Driving up a dirt road at 9am, we volunteers climb out of the microvan and enter into the clinic of the El Salvadoran Public Health Promoter. We squeeze into the small space and notice two young men against the opposite wall. The PHP for the canton begins in Spanish while I translate.
“¡Benvenidos chicos!,” starts the PHP, “I would like to introduce you to the community and these two young men. They are boys from the gang and they would like you to know their names and that they are here for protection so don’t be scared.”
Honestly, ‘the gang’ didn’t register with me. So we all gave our attention to the young men. Douglas spoke for the two.
“I’m Douglas,” he began, “and if there is anything you need please let us know. If at the end of your stay you would like to give us as a gift, your shoes or anything, we would be very appreciative”
After some handshakes, the young men left the room.
Quietly I turned to the PHP. “The gang?” I said with curiosity, “do you mean MS-13?”
“Yes,” she replied. “They are young men with no hopes and no work. So they work to protect the community. Recently President Obama warned tourists from visiting El Salvador over the violence associated with MS-13 and various volunteers stopped coming to the canton. Community members went to the gang and complained. So the gang said that they would make their presence known but as community protectors.”
Violence as a Reality
El Salvador has long been acquainted with violence – be it colonialism, the Independence movements, forced labor situations, peasant uprisings, a brutal Civil War with horrific assassinations led by military death squads, or most recently gang violence.
The El Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992) rose from the memories of the 1932 peasant massacre (La Massacre) that killed close to 30,000 Indians in just one month, including their leader Farabundo Martí. Continued hostilities towards perceived communists, labor leaders, intellectuals, journalists and priests in the 1970s came to a head with the rape and murder of four American nuns followed by the assassination of Monseñor Oscar Romero. Rebels who had organized throughout the 1970s to combat the murders and intimidation campaigns of the government formed guerrilla armies collectively known as the FMLN (Farabundo Martí Liberacíon Nacíonal). The war waged for 12 years with over 75,000 known dead, one-sixth of the population of El Salvador.
Veterans of that war found jobs in security, one of the more popular jobs in the country. They carried arms for years and continue today. Thief, murder, and extortion are the common reality for many in the country. It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy or poor your chances of a violent assault are equal in a country with very little punity. The difference is that the wealthy can afford to hire guards, where as the poor man who leaves his job at the maquilla is a target for his wages ($90 at most) or his bicycle, murdered in cold blood leaving behind a widow and small children.
Since the civil war, El Salvador has fallen into a new era of violence with the rise and spread of the El Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha 13. A recent Harvard study puts the punity rate for violent crimes in El Salvador at 4%, a shockingly low number. The study fingered the hollow justice system as the culprit. A structure exists but there is little follow through. An interesting statistic considering that the prisons are full of gang members from the two major rival gangs. The violence connected with the gangs is horrific and parents are terrified that their children will be lured into the life. Some parents take their children out of schools fearful of the practice by gang members to hang out near schools. Life in a gang is no life and is most certainly a death sentence.
Some organizations work hard to present a different future for kids to see that there is an alternative to gang life. FIMRC has a strong teen group program in the canton that tries to redirect youth attention to positive possibilities. Even the national government is attempting to present a different perception about the national police. Police officers are stationed outside schools to act as role models (and offer protection? Or a deterrent?) The government wants youth to see the police as not something to be afraid of – interesting that this idea has to be forced.
This year the violence is down since the truce between MS-13 and Deciocho. This is noticeable in San Salvador as there are less security guards armed to the teeth in front of every establishment and nice home. Yet, this is what we see on the surface. What about the poor who are most affected and connected to the gangs? The threat of violence remains the same. They are the most vulnerable as they prove to be the collection point for members or the unfortunate victims of extortion or retaliation.