A policeman detains a suspected gang member on the outskirts of San Salvador. (Luis Romero, Associated…)
Reporting from San Salvador — Aldo Damian, 15, seems a likely recruit for the rough, and often abbreviated, life of a street-gang member in El Salvador.
Aldo is poor, doesn't know his father and says he is unaware what his mother does for a living. Instead of going to school, he passes the day with members of a gang he hasn't yet officially joined.
What to do with such boys?
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes has an idea: Draft them.
Funes, a leftist who came into office two years ago, is proposing a form of obligatory military service he says would combat the growth of gangs in this violence-plagued Central American nation.
The plan calls for drafting 5,000 male teens deemed at risk of joining gangs and putting them through six months of civil defense training at centers run by the army reserve. Such service, officials say, would instill discipline in the youngsters while removing them from squalid conditions that have proved fertile for gang recruitment.
The draftees, ages 16 to 18, would receive noncombat training only and would not handle firearms.
"Youths are going to be subjected to the rigors of military discipline, but will not receive military instruction like the use of arms, and only will be instructed in protecting of civilians who are vulnerable in cases of natural disasters," said Defense Minister David Munguia Payes.
In addition, draftees would receive practical training in such skills as mechanics and carpentry.
"The main idea is to stop the structure of the gangs by taking away their seedbed," said Hato Hasbun, secretary of strategic affairs.
At the heart of the proposal is rising dismay over the nation's rising number of homicides, 12 a day. Officials say that street gangs, including the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street, are responsible for 40% to 60% of the killings.
"It is clear, when you see these statistics, that it is the gangs that are the biggest problem for the society," said Hugo Ramirez, deputy director of public safety for the National Civil Police.
Funes unveiled the national service proposal in his June 1 State of the Nation speech. The idea has met with approval across the political spectrum and seems certain to gain congressional approval.
Officials said they would begin looking next month for places to house the recruits. The first draft probably would take place in January, they said.
But some analysts say the proposal is aimed at the wrong crowd and may prove counterproductive.
Jeannette Aguilar, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Jesuit-run Central American University, said those most at risk of joining gangs these days are those 8 to 15, younger than the teens targeted by the plan.
Besides, Aguilar said, drafting anyone younger than 18 could be a violation of international conventions on children's rights. (Officials counter that parents would be allowed to veto a child's conscription.)
Street gangs might also end up profiting from military training received by draftees who later join up, she said. "The plan will favor a better professionalization useful to structures of the organized crime."
The complex challenges are evident in the gang-dominated slum, called Las Victorias, where Aldo lives amid tin-roof shacks and longstanding neglect. The Mara Salvatrucha calls the shots here, despite occasional army raids in search of weapons and drugs.
A hardened Mara Salvatrucha leader and ex-convict known as "El Blue" said the proposal was unlikely to counter the poverty that makes a life of crime tempting.
"If this government were more civilized, as it pretends to be, they would come to Las Victorias and get involved with the local people, and ask them about their problems and invest in the people," he said. "That will be the best solution to get rid of the gangs."
Aldo himself fears the army and the Funes plan.
"One night the soldiers came and beat the homeboys and I saw how they had been left all beaten and bruised. I am afraid that the soldiers can beat me too," he said.
Renderos is a special correspondent.