Escalating violence and crime in Central America during the last decade and the devastating toll they take on society demand urgent attention. The following article was written by Rhegan Hyypio and published in the November-December 2012 NewsNotes

Despite increased requests for alternative initiatives to curb violence and crime (for instance, see the Caravan for Peace, September-October 2012 NewsNotes), the U.S. continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Latin America, which often promotes a dysfunctional system. Lisa Haugaard, director of the Latin America Working Group, testified to the U.S. Congress in September: "[It] is essential that the United States not encourage militaries to take over roles that are more appropriate for police forces … In both Central America and Mexico, we are concerned that the U.S. government has either encouraged or tacitly supported inappropriate roles for the military ... Even though we all know that police are often too weak, corrupt, or abusive, it is a short-term and shortsighted solution to place military in police roles, and it can lead to more abuses. And military-style responses to law enforcement problems—whether or not they are carried out by military forces—can lead to serious human rights abuses."

One alternative response that has shown proven results – decreasing violence and crime and transforming communities – involves restorative justice initiatives.

Maryknoll lay missioner Joanne Blaney describes restorative justice as "a process that brings together victims, offenders and a community of support. The process is based on truth and only happens if the offender admits and accepts responsibility for the crime or conflict. A key concept of restorative justice is that a crime is an offense against a human being and not just against the laws of the state. The victim decides if the process will go forward. The pain and suffering of the victim are communicated directly to the offender, who is held accountable." In her work in Brazil, Joanne witnesses first-hand how the process leads to forgiveness and healing. All too often, however, the strategy used throughout Central America, as well as the world, is one that involves militarization and a failed punishment system.

In September, the Washington Office on Latin America co-hosted a panel entitled "Citizen security in Central America: Challenges for society and responses from the international community." Panelist Transito Ruano, executive director of PASSOS, a non-profit organization in El Salvador that works to keep youth out of gangs and crime, spoke about how the mano dura (iron fist) policy to deal with crime and violence does not work. The aim of her organization is to allow for healing and transformation within communities. Like Joanne, Transito works with victims and violators, bringing them together to address the roots of the problems.

Transito noted the problem of fear and demonizing those whom we fear. She shared that when she first began working with youth who were either gang members or at risk of joining gangs, she found that much of the community, especially the parochial communities, were deeply afraid of them. Many from the religious community thought that the only way to resolve the problem with gangs was to wipe them out, for them to be killed. In order to help gang members choose a different path, she needed to change the minds of the community. This involved using restorative justice methods and tools.

She began to bring gang members, former gang members and others in the community together to listen to and learn from one another. Community members were able to voice their fears of the crime and violence that takes place with gangs and drug trafficking. Those with gang experience had a chance to hear how their involvement had caused others to suffer. They were also able to share that they chose that lifestyle because of the lack of alternatives. By sitting down together, they began to establish mutual understanding, empathy, trust and respect. The communities organized themselves to provide more options for youth than joining gangs and/or involvement with drug trafficking. Through PASSOS, community outreach workers are trained to teach violence prevention curricula in schools, run afterschool sports programs and provide after school accompaniment in areas where gangs are prevalent.

True citizen security will never exist when opportunities are not present for education, employment with a dignified salary, enough nourishing food, a decent home to live in and community support. For positive transformation to occur, those involved and affected by the crime and violence (perpetrators, victims and others from the community) need to be a part of the healing process. In a militarized approach, this is not possible. It recognizes the crime as against the state and does not allow for the possibility to bring affected parties together for restoration and healing. More often than not, the end result of a militarized approach is the extermination of those who commit the crime against the state. It does not recognize the unjust systemic factors that lead people to choose crime and violence in the first place. Instead of spending as much on a military approach, more needs to be invested in positive structural change, including ways to bring victims, perpetrators and other community members together to decide what is needed to bring about true restorative justice, which leads to citizen security.

Learn more about PASSOS here.