So they’re beating them at their own game.
SCHWARTZ: That’s how he sees it.
MCEVERS: You use the phrase antenna. Explain what that is, and give us an example of how that works.
SCHWARTZ: So the idea of the antenna would be to have lookouts – so people who are observing what’s going on a day-to-day basis and then can report back to the mayor. So for example, when I was interviewing him in his office, he interrupted our conversation to announce that he had received a WhatsApp message that said that the person who he had been corresponding with had information about a recent murder and wanted to talk to him about it.
MCEVERS: Do you think this tactic that he employs of having the civilians police their own town, their own area – could that be applied nationally?
SCHWARTZ: I don’t know. I would certainly hesitate to advocate for it if only because it seems that there would be many possibilities for things to go wrong. If you think about, for example, someone trying to get revenge on someone else by spreading false information…
SCHWARTZ: …That’s something that could very quickly happen if people weren’t carefully monitoring the situation. I think, also, when one looks at what human-rights researchers have thought of as the root causes of the gangs, such as a lack of opportunity for young people, a large-scale surveillance system is not going to help with that.
MCEVERS: That’s Madeleine Schwartz, assistant editor at The New York Review of Books. Thank you so much.
SCHWARTZ: Thank you.
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