El Salvador has enacted a state of emergency to fight a new spike in homicides while thousands of Haitians demonstrate against a lack of governmental support to protect their population from gangs.
Countries worldwide have been battling a spike in violence from global gangs who run rampant criminal syndicates involving drug trafficking, extortions and homicides.
El Salvador declared a state of emergency last week after 89 people were killed in a four-day span due to gang violence, compared to 79 people in February.
Since then, the country’s president, Nayib Bukele, has been facing backlash over his administration’s actions to fight organised crime groups, as citizens claim security officials are encircling neighbourhoods and restricting mobility.
Human Rights Watch called the state of emergency “a recipe for disaster” that “suspends a range of basic rights, opening the door to abuse” in a statement on Tuesday.
Among other things, the state of emergency law suspends the rights to freedom of association and assembly, and privacy in communications for 30 days, the HRW notes.
The HRW also criticised the country's National Civil Police for posting photos of dozens of detained people they claim are gang members on Twitter “even before many of them have been taken before a court.”
But President Bukele defended the country’s actions, adding people "must let the agents and soldiers do their job and must defend them from the accusations of those who protect the gang members."
In contrast to these concerns of authorisation policies in El Salvador, thousands of people have been demonstrating against the lack of action taken by Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government against gangs in Haiti.
Haitian protesters in capital Port-au-Prince chanted against a rise in gang-related kidnappings for more than three hours on Tuesday. A separate protest turned violent in the southern city of Les Cayes.
However, global organisations such as Cure Violence Global (CURE) believe the issue is less about whether governments are doing enough and more about if "what they are doing is working."
Charlie Ransford, Senior Director of Science and Policy at CURE, told TRT World that he believes "governments need to do much more before the violence happens."
"Right now, we know so much about where violence happens, who is likely to be involved, and even when events might happen," said Ransford.
"The problem is that no one is being given the role to step in and stop the violence. Threats of punishment from police do not work as well as support and care from people you trust."
CURE is a guiding and training organisation that works with local communities around the world to "implement evidence-based approach to violence prevention," explains Ransford.
"This approach includes interruption of ongoing conflicts, changing behaviour of highest risk, changing norms," he said.
READ MORE: Gangs of Haiti: Why are they so powerful?
While several gangs operate in El Salvador, the most notable are the two rivals Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street (Barrio 18).
Both international gangs originated as street gangs in the Los Angeles city but spread throughout Central America after many members were deported out of the US.
They are currently active in many parts of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America, notably in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Barrio 18 is also allied with the Mexican Mafia.
"These two gangs have turned the Central American northern triangle into the area with the highest homicide rate in the world," said a United States Department of Justice report regarding the rival gangs.
MS-13 and Barrio 18 “are present in almost every [US] state and continue to grow their memberships, now targeting younger recruits more than ever before,” said the FBI.
The FBI’s Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Task Forces is currently located in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The violence has in turn created widespread displacement in the regions, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
UNHCR said the number of refugees and asylum-seekers from the North of Central America has soared in the last five years.
“Worsening crime and violence fuelled by drug cartels and gangs accounts for much of the increase, along with fragile institutions, and increasing inequalities,” the UNHCR said.
The bloc says worldwide there are 470,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“The stark choice for thousands of families and young women and men in Central America now is to leave or die,” it said.
"They are compelled to leave their homes and risk their lives undertaking dangerous journeys, only to search for a safe place to live," it added.
READ MORE: Haiti observes strike over kidnappings, insecurity
Increasing gang membership
Almost 49 percent of all violent crimes in the US are due to gangs, according to the National Gang Center. At least 13 percent of all national homicides are attributed to gangs as well.
The US Department of Justice’s definition of a gang is an association “of three or more individuals who adopt a group identity in order to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation.”
They are typically split into three categories: motorcycle gangs, prison gangs and street gangs. In the US alone there are 33,000 violent street gangs currently active, according to the FBI.
The FBI also warns that the number of street gang members is increasing in 49 percent of jurisdictions.
“Many are sophisticated and well organised; all use violence to control neighbourhoods and boost their illegal money-making activities, which include robbery, drug and gun trafficking, prostitution and human trafficking, and fraud,” their website said.
Meanwhile in Haiti, “gang-related violence has continued to increase,” says The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a special report in January.
The country’s “grim security situation and political power vacuum” since the killing of President Jovenel Moise has contributed to the worsening gang-violence, OCHA says, as concern continues to build on the ability of the country to develop governance structures.
Around 2.5 million Haitians of the country’s 11.4 million people live under the control of armed groups, The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Development Centre outlines methods to reduce violence in El Salvador such as “investing in prevention” and “providing second chances to those caught up in the violence culture.”
“One of the most effective approaches to reducing violence is preventing youth from becoming gang members in the first place,” it says.
OECD estimates that between 20,000 and 35,000 young Salvadorans belong to youth gangs called “maras.” Young members are 20 years old on average with a mean entry age of 15 years.
To combat the youth gangs, El Salvador’s government approved an ‘anti-maras’ law in 2003 to criminalise membership and decrease legal criminal age to 12 years.
“However, increasing rates of youth violence and public insecurity point to the ineffectiveness of current policies in addressing the structural roots of the problem,” the OECD notes.
“Successful interventions must combine integrated, comprehensive and cross-sectoral prevention strategies with existing control approaches, and tackle the issue of youth violence at the national and municipal level,” it added.
Ransford told TRT World that his organisation CURE does "not look at violence from the gang lens," but instead views "violence as a health issue."
"People involved in violence have a serious health problem of exposure to violence and trauma – regardless of whether or not they joined any group," Ransford said.
"Cities have a problem of people being traumatised by violence and not receiving any care or treatment to prevent the individual from developing violent behaviour," he added.
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