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Four strategies aid workers can learn from peacebuilders to engage with Latin America street gangs

‘Humanitarian organisations should explore a more comprehensive and community-centred approach.’

Residents and members of the new self-defense group known as 'El Machete' stand next to a burnt truck as others look for members of drug gangs and municipal authorities during a protest against the growing violence in the area, in Pantelho, in Chiapas state, Mexico July 27, 2021. Jacob Garcia/Reuters
Residents and members of ‘El Machete’ self-defence group look for gang members during a protest against growing violence in Pantelho in Mexico's Chiapas state, on 27 July 2021.

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Soaring gang violence in Latin America has sent humanitarian needs spiralling and is forcing aid workers to have to engage with gangs to an extent they never had to in the past if they want to implement their programmes. The problem is most don’t know how.

Violent urban spaces controlled by street gangs are relatively new operational contexts for humanitarian organisations that are more accustomed to dealing with armed groups in traditional conflict zones. This leaves them facing many challenges.

There is a large disconnect between humanitarian policy and practice. Because of security, political, and legal concerns, institutional and donor policies often hinder frontline humanitarians from using strategies that involve closer engagement with gang members, even when it is essential for access and security.

This is particularly complex in violent settings that don't fall under international humanitarian law (IHL), because it leaves humanitarians without the protection they have in armed conflicts.

IHL establishes the right of aid groups to deliver assistance during armed conflicts and grants them protection to engage with armed groups to negotiate access. However, gang violence usually doesn’t meet the legal threshold to be classified as an armed conflict under international law. This leaves agencies lacking such immunity when working in areas controlled by gangs, and interactions with these groups – from the states’ perspectives – could be seen as criminal.

Although they don´t share the same institutional mandate as peacebuilding NGOs, humanitarian organisations could benefit from their longer experience of working with street gangs.

When operating in contexts of gang violence, humanitarian organisations have tended to focus on implementing emergency aid programmes. Their objective is to address the immediate effects of violence and, only to a lesser extent, to enhance long-term community resilience.

They approach street gangs the same way they do non-state armed groups in conflicts: as belligerent parties. They often see street gangs mainly as a source of danger and risk, and prefer to limit their interactions to the minimum required.

Peacebuilding organisations, on the other hand, engage with street gangs with the explicit goal of reducing violence and preventing it from occurring. They seek to transform the dynamics of violence, and view them both as perpetrators and victims of systems of structural violence and socio-economic exclusion.

By adopting an approach that considers the complex nature of these groups, aid groups can avoid inadvertently pushing vulnerable youth into further marginalisation and social exclusion, which makes them, in turn, easier targets for gang recruitment

Trust and empathy

For my research project, I identified four recommendations from peacebuilding workers to better engage with street gangs:

1. Develop trust with gang members in the community where programmes are being implemented

The degree of trust between parties determines the success of any dialogue. To gain trust, humanitarians should be open about the activities and goals of their organisation, not overpromise, and always keep their word.

A large percentage of gang members in Latin America are marginalised youth who have themselves experienced extreme poverty and joined a gang to cope with socio-economic exclusion. While the decision to pursue criminal activities should not be condoned, demonstrating empathy for these individuals helps establish genuine connections, which can lead to more stability and predictability during any form of direct engagement.

2. Find appropriate interlocutors

Relying on people from the humanitarian organisation or the community who can speak the same language as young gang members can make a huge difference. The person chosen should be emotionally intelligent because dialogue occurs in volatile contexts of minimum-security, and gang members can be verbally aggressive to assert authority. To keep emotions under control, the negotiation (or engagement in general) should be in conciliatory terms, and the tone of voice must be calm.

“[One should] only use indirect persuasion, so [the gang members] don’t feel pressured – because, for them, the natural reaction is violence, be it verbal or physical,” a peacebuilding NGO worker in El Salvador told me.

In general, locals appear to be more accepted among street gangs than outsiders because they know and understand their culture and values. However, organisations must be careful not to transfer all the risks of engagement over to local communities.

3. Adopt a trauma-informed approach

This is crucial when designing engagement or negotiation strategies. One interviewee working for a multi-mandate NGO in Honduras suggested that, whenever possible, a trained psychologist should provide support during the dialogue with gang members and help analyse the effect of trauma on their behaviour and their motivations.

4. Work with local intermediaries

This can make a huge difference. Women are strong intermediaries for NGOs, especially the mothers and grandmothers of gang members. One peacebuilding and gang intervention worker in El Salvador said, for instance, that they have successfully relied on them – mostly gang members´ mothers – to guarantee access to neighbourhoods controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13), one of Central America's most dangerous criminal groups.

Local churches also play a significant role in communicating with street gang members, who are often religious. The usually inclusive and non-judgemental stance of churches towards them gives them a feeling of acceptance.

During the research, interviewees also warned about some of the challenges and dilemmas NGOs workers can face.

These include the highly fragmented and temporary nature of gang leadership, which makes chains of command hard to identify, and the unhinged nature of certain gangs combined with its members’ high degree of drug and alcohol consumption.

A central dilemma for NGO workers is finding the balance between legitimate relationship-building and legitimising criminal behaviour. Organisations must be careful not to offer or do anything that fortifies gangs' criminal or violent activity, such as payment of bribes or extortion fees, and be clear that their goal is only to help the community.

A way forward

To foster sustainable positive change in vulnerable communities across Latin America, humanitarian organisations engaged in long-term efforts to build resilience and reduce violence should explore a more comprehensive and community-centred approach when engaging with gangs.

They should also consider developing strong partnerships with local peacebuilding and development organisations that provide services to young gang members, such as mentoring, psychological support, and skills training, and help intermediate referrals when possible.

Finally, humanitarian organisations must make every effort to support frontline staff who are forced to interact with gang members in their daily work.

This support may involve providing specialised training and capacity-building in humanitarian negotiation, working with donors to remove unnecessary administrative guardrails from contracts, and advocating with local authorities to ensure security guarantees for frontline staff.

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