While the government of El Salvador stresses heavy handed policies to deal with gangs like Mara Salvatrucha, there are efforts in the neighborhoods of El Salvador to work with youth to offer options and another way. The Catholic Telegraph has two in depth articles this week regarding persons working to break the cycle of violence. The first article describes the work of Matt Eisen of Cincinnati and Father Antonio Rodriguez of Spain, who work with nongovernmental organizations helping youth in some of El Salvador's toughest neighborhoods.
The article quotes Father Rodriguez on his concerns about the culture of violence and the government's role in perpetuating it:
"The economic situation in El Salvador is not good right now," he said. "It's an economy that is held up by strings," where the vast majority of income comes from Salvadorans who have escaped to the United States for work, sending money back home. "I see more and more fear in the community about all of this, and I believe the government uses this excuse of gangs to justify what is becoming more and more a militarization of El Salvador again."
"Five years ago, I was peaceful. I wasn't scared," Father Rodriguez said. "This year, I feel stressed. I am afraid. I feel like my work is being watched by the authorities. And the bad thing is that the government has convinced the people that security is the number one concern of the country. People have bought the line from the president and the government that gangs are at the root of all the problems here. They are told that the youths in El Salvador are the enemy. But if your enemy is the youths, you have a society without a future."
The second article interviews Myrna Anaya, a magistrate on El Salvador's Supreme Court. She has been an advocate for youth before and after joining the court, and she also worries about the violence embedded in the media and government policies:
Anaya said now the media in El Salvador has tried to maximize the situation to show all the negative activities of the gang members and faulting them for everything that is going wrong in the country. The average person, she added, believes that all crime in El Salvador is committed by members of the gangs. "But that does not coincide with statistics we have in our courts. So there's a tendency in the media to show just the bad things in the gangs, and this reinforces strengthens their negative aspects. It's another grave mistake that's contributed to the government executing more violence in the country" in the name of security.
Anaya said that one of the most curious aspects of the gang lifestyle in El Salvador, and indeed, in the United States, is the violent nature of these Central American groups.
"Why are the gangs so violent? Because it's practically the same treatment that they have received," she said. "Violence from their parents. Violence from the government. Violence in their lack of human rights. They usually will return that violence. They are violent to themselves. They are the first victims of their own violence, drugs and abuse. They violate their own bodies with all these tattoos. They've never understood that they are important people who have rights. They have never learned that they have responsibilities. And of course they'll execute their violence against whoever opposes them. It is natural for them to return violence."