Artículos en Inglés
Carlos Ponce – Criminologist
Translated by: Paola Rodríguez
To begin with, who is Carlos Ponce?
My father was a great soldier and, as every proud son, I tried to imitate him all the time. However, my dad did not allow me to enter Military School. What he wanted was for me to study Business and Economics, and I thank him infinitely because he opened my perspective and my mind when he helped me enter the second class of the Escuela Superior de Economia y Negocios (ESEN). Once I graduated, I said to my father, “Look, I already did what you wanted me to, and now it is time for me to look for something that fulfills me even more.” After that, I started working in an investigation agency. During those times, at the end of the 1990s, the police was going through a very difficult situation in the midst of several kidnapping crisis. I had little credibility among the citizens. After working a year in this agency, I started to look for universities offering careers that had something to do with public security.
What did you look for?
I found a criminology school in the United States, and it was coincidently located near the university of some of my friends. As a result, I took a trip to visit them, visit new universities, and talk with some of the deans of certain universities. By doing this, I found the university that attracted me the most. In this university, I won a scholarship, a job offering to be an instructional assistant, and the opportunity to work in the Police Department of Indianapolis. This is how I started off. When I finished my masters’ degree, I came back to El Salvador and started working in the Police Department.
Is it easy to become a criminologist? Does the career exist in El Salvador?
Here, in El Salvador, there is no official criminology degree. The ESEN made a very interesting experiment last year and they offered a degree in Criminology and Public Security; it was very good, actually. Many well-known criminologists came to the country. I also had the opportunity to teach two classes. It was very interesting, but unfortunately there were not many people. The truth is that it is a very difficult decision, because when people are choosing a career, they also look at the investment and profit that they will make as a professional in that career; when it comes to criminology, people have to know that they will not be rich. In order to study this career, people have to love the job or have a strong spirit of service.
What is the job of a criminologist?
There are different functions or roads that a criminologist can take. One of the most interesting ones is, for example, delinquent’s analysis, which has different levels: from the operative level to the strategic level. The operative level is the study of investigative analysis, in which you analyze different characteristics of a delincuencial fact or pattern, in order to contribute to the investigation of related cases. The analysis of delinquent intelligence is an operative analysis, which has to do with analyzing the delinquent patterns in which criminal structures are involved in order to take on investigations that can destroy those structures. Similarly, there are many other types of operative analyses.
What about the strategic level?
The strategic analysis is a little bit more extensive and is oriented to creating longer, more elevated operative strategies rather than to designing or contributing to the design of immediate operative strategies. We are talking about studies of academic investigations, about practical studies that require a slightly different perspective. For example, the argument that is popular in El Salvador is that poverty is directly associated with delinquency. It is important to study this, but you still need technical statistics in order to identify, for example, if the same places where there are specific concentrations of poverty are also filled with specific concentrations of incidental delinquency.
What is your focus?
I, for example, have ventured into writing, interviews, and being a little bit more public with my opinions because I am part of a new branch of criminology known as Public Criminology, where criminologists are encouraged to enter public debate on important topics. Many of us studying this discipline have encountered frustrations, the same way others have encountered frustrations in their fields. Many times the public politics and debates about security lack this academic component. Many times, you hear people debate facts about delinquency that are very removed from the actual facts, the findings and decisions of the theoretical postulates, and the things that have been demonstrated by the history of other places and that we, criminologists, study.
What is your opinion about these academic deficiencies?
Honestly, this frustrates us and it has come to a point where various people have decided that it is important for criminologists to leave the community, office, academy, and studies so they can enter the debate in order to contrast and incorporate that academic ingredient. They strive to make people orient their public discussion or debate about sensitive topics within delinquency and public security. In my opinion, Latin America is beginning to accomplish this, specifically in Mexico, which is a country that is really fighting to do this. In the United States interviews with the most important criminologists from various universities are becoming more common in prestigious newspapers. That is also another component that I think should be encouraged to local and foreign criminologists.
What negative aspects can you highlight regarding the truce?
The truth is that if we were to talk about the negative aspects of what I find, we would take all day. However, I think I might be able to highlight one positive aspect, which is that I think that the proper handling of criminality, prevention, rehabilitation, and reinsertion have been incorporated to the public debate through the truce. These are components that are not generally very popular, but they are necessary in any strategy that has to do with the issue of gangs. The approaches of these successful studies have provided evidence that there has to be at least three components: the one of repression or suppression, which are all of the strategies oriented towards dismantling the gangs, the incarceration of all gang-members that have committed a crime, and lastly, preventive measures.
So, the truce is really preventive?
They talk about how this truce is preventive, but it isn’t, for in the end it is not a public politic that is oriented to prevent new members to join a gang; in the sense that the language used within the strategies to attack the gang problem doesn’t fall under the category of prevention. However, it is more like a way to visibly decrease the occurrence of alarming crimes since this was causing many political problems. In my opinion, and many agree with me, the truce is moving more towards a political agenda rather than having a genuine intention of reducing crimes. Their focus has been to reduce crimes, as I mention before, that were more visible, scrutinized, or whose statistics could not be manipulated because it is not the victims’ job to denounce, because there is a body.
In a situation like that, what is the development pattern for gangs?
Gangs are like a small child in his growth and development period. When children are growing up, they think that everything is about them and nothing else. If the child wants something and you don’t give it to him, he will start to cry and doesn’t care about anything else. His only care is to satisfy that immediate need of having that object in his hands. This eventually changes as the child continues to grow, mature, and begins to understand that to have that object he needs to ask for permission. Why? If he doesn’t ask for permission, he can create a negative relationship or interaction that can affect him and generate a punishment afterwards, and they begin to understand this. Gang-members start to learn the same thing.
What happens when the gang-member grows?
When the gang-member continues to grow, his responsibilities increase and his focus begins to change. The gang-member begins to think, “No, through my criminal actions I need to generate money. Not only am I going to fight the other person just because. I am going to commit crimes that give me more economic benefits.” In addition, this can lead the member to make alliances with the ones he used to fight with as a child; this archenemy gang from his childhood can take him to an understanding that if he increases his criminal activities, he will also increase his economic profits. This is consistently obvious in all places that have gang activity.
There are successful cases at the international level that have faced a violent situation, like El Salvador’s, and that has been fixed in a short or average amount of time. What do you think can be learned from these experiences?
There are so many positive experiences in different places, but I think that the best ones are in the United States. Since there is no national police, the gang problem is generally dealt with at a local level through county police forces. However, there are many examples: in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. What these experiences tell us is that we have to look at the problem really carefully, for the dynamic of the problem is different. The important thing is to analyze it well and retake those experiences from international levels and adapt them to the reality of the country. There are a million things that can be applied to improve this situation which, unfortunately, this government has not done.
What about constructing more prisons?
I think that instead of constructing more prisons, the Ministry had been advancing well before this new government. For example, we see the prison of Izalco which, where did not have power outlets to charge cell phones. There were no electricity outlets so no extortions happened from there, for they did not have the ways to charge phones. Unfortunately, this stopped. After Izalco, nothing has been done throughout all these years. I think that at the Latin American level, this is one of the most significant debts that governments have. We must understand that. Latin American countries work with very limited budgets, and they have to make sure to invest the few funds they have into activities that generate some kind of impact on the citizens or their perception. Investing in prisons does not carry the impact they seek.
Some candidates have said they might continue the truce.
What I read between the lines of this statement is, “Ah, we are evaluating if we will negotiate or not.” In my opinion, anyone who says this is going to lose in these elections. In the most densely populated communities, where the gang problem is more serious, the citizens are simply going to hold the candidate who is saying that they will evaluate or will continue the truce responsible for the outcome. This is because the people in those places are the ones who most strongly oppose this negotiation, for they are the ones who live a daily life with the intimidation, the crimes, the gangs’ prepotency, and the stress of having to keep their children away from gang members. That is why any of the candidates that decide to negotiate will be negatively viewed.
This is why I think that what might happen is the candidates will move away from this, even more because the church has also marked a distance. I think that the candidates will say no.
Is the eradication of crime solely made through repression and preventive plans?
Strategy can give us many paths. I think it is a very important and essential component in the analysis, if not we are acting by instinct. Everything has to be based on a very technical analysis of the criminal problems that we currently live with. For example, the firearms issue. It has been a problem that has not been analyzed well enough within the country, and instead of trying to propose strategies to control the problem that firearms generate in the criminal environment, there has been proposals that instead support political ideologies. For example, the FMLN, following the best example of all the extreme left governments, is proposing to disarm all citizens. I don’t think that this is going to solve anything because the country doesn’t have a high availability of firearms for honest people.
The common citizens don’t have such an easy access to weapons, and this is always reflected in a simple proxy, which is used in all criminal investigations, where the access to weapons is tied to the amount of suicides committed with a firearm. Here in El Salvador, the amount of suicides committed with firearms doesn’t even reach a 10%.
The same thing happened in Colombia. An analysis was done and it was determined that the majority of the citizens did not own firearms, and that the criminal problems were caused by illegal weapons in the hands of criminals. Therefore, the most important thing there is not to attack all the citizens, because the only thing it will do is hit the honest people hard, and it will not bring any benefits because the ones who are armed are the criminals. Thus, what the government has to do in that situation is attack the black markets and the illegal transport of weapons and ammunition, which are things that have simply not been done now or in any other administration. It is an example of how problems have to be analyzed. Issues have to be analyzed in a technical way.