Mano dura, or strong hand, policies, first introduced by Honduras in 2002, take a “zero-tolerance” approach to gang activity. Laws allow “the government to imprison people for up to 12 years merely on suspicion of gang membership (often determined simply by the presence of distinctive tattoos, which members wear on their necks, arms, and legs)” (Arana). In 2004, El Salvador adopted this technique in the form of “super mano dura” legislation (Ribando). While there were initial signs of success, prison systems were soon filled beyond capacity which in Honduras caused prison riots in April 2003 and May 2004 (Arana).
Tough legislation, however, is not enough to solve the gang problem. The mano dura approach does not provide the necessary social and educational programs which prevent youth from joining gangs, and allows current gang members to reintegrate into society. This legislation has taken attention and resources away from the bigger problems, such as dysfunctional politics, corruption, drug smuggling, poverty, and overpopulation, which contribute to the development of gangs (Arana).
Moreover, prisons help to solidify gang culture, and offer opportunities to recruit new members and establish a base of operations (Sullivan). According to Los Angeles’ police chief William Bratton “We think of prison as punishment, but in many instances we’re just reinforcing their loyalty to the gang. To them prison is like going to finishing school” (Arana). For gang members, incarceration is “a positive status symbol and a source of prestige” (Strocka).
Mano amiga policies are designed to use rehabilitation and intervention in fighting gangs rather than suppression. Programs include after school activities for at-risk youth and job training for former gang members. Although mano amiga programs seem to address problems the mano dura programs do not, they have also had limited success. In many cases, gang members are afraid of the consequences should they decide to leave. In leaving a gang, members face great personal risk not only in the form of retaliation from their former gang, but also from rival gangs (Ribando). In some cases, an extreme act of violence must be committed by the person wanting to leave the gang (Moser). Societal stigmas also make it difficult for reformed gang members to make a living once they have reintegrated into society (Ribando).
Since mano dura programs were first implemented in Honduras and El Salvador, both countries have begun to include rehabilitation and prevention programs as a part of their anti-gang strategy. In El Salvador, however, rehabilitation and prevention only receive 20 percent of the total funding allocated to fight gangs, while suppression programs receive much more (Sibaja). Moreover, because gangs have become less identifiable, it is harder for rehabilitation programs to reach out to them. The mass arrests of suspected gang members have also had the result of incarcerating those in the process of rehabilitation (Bermudez).
Furthermore, rehabilitation and intervention programs often have shortcomings which keep them from being effective. According to Cordula Strocka, rehabilitation centers “are nothing but prisons for minors, characterized by rigid military-style discipline and inhuman treatment of the young internees” (Strocka). These programs have the effect of leading to deeper involvement with gangs.
Regional and international efforts have begun to be used more often as countries recognize the need to coordinate anti-gang programs, but need to be expanded in order to be successful. The United States has both knowledge and resources which would help Central American countries develop better strategies in fighting gangs. According to a report from USAID, international programs are needed because “Gang activity has developed into a complex, multi-faceted and transnational problem that cannot be solved by individual countries acting alone” (Sibaja).
An example of this type of program that should be expanded is the training provided by the U.S. Justice Department’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) for El Salvador. This program has helped the country improve community policing and internal and external communications, as well as address the issue of corruption, with the result of 5,000 corrupt cops being removed in three years (Arana). El Salvador has become the only country in South America to have a “working national emergency police response system, a computerized crime analysis and deployment network…and an Intranet that connects the precincts internally” (Arana).
Regional programs also allow countries to share information about gang members. The Central American Integration System (SICA) which is composed of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, have also had meetings to coordinate efforts to fight gangs (Ribando). In 2004, officials from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic worked to create a database to track criminal organizations and their movements (Boraz). Under the agreement, gang related arrest warrants would be shared by law enforcement agencies for all of the countries (Garland).