Finding salvation in El Salvador

People & Power looks at efforts to protect country's youth from gang violence.

    Thousands of young Salvadorians are drawn to gangs despite a police crackdown [EPA]

    Many years after its civil war ended the Central American country of El Salvador is again plagued by conflict, this time from deadly street gangs known as maras.

    Al Jazeera's People & Power programme travelled to the city of Santa Ana to find out more about an innovative organisation trying to protect the country's youth from the violence.

    Demanding protection money from people on buses and stealing are not activities you would normally expect an 11-year-old to take part in.

    However Marlon Diaz says he is pressured to do both on a regular basis as are thousands of other young Salvadorians.

    The Central American country is once again wracked with violence, 15 years after the end of a bloody civil war it is now being dominated by two street gangs (maras) - the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Mara 18. 

    The gangs sell drugs, extort protection money and fight for territory. They are also increasingly pressuring children, many under the age of 10, to join their ranks.

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    Many succumb to the pressure to become gang members and end up committing crimes such as rape, murder and other offences. Thousands of them die or end up in jail.

    Marlon, however, declares he "will not go with the gangs anymore" because of Barefoot Angels, an organisation which works in Santa Ana, El Salvador's second-largest city, which attempts to help youths cope with violence and keep them out of gangs.

    Success story

    The team of seven professionals, headed by Lucy Guzman, includes social workers, psychologists and educators and for the last ten years has tried to provide a refuge for children from the fear of violence.

    "What we do is try to make a circle of psychological attention, for those children who have to suffer a lot of violence," Guzman says, highlighting activities such as puppet-making, painting and drama.

    Peter Rodriguez, right, was taught magic
    by volunteers from the programme
    Peter Rodriguez is one of the programme's success stories. He heads the magic group after being taught tricks by US volunteers when, at the age of four, his father left him and his mother.

    "There's been some occasions when gang members have wanted to attack me, but I have been able to evade them by dashing down a street or through a crowd," the 16-year-old says.

    "Thanks to this programme I have been able to learn magic. So this programme helps a lot of people."

    Barefoot Angels is part of a multi-pronged campaign, along with the local police, to protect the city's youth from gang life and the intention is to intervene early.

    "There are youngsters, some as young as pre-schoolers, who can be influenced to join the gangs," Jose Guerra Martinez, the head of the city's police force, says.

    "Many youngsters who are gang members today had relatives who emigrated to the US, Mexico and other countries in the region and they lacked close family ties."

    Gang prevention task force patrols and volunteers from Barefoot Angels work regularly in Santa Ana's Colon market where extreme poverty forces many mothers to send their children, such as Marlon, to hawk sweets and trinkets and where the Mara 18 do a lot of their recruiting.

    Marlon says he is afraid to go the market and Marta, another student with Barefoot Angels, says she is scared of being sexually abused there.

    Continuing violence

    "Here the gang is dominant," Freddy Genovese, a patrol officer, says, his handing resting on his machine gun.

    "Where the buses turn is a hot zone where most all of the theft takes place. You have to be careful here. Inside the buses they kill people. Gangs kill each other here."

    Santa Ana's market plays a central role
    in gang activity
    Gang members feel they are being unfairly targeted in the new crackdown by authorities.

    "They caught us in the market. It's strict. It's not like it used to be," says William Linares, a member of the Mara 18, or 18th street gang, who sports the familiar tattoos depicting fellow gang members.

    "In the past we walked about freely. Now, if there are two or three of us, the police arrest us."

    Members of the rival Mara Salvatrucha tell Al Jazeera they do not threaten anyone and that it is a free decision for youths if they want to join the gangs or not.

    But on average 10 people still turn up dead on the streets of El Salvador every day despite a new government crackdown that has taken thousands of gang members off the streets and into the country's already overcrowded prisons.

    Four years ago the national police began their so-called firm hand policies against gangs, mirroring the philosophy of zero tolerance against the groups that was first applied in the US where the roots of the gangs lie.
    The crackdown had limited success and according to Oscar Bonilla, the chief of public security who oversees anti-gang efforts, "now we are using more integrated plans that are much more intelligent, more articulated with better techniques".

    Changing strategy

    The strategy has worked to some extent targeting youths sporting tattoos and wearing gang clothing but the gangs are now adapting to the new policies.

    "This led to the gangs evolving because now they don't get tattoos, they don't dress like gangsters," Bonilla says.

    "Before they functioned more as territorial gangs who protected each other. Now they're controlling the market to sell crack, charging protection and extorting money."

    This increasing sophistication in the gangs' modus operandi has made it tougher to identify those members on the street who target children and for the volunteers at Barefoot Angels there is always a risk.

    Gerson Medina was one of the first boys to join Barefoot Angels, when he was selling beans in the market to support his single mother, and still mentors children there and received a college scholarship with group's help.

    His mother says that because he did not want to join the gangs he was continually harassed for being a "rich kid" and in 2006 was wounded in the leg in a drive-by shooting on his way home.

    He said that doctors wanted to remove his leg because he could not afford the $700 required to save it - an amount that equated to a year's salary for him and his mother.

    Gerson Medina nearly lost his
    leg due to gang violence
    His leg was saved by Barefoot Angels after they received funding from the US, funding Gerson's mother describes as a "miracle".

    Family threat

    But for every miracle performed by the programme there is always a case such as Eduardo's.
    Lucy Guzman tells Al Jazeera he was in the programme for more than six years but was becoming a leading figure in the gangs.

    "So the gangs saw in him to be a leader in the gang. So he started being molested by them," she says.

    When his best friend, Jose Luis, was murdered for refusing to join the gangs, Eduardo gave in and became a gang leader killing a lot of people and ending up in prison.

    Guzman wanted to maintain contact with Eduardo in order to try and protect Barefoot Angels children from his gang but found out that he was being held in the country's most high-security prison.

    The mother of Jose Luis says she is powerless to stand up to the gangs who killed her son as they would target her and her remaining daughters.

    But despite this rampant fear that threatens familys' lives in El Salvador, the Barefoot Angels programme is vowing to transform children's lives one at a time.

    Marlon says he wants to be a mason like his father, while Mariana wants to be a doctor and Peter says: "If I can't become a professional in my career, I could then maybe become a professional magician."

    Guzman says she still believes change is possible in the future.

    "Because there are not just children who have died, but there are stories of children that have survived in that nightmare."

    Salvadorian Salvation will be shown on Al Jazeera from Sunday March 9. Click here to watch the latest episode of People & Power and for more information on the programme.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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