Q: San Salvador is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. How are you trying to fight this violence, which is weighing on the city’s development potential?
A: The national government embraced a strategy typical in Latin American countries: fight violence with violence. We think that’s not a solution. Repression is like an aspirin: it cures the symptoms, not the causes, no matter how many aspirins you take.
That’s what happened with the problem of gang violence. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén embraced an approach renamed 'mano inteligente' [intelligent hand], as opposed to the 'firm hand' strategy of some of his predecessors, but the truth is that he is taking an extremely firm hand strategy, combined with human rights violations where normal acts of counterculture are criminalised. Although there is a downward trend in the country's homicide rate, the government is not curing the causes of the violence, and is also creating animosity within the most affected communities, which are excluding themselves.
Q: How are you trying to cure the causes of violence instead?
A: It’s not a crime problem, it’s a social problem. Any single member of street gangs comes from a background of low income and marginalised communities. We must breach the inequality between segregated communities and the 15% to 20% of wealthy communities.
Q: How do you breach this inequality?
A: Today, deprived youngsters either explode or implode – explode by joining a gang, or implode falling into drugs, alcohol and so on. We are clearly not [legitimising] crime, but instead of repressing deprived youngsters, we are competing with street gangs by creating opportunities for the youth. For example, we did a project with the EU where we built glass cube buildings in deprived communities and turned them into libraries equipped with multiple facilities, incuding spaces to play football or other sports. We did so to give youngsters a feeling that somebody is looking after them. At the same time, we are promoting education through measures such as a municipal scholarship to secure university education for the best high-school students.
Q: You were elected as mayor of San Salvador in March 2015. Has your approach produced results yet?
A: The mentality of people towards the youth is changing, as well as the mentality of the youth towards the society. We have experienced a 55% fall in the city's homicide rate in the past few months. The government is taking credit for it, but I think it is more a combination of the government’s repressive approach and our approach. But the results driven by the government’s approach are not sustainable, as history shows; the sustainable results trace back to our measures to provide youngsters and their families with real alternatives to street crime. A large part of the society seems to agree with me, as my [approval] rate remains at about 73%.
Q: How are you also trying to promote economic development?
A: El Salvador has a labour force of about 4 million people, but only 800,000 workers are registered in the national insurance system, which means the country suffers from a massive problem of unemployment and sub-employment. We opened a table with the private sector, listened to their problems, and we managed to approve a $1bn investment programme in property development of about 14 projects able to generate some 130,000 formal jobs.
Q: The country suffers from a big 'brain drain' as thousands of youngsters try their luck in the US every year. Is emigration decreasing at all?
A: Unfortunately, the news isn't good on that side. People here are aware of the social drama of those who leave and face great adversities to reach the US. But they don’t see the problem of losing our main productive force – it’s not the children that are leaving, not the elders, but the most resourceful youngsters willing to gamble it all for a better life in the US. People only see the $4bn in remittances they send back every year [almost 17% of GDP in 2015, according to World Bank figures], but that money could be produced locally instead of the US.
We hope that the opportunities we are trying to generate on the ground will eventually lead to a decrease in emigration levels, because it will be difficult to move forward when our most productive youngsters leave the country.