This article focuses on examining drug abuse treatment (DAT) in El Salvador highlighting gang vs. non-gang membership differences in drug use and treatment outcomes.
Cross-sectional and prospective cohort designs were employed to examine the study aims. The 19 centers that met the study’s inclusion criteria of one year or less in planned treatment offered varying treatment services: individual, group, family, and vocational therapy, dual diagnosis treatment, psychological testing, 12-step program, and outreach and re-entry aftercare. Most directors describe their treatment approach as “spiritual.” Data were collected from 625 patients, directors, and staff from the 19 centers at baseline, of which 34 patients were former gang members. Seventy-two percent (72%) of the former patients (448) were re-interviewed six-months after leaving treatment and 48% were randomly tested for drug use.
Eighty-nine percent (89%) of the DAT patients at baseline were classified as heavy alcohol users and 40% were using illegal drugs, i.e., crack, marijuana, cocaine, tranquilizers, opiates, and amphetamines. There were large decreases after treatment in heavy alcohol and illegal drug use, crime, and gang related risk activities. Gang members reported illegal drug use, crime, and gang related risk activity more than non-gang members, yet only 5% of the study participants were gang members; further, positive change in treatment outcomes among gang members were the same or larger as compared to non-gang members.
Alcohol use is the drug of choice among DAT patients in El Salvador with gang member patients having used illegal drugs more than non-gang members. The study shows that DAT centers successfully reduced the use of illegal drugs and alcohol among gang and non-gang members. Although our study could not include a control group, we believe that the DAT treatment centers in El Salvador contributed to producing this treatment success among former patients. These efforts should be continued and complemented by funding support from the Salvadoran government for DAT centers that obtain certification. In addition, tailored/alternative treatment modalities are needed for gang members in treatment for heavy drinking.