38. Poverty and Gang Life in El Salvador: Making Strides through Effective Development

Author: Skyler Cowans, Junior

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America although densely populated and boiling with hostility. Emerging from a destructive twelve-year civil war between 1980 and 1992 that killed over 75,000 individuals, the country has observed a significant decline in poverty levels (Global Youth Connect 2008). However, El Salvador is still struggling to recover. High levels of violence and crime are dangerously threatening the country’s social, economic, and political growth. With poverty levels remaining among the globe’s highest, violence and gang activity have come to dominate city street life and even more so, that of rural communities. A small number of development projects have invested themselves in the rural and urban poverty of El Salvador. ASAPROSAR (Asociación Salvadoreña Pro-Salud Rural), the Salvadoran Association for Rural Health, is one human development organization that has made major strides in providing effective aid for impoverished communities through the empowerment of the poor. Based out of the country’s second largest city, Santa Ana, major successes can be seen in their urban youth and microcredit programs.

The roots of El Salvador’s overwhelming political, social, and economic issues and the development aid focused on targeting them, can be better understood and evaluated through a look into the country’s devastating history. Conflict and discontent had been present in El Salvador long before the full outbreak of the war in 1980. In January of 1932, a peasant revolt led by Farabundo Martí occurred against the “Fourteen Families,” the small minority of wealthy landholders who ruled the country through a military dictatorship. The military retaliation that followed, referred to as la matanza, or “the slaughter,” included the murdering of 30,000 indigenous people, or one percent of the country’s population (Almeida 2008, 5). This obscene and ostentatious presentation of power spurred a heightened sense of dissatisfaction and strife from the majority of the suffering population, as the military dictatorship continued to rule.

With this, a number of leftist organizations emerged including the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), named after the hero of the 1932 revolt (Wood 2003). “Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary death squads engaged in a deadly spiral of political violence” (CJA 2011). In June of 1980, a coalition of the leading leftist organizations and unions called for a general strike of which 100,000 industrial workers, 30,000 teachers, 25,000 public employees, and 100,000 rural workers participated (Brockett 2005, 77-78). When the strike leaders held a press conference at the University of El Salvador, which had become a safe haven for leftist groups, the military invaded the campus with 800 soldiers. 50 people were killed and more than 100 were left injured (Brockett 2005, 78).
The trend of massacre continued as the country plunged into the war. In December of 1981, the Salvadoran’s American-trained Atlacatl Battalion army entered the village of El Mozote murdering hundreds of men, women, children, and the elderly, as well as the village’s animals (Danner 1993). A young man named Chepe Mozote recalls his experience of the massacre as a child. “They slit some of the kids throats, and many they hanged from the tree… the soldiers just kept telling us, ‘You are guerillas and this is justice…’” (Danner 1993, 77). 

This growing violence and animus finally exploded with the assassination of Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, on March 24, 1980 (Erdozaín 1981, 92). Romero was originally given the title of archbishop because the government believed he would put the Marxist priests and base communities in their place while improving their relationship and cooperation with the government. However, through his position, Romero adopted a liberation theology approach with his efforts to empower the campesinos (land workers unable to support themselves and their families) through inspirational services that spoke of rising against the human rights violations of the dictatorship (Erdozaín 1981). Before he was murdered, Romero offered his people this famous quote: “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people’” (Erdozaín 1981, 75). Romero’s legacy carried the Salvadorans through the war and he is now considered a national hero, still thriving within the poor. His inspiration drives much of the development aid geared towards human rights and poverty.

The United State’s role in the Salvadoran Civil War was complicated and contradictory, moving through a dramatic shift in policy between presidencies. For the 1980s, U.S. policy was primarily a military attack. “During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the United States provided massive aid to the Salvadoran government to defeat what the U.S. administration saw as a communist led insurgency” (El Salvador Implementation of the Peace Accords 2001, 52). However, the U.S. reduced its aid to the Salvadoran military with the election of George Bush and began cooperating with efforts to settle the conflict. With this, the U.S. was strongly supportive of United Nations efforts and shifted to the implementation of aid efforts, becoming a vital part of the peace accords that dealt with justice reform (El Salvador Implementation of the Peace Accords 2001). On January 16, 1992, the Chapultepec Accords (brokered by the United Nations) were signed, including a series of negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN, including the “cessation of armed conflict by means of a cease-fire, the demobilization of forces, and the establishment of the FMLN as a political entity” (El Salvador Implementation of the Peace Accords 2001, 7). Even with the implementation of these peace accords that ended the war, El Salvador was left in political, social, and economic turmoil. The violent unrest, destructive fear, and demolition of values instilled by the war still linger in the present day, contributing to the difficulty of repair and development.

ASAPROSAR, established during the war, has lived through the country’s most devastating period, striving to provide medical assistance and support for the campesinos. Dr. Vicky Guzmán, the founder of ASAPROSAR, began her work in 1972 after graduating medical school in Mexico (ASAPROSAR 2012). Returning to her home in Santa Ana, Dr. Guzmán took healthcare to rural impoverished communities. As Dr. Guzmán began implementing her cooperative programs, she was continuously followed, her workers persecuted, and their homes burned (ASAPROSAR 2012). She was viewed by the government as an agitator and was imprisoned by El Salvador’s national police throughout 1973 (The Salem Award 2012). Following her imprisonment and house arrest, Dr. Guzmán obtained the legalization of ASAPROSAR in 1986 to ensure protection, validity, and safety for her workers. Dr. Al Gruber, a volunteer and organizer since 1987 notes that during the war, “ASAPROSAR was the only neutral organization providing any medical assistance without a political agenda” (Faces of ASAPROSAR 2011).

Today, the organization serves approximately 140,000 persons living on the margins of society in extreme poverty (ASAPROSAR 2012). Dr. Guzmán has been national director for Habitat for Humanity in El Salvador as well as several other community health organizations (The Salem Award 2012). Along with the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice, she received both the Humanitarian Award for the International Benevolent Mission in Houston, Texas and the "Notable Distinguished Person" award from the Civic Department in Santa Ana, El Salvador in 1993 (The Salem Award 2012). While ASAPROSAR contains six different successful and well functioning programs (community health, rural pre-school, urban youth program, a visual health eye clinic, micro credit, and environment) their development and success in urban youth programs and micro credit are working to mend the war-instilled social and economic problems piece by piece.

37.8% of El Salvador’s population is currently living in poverty (LeRoy 2012). Even as overall poverty decreases gradually, gang life and violence in impoverished communities is becoming a greater issue. The National Council of Public Security estimated the total number of gang members in El Salvador to be 39,000 (Fariña 2010 50). However, the inner workings of gang life are far more complicated than meets the eye. A diminished sense of family and security, relative to El Salvador’s culture as well as the turmoil and degradation still standing from the war, can be attributed to the high crime and violence rates brought on by gang activity.

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in Latin America, and in the world. In 2007, El Salvador’s homicide rate stood at 60.9 per 100,000 residents and 11.8 per 100,000 male residents (Fariña 2010, 2). This is more than twice the average rate for Latin America, which leads the world in youth homicide rates (Fariña 2010, 3). The two major gangs in El Salvador are the MS-13 and the Mara 18 (M-18), originally formed by the Salvadoran youth of the Rampart neighborhood in Los Angeles, California (Fogelbach 2011, 420). The end of the war in 1992 and the implementation of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and the Immigrant Responsibility Act in the U.S. caused the deportation of these gangs back into El Salvador where they still function today with a growing power and the capturing of younger and younger target members (Fogelbach 2011). Essentially, the two gangs are in a war with each other, fighting for power and violent control in both the urban slums and surrounding rural communities. “Reports on MS-13 and M-18 do not indicate that they have one central leader or top boss. Instead, the gangs are composed of numerous vertically organized cooperative cliques” (Fogelbach 2011, 22).  These local subgroups called “clikas,” are comprised of young people from a common neighborhood who work independently to maintain control (Fariña 2010, 57). The rules and regulations of gang involvement are rigid and viciously strict. An 18-year-old gang member in Ilobasco stated that, “If people tried to leave the gang, we would kill them…This was a ‘mission’ for new gang members” (Fariña 2010 58).

On February 24, 2012, the author and five other ASAPROSAR volunteers visited “Emmanuel,” one of El Salvador’s poorest communities located just outside the urban center of Santa Ana. After Volcano Chingo erupted, destroying hundreds of rural homes, a group of victims decided to form a new community that would become Emmanuel. Together, they decided to form a board of leaders and elect a president. A woman named Marixa was elected as President, which is an unusual occurrence in El Salvador’s typically “macho” culture. For a short while, Emmanuel was thriving as their democratically elected board led by Marixa worked steadily to build the community and improve the lives of its members.

Today, the community is being taken over by a clika of the MS-13. To gain control of Emmanuel, this clika used a power-gaining tactic known as the “spiral strategy.” Used frequently by gangs to create terror in an area, this strategy functions by first killing outside members of a group before extinguishing its most prominent leaders (Rodrigues 2007). In the case of Emmanuel, MS-13 gang members first murdered a board member called “Green Eyes,” who was also President Marixa’s best friend. When Marixa reported this murder to the police, the MS-13 threatened to kill Marixa and her family unless she agreed to step down from her position as President. Currently, Marixa is in the process of giving up her presidency as a member of the MS-13 plans to run for her position in the next election.

Essentially, a gang offers an individual what he/she needs to survive the abominable circumstances of which he/she has grown up struggling with. A gang provides a child a family, protection, a sense of belonging, and a promise of wealth; all of which those living in poverty in El Salvador do not often have. However, the government is so against gang life that there has been an ongoing social war between the two for decades. Since 2003, the “anti-gang” crackdown has put an austere stress on the country’s prison system, with severe overcrowding and resulting violence (Fariña 2010, 148). The Salvadoran government’s response to the phenomenon of youth gangs has been ineffective and damaging. Direct responses include human rights abuses in prison systems and repressive law enforcement tactics that target specific stereotypical categories of Salvadoran society, including those with tattoos, general youth, and deportees (Fariña 2010, 156).
“The lack of protection for presumed or future victims of gang and other violence takes a number of forms, including failure to ensure the security of potential victims of violence; a lack of effective witness protection; and inadequate or non-existent criminal investigations into alleged or presumed inter- or intra-gang violence” (Fariña 2010, 157). 

The 2008 documentary La Vida Loca attempted to show the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of gang life and disprove many misconceptions of gangs and their motives. La Vida Loca follows the MS-13 and the M-18 as well as a group of urban youth who were striving to open a bakery business. This bakery was labeled and targeted by the government as a gang because of their organized efforts and “gang-like” formation, despite their harmless goals of entrepreneurship and community building. They faced struggles and persecution from the government that eventually shut down their business (La Vida Loca 2008). A member of the M-18 murdered the director of the documentary, Christian Poveda, just a year after its release (Aleman 2009).

In an informational meeting composed of twelve North American ASAPROSAR volunteers on Monday February 1, 2011, Dr. Vicky Guzmán and her daughter Lucy Guzmán, spoke of the importance of ASAPROSAR’s work for the prevention of child gang involvement. They expressed that 54% of El Salvador’s population is 20 years old or younger. Therefore, the country’s future will rely on the youth. However, the government is inactive in regards to the youth and health care and education systems are weak and almost nonexistent.

One of ASAPROSAR’s programs, the “Barefoot Angels,” targets young people ages 7-18 who work in the central market of Santa Ana. “The program is one of the few alternatives to the city’s gangs” (ASAPROSAR 2012). The Barefoot Angels offers urban youth a positive alternative to gang life while managing to fill the sought after voids of protection, purpose, and family of which a gang provides. The Barefoot Angels emphasizes leadership development and stresses the importance of giving back to the community. The program includes tutoring, computer and English classes, dance, theatre, sports, and sex education. The Barefoot Angels currently has over 300 active children enrolled and is progressively working to expand (ASAPROSAR meeting Monday February 1, 2011).

Magicians Without Borders is one particularly unique program associated within the Barefoot Angels. Founder Tom Verner, a Professor of Psychology, travels to El Salvador every three months along with his wife and volunteer theater teachers. They perform magic shows for children of rural communities and teach magic and theater performance to the Barefoot Angels. Through ASAPROSAR funding and support, these young magicians travel to orphanages, hospitals, and areas of disaster in El Salvador to perform (“Magicians Without Borders” 2009). “Magic is used as a therapy and now a social enterprise that will also combat abuse and gang violence. Confidence from performing on stage, respect from crowds and peers, and the avenue for expression make magic an important method for working with troubled youth in El Salvador” (Corson 2011). On February 24, 2012, a group of five North American ASAPROSAR Volunteers visited the Barefoot Angels morning program in Santa Ana where two 12-year-old Barefoot Angels performed a magic show. The children demonstrated great poise, confidence, and impressive performance techniques.

ASAPROSAR also offers a rural preschool program for children ages 3-6 called the “Sprouts of Hope.” The program’s success is demonstrated in the instillation of education and proper hygiene for children at a young age. ASAPROSAR staff members, trained to diagnose malnutrition and development delays, teach the program. Parent involvement has been a key to the program’s success as mothers take turns in preparing a nutritious lunch for the children each day with funds provided by ASAPROSAR. This incentive allows mothers to get involved in the program and encourages them to attend free parenting classes. “Children… who would otherwise be playing at home on dirt floors with minimal supervision, instead are offered a Head Start-style curriculum of reading readiness, art, drama and personal hygiene” (ASAPROSAR 2012).

Another program of ASAPROSAR that has demonstrated significant progression is the microcredit program, which offers smalls loans to groups of women who cannot afford formal banking. ASAPROSAR’s Rural Microcredit Program –open to women only –is based on the Grameen Bank model created by Muhammed Yunus. In his book Banker to the Poor, Yunus lays out the format for micro-lending and notes that all center meetings must be conducted out in the open. “This reduced the danger of corruption, mismanagement, and misunderstandings and it kept the leaders and the bank workers directly accountable to the borrowers” (Yunus 1999, 66). ASAPROSAR follows this model exactly with the supervision of an ASAPROSAR staff member for each meeting. This process creates a greater sense of togetherness and cooperation. Although the women receive a loan as a group, they are responsible for the running of their own business and repaying a portion of the loan individually. Dr. A.K. Arya, author of Micro Credit and Rural Poverty explains why the system offers so much to women, “…it gives [women] an independent means of generating wealth and becoming self-reliant in a society that does not offer much scope for entrepreneurship” (Arya 2012, 46).

ASAPROSAR works to empower the poor, truly focusing in on the empowerment of women through microcredit. “Empowerment is one of the major goals of microcredit and it’s considered as a proper index to evaluate it. Creating self-reliance and self-confidence in people, empowerment is one of the important factors to deal with poverty. It also creates social capacity” (Sadighi 2011, 27). On February 21, 2012, the author and four other ASAPROSAR volunteers visited three microcredit groups in Santa Ana’s surrounding rural communities. The groups of women welcomed the North American volunteers with warm smiles and open arms. Each session began with a formal prayer conducted in unison. From here, an ASAPROSAR staff member would regulate the meeting in which all funds and dues were presented in the open. Next, each woman had a chance to speak of the state of her business, and difficulties she may have encountered. The women spoke with confidence as they proudly presented their progress. The microcredit meetings were organized and efficient, allowing also for open discussion of problems and issues to address. Each meeting ended again with coming together though prayer. 

Even within one year, substantial progress can be seen in the microcredit groups of ASAPROSAR. From 2011 to 2012, the author observed significant improvements within various microcredit groups while traveling to Santa Ana to work with ASAPROSAR. Along with four other North American ASAPROSAR volunteers, the author visited the same microcredit group that she had the previous year. In 2011, the group was falling apart due to major trust issues and unorganized objectives and functioning. At their bi-weekly meeting, the group of ten women fought with each other, making accusations of stealing and fraud. In 2012, the same exact microcredit group demonstrated wonderful teamwork, cooperation, and a miraculous turn around in trust and honesty. Lucy Guzmán revealed to the ASAPROSAR volunteers that this one microcredit group had become one of the strongest in the organization through the help in restructuring, and support given by ASAPROSAR (ASAPROSAR meeting February 21, 2012).  Progress was also noted within the other five to six microcredit groups the volunteers visited.

Dr. Guzmán lived through the devastation of El Salvador’s Civil War, encountering immense obstacles through her journey to provide assistance and health care to the rural poor. Since these early days of ASAPROSAR’s beginnings during the war, the organization has grown enormously with the expansion of their health care programs and the addition of others such as microcredit and the Barefoot Angels. Such programs have allowed the organization to provide effective aid in several areas of life that continue to threaten the growth and development of the country’s impoverished communities and at-risk youth.

ASAPROSAR’s communicative and interactive approach to need has greatly contributed to its progress. They do not simply hand out aid, but provide ways for individuals to take on responsibility with effective incentives and systematic programs. Although ASAPROSAR brings in several North American volunteers each year, their year-round staff are Salvadoran. Their knowledge and first-hand experiences of El Salvador’s complex and depredating history, as well as the current state and development of the country, allows for true understanding of the Salvadoran way of life and a keen sense of specific aid needed. Many of ASAPROSAR’s staff were once members of programs such as the “Barefoot Angels.” They have grown up in Santa Anna and have been in the place of those that ASAPROSAR seeks to help. Margarita, the lead manager of ASAPROSAR’s micro-credit program was once a Barefoot Angel herself and became a leader within the organization. “She has studied the Grameen Bank model in the Philippines and attended numerous conferences and trainings on the microfinance” (Busbee 2010). This unique characteristic is one that sets the organization apart and truly contributes to its success and the empowerment of the rural poor.



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