Members of Mara Salvatrucha 13, one of the main gangs in San Salvador.


Families should be the essential guarantors of children’s rights, supported but not supplanted by the State. Maria Jose Benítez, once kidnapped for three hours in her native El Salvador, now studies how violence in her country has changed family structure and how public policy can better support family units. In this interview she talks with the Social Trends Institute.

Why did you choose this field of study?

Because it combines my country’s need to understand its current reality and my professional passions and interests that I’ve prepared for academically and professionally. Since I decided to study law, I’ve wanted to become a defender of human rights, specifically those of children and adolescents. I believe that El Salvador is a wounded country, but also a very optimistic and brave one, with the family as one of its main pillars. That’s why my research will center on describing how violence has changed family structure and how public policy can better support family units as such, rather than only their separate members.

Are public administrations dealing correctly with the problem of youth gangs in El Salvador?  

There have been important advances in building a safer country. El Salvador’s government set up the National Council of Public Safety and Peaceful Coexistence. It brings together not only government functionaries but also representatives of civil society, academia and private enterprise, as well as representatives of international cooperation. From there, the Safe El Salvador Plan was constructed, which was launched in 2015, addressing the issue of youth gangs in various ways, from prevention to prosecution and rehabilitation.  Nevertheless, the resources are limited, which forces them to prioritize.

Is it hard for a boy in El Salvador to resist joining a youth gang?

It’s very hard to resist, especially because many boys and their families are threatened if they don’t join one of the gangs. Furthermore, we are now up against the second generation of gangs. The children of the first gang members have lived within this culture from earliest youth. I’m referring to a lifestyle accustomed to getting things “the easy way.”

For example, a teacher told me that a boy who got a bad grade at her school approached her and took her picture on his cell phone. He told her his father was in a gang and if she didn’t change the grade, he would wait for her outside school. This type of behaviour is seen as normal. 

Nevertheless, I’ve also run into cases where gang members do not want their sons to follow their footsteps, because they realize that their way of life is easy only insofar as it alleviates a lack of education or employment, but the weight of being involved in so much criminal activity is not easy to bear.

An intact El Salvador family. Photo: CAFOD UK

The task of changing this situation will be long and arduous…

That’s right. Many young people who have joined gangs come from de-structured families.  Often their parents have emigrated to improve their economic situation. But this abandonment and solitude renders them easy prey for the gangs. So, even though economic stability is very important, so too is family unity. 

Which is more important to keeping El Salvador’s boys from winding up in gangs:  the State or the family?

Without doubt, the family. It is quite telling to consider the cases of boys who live in violence-ridden communities and yet do not get involved. The boys in these cases come from stable families. I want to analyse what these strong families have, and how public policy can help increase their numbers. 

I myself –two years ago– was the victim of a kidnapping. This led me to consider that I was able to get over it thanks to my family and the fact my environment was not dangerous. But I also thought about all the young people who do experience killings within their families or are themselves victims of violence – the fears they must have and the difficulty of overcoming it without family support and while living in the same environment with their aggressors. 

So the key to doing away with youth gangs lies in strengthening families and the State applying effective policies to that end?

That’s how it should be. Families are the building blocks of society, as is legally recognized by El Salvador’s Constitution. Values and self-confidence are learned in the family.  If all boys and girls get these lessons from earliest youth, soon we will see gang-free generations. As it stands, families are also crucial to holding back the normalization of violence. In general, families should be the essential guarantors of children’s rights – supported but not supplanted by the State. 

María José Benítez Chávez has a degree in law and postgraduate qualifications in criminology and children’s rights. Benítez has now embarked on a Master’s Program in Social Science Research with the help of a grant from the Social Trends Institute.  This interview is republished from STI with permission.