(IRIN) – A precarious gang truce brokered in 2011 in El Salvador has many crime experts wondering whether “talking to criminals” in other places could reduce criminal violence and help gangsters – and the communities who depend on them – find other ways to earn a living.
There is widespread recognition that the war on crime and drugs has largely failed to curtail drug cartels or stop criminal violence and drug abuse. Similarly, there is growing awareness about the extent to which criminal groups are embedded in the societies in which they operate. The result has been a call for a more creative and development-oriented approaches to combatting crime.
Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarapé Institute, sees a definite trend towards engaging with criminals in different ways: “We are starting to see some politicians and business leaders changing course. There are tentative examples of experimentation, with new approaches emerging across the Americas and, to a lesser extent, Africa and Asia, with interventions based on evidence rather than ideology.”
At a recent conference of the Global Initiative on Transnational Organized Crime , held in New York on’ September, UN University head of office James Cockayne spoke about situations where working with criminals could pay off. In some fragile states and communities, criminal groups often have more legitimacy than state authorities, since they are often better able to deliver goods and services to people, he argued.
“We need to recognize that some criminal groups may be sources of social capital which could strengthen the state,” he said, but added that it would be naïve not to be aware of the inherent moral dilemmas and risks involved, such as negating victims’ rights or inadvertently strengthening the hand of the criminals themselves.
He cited the Haiti-based initiative run by NGO Viva Rio as a positive example. The initiative has seen former gangs take part “in innovative waste water recycling and distribution projects, which have helped improve community access to water and energy, while also encouraging gang members away from violence, creating alternative livelihoods, and building social capital between gangs, the community and the state”, he wrote in a paper that was presented at the conference .
Other examples of alternative approaches include gang truces Belize, Honduras and Guatemala; “pacification projects” in the slums of Rio de Janeiro; and “violence interruption” projects in the US. Initiatives like those in Rio involve new policing strategies, while others, like the Haiti initiative and offshoots of the El Salvador programme, have strong civil society components that attempt to rehabilitate criminals and offer them alternative jobs and social identities.
Read more here