One alternative response that has shown proven results – decreasing violence and crime and transforming communities – involves restorative justice initiatives.
Maryknoll lay missioner Joanne Blaney describes restorative justice as "a process that brings together victims, offenders and a community of support. The process is based on truth and only happens if the offender admits and accepts responsibility for the crime or conflict. A key concept of restorative justice is that a crime is an offense against a human being and not just against the laws of the state. The victim decides if the process will go forward. The pain and suffering of the victim are communicated directly to the offender, who is held accountable." In her work in Brazil, Joanne witnesses first-hand how the process leads to forgiveness and healing. All too often, however, the strategy used throughout Central America, as well as the world, is one that involves militarization and a failed punishment system.
In September, the Washington Office on Latin America co-hosted a panel entitled "Citizen security in Central America: Challenges for society and responses from the international community." Panelist Transito Ruano, executive director of PASSOS, a non-profit organization in El Salvador that works to keep youth out of gangs and crime, spoke about how the mano dura (iron fist) policy to deal with crime and violence does not work. The aim of her organization is to allow for healing and transformation within communities. Like Joanne, Transito works with victims and violators, bringing them together to address the roots of the problems.
Transito noted the problem of fear and demonizing those whom we fear. She shared that when she first began working with youth who were either gang members or at risk of joining gangs, she found that much of the community, especially the parochial communities, were deeply afraid of them. Many from the religious community thought that the only way to resolve the problem with gangs was to wipe them out, for them to be killed. In order to help gang members choose a different path, she needed to change the minds of the community. This involved using restorative justice methods and tools.
She began to bring gang members, former gang members and others in the community together to listen to and learn from one another. Community members were able to voice their fears of the crime and violence that takes place with gangs and drug trafficking. Those with gang experience had a chance to hear how their involvement had caused others to suffer. They were also able to share that they chose that lifestyle because of the lack of alternatives. By sitting down together, they began to establish mutual understanding, empathy, trust and respect. The communities organized themselves to provide more options for youth than joining gangs and/or involvement with drug trafficking. Through PASSOS, community outreach workers are trained to teach violence prevention curricula in schools, run afterschool sports programs and provide after school accompaniment in areas where gangs are prevalent.