In 2016, Cándida Chévez participated in the 2nd Ibero-American Children and Youth Biennial in Manizales, Colombia. Once there, she realized that experiences from El Salvador would be presented, and decided to attend the session. It was the first time she heard about Julio Monge, the insertion projects coordinator for Tiempos Nuevos Teatro (TNT). She learned about the Orquesta de Cuerdas (String Orchestra), an innovative educational experience for young people deprived of liberty. One of the participants of the orchestra shared a testimony on the success of the project.
From that moment on, Chévez, together with James Melenge, a Colombian colleague and coordinator of the Education and Human Development Network, got involved in the process of systematization of experience, in order to make the project visible and valuable. “It was an opportunity to do some soul searching and to give meaning to all the experiences they had lived,” explains Chévez.
The systematization would be the first of a series of contributions that both she and Melenge have made in this project which, from Catalonia, has received the support of Barcelona City Council and the Catalan Agency for Development Cooperation.
Currently, Chévez, with a degree in Psychology specialized in local development, is part of the TNT team. She is also a researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Formación Docente de El Salvador (INFOD). In addition, she is part of the work group on Youth and Infancy of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO), of the Research Group on “Critical Pedagogies and Popular Education” at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA), and the Network for Initial Literacy in Central America and the Caribbean (the LEI Network). She is the author of several publications and aspires to obtain a Ph.D. in Social Sciences, Childhood, and Youth at the Center for Advanced Studies in Childhood and Youth at the CINDE – University of Manizales, in Colombia.
Is violence a new phenomenon in El Salvador?
Violence is a very present topic in the history of El Salvador. Many texts address this question and, going back to the colonial era, these texts seek to explain how our village has continually been built on diverse forms of violence. We learned to see violence as a way to resolve conflicts and, in many cases, to normalize it. In the history of El Salvador, we find a long line of struggles and protests characterized by power groups that, when threatened, create a public enemy figure against whom they will fight to preserve the stability, security, and peace for a few. Therefore, we Salvadorans carry the burden of our dead, which increases from generation to generation.
We carry the 75,000 victims of a civil war that broke out in the early 1980s. After a decade of authoritarian governments, abuses of power, human rights violations and massacres, the people rose up. Twelve years of armed conflict led us to sign a peace agreement in 1992, but that peace only reached a few. The post-war period meant the rise of neoliberal policies which, added to factors such as migration and poverty, increased the level of social inequality, marginalizing and excluding a large part of the population.
A context for the emergence of the maras.
During the first 10 years of post-conflict, maras or gangs emerged in El Salvador, and relied on young people in vulnerable social conditions to strengthen themselves. The history of gangs is undoubtedly closely linked to an unfinished peace process that disregarded the needs of the people.
What does it mean to be young in El Salvador?
There is not only one way to be young. Like the researcher Rossana Reguillo (2010) explains, there are 2 types of youth. They are differentiated by the proximity, or not, to alternatives and access. There is a precarious youth who is disconnected from institutions and security systems, and whose possibilities of choice are very limited. On the other hand, there is a connected youth, incorporated into security systems and institutions, with more options.
My trajectory has allowed me to work with many young people, but in the last few years, my interest has been to understand what it means to be part of the disconnected youth in El Salvador. Within this category we can talk about different ways about being young; it is not the same to be young in a rural or urban area, nor to be a man or a woman. In this group, being young is in most cases a crime, and involves exposure to stigmatization, criminalization, and death. Young people in neighborhoods are stigmatized by the presence of gangs and have to hide or deny their neighborhood when looking for work or attending an educational center. They must watch out for the way they dress, speak, move and the music they listen to because everything can criminalize them.
How is it to live in a territory controlled by a gang?
It is important not to generalize, we have to recognize that all territories have different dynamics. Living in a territory controlled by gangs will mean that the youth will have limited choices, and be constantly persecuted not only by the gang but also by the police, military, and society in general. I want to take up an excerpt from an article published by the national newspaper La Prensa Gráfica on July 31, 2017, titled “I want to say goodbye because I know they are going to kill me”:
“For the past two weeks, the gang members in the community where I live have been pestering me to join the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) clique. The group leader told me that I have to kill someone if I want to continue living here. I’ve had to do favors for the gang to survive, but they want me to kill someone, and if I don’t, they’ll kill me. So, I’ve made the decision that I won’t do it and that’s why I want to say goodbye, because I know they’re going to kill me.
I’m not a delinquent, and neither are many of the young people I have as neighbors. Those of us who live in marginal areas are the most exposed to violence. That is where the gangs are, and it is also where many young people are. We suffer the pressure to be part of gangs; because they tell us that if we live here, we are either with them or against them.
The police stopped me once, they hit me on the head with a rifle. I was caught in the street on my way back from an internet café looking for information for a science job. They handcuffed me and threw me into a pick-up. One of them told me that I had attacked a patrol car, but it was not true, because I had spent the whole afternoon in front of the computer.
They took me to the delegation and released me at three o’clock. A policewoman arrived, took off my handcuffs and told me that they had made a mistake, but not to tell anyone that I had been beaten by the other officers. Ever since that day, I’ve been mistreated whenever they see me.
They don’t ask questions, they don’t know what kind of person everyone is. Just because we live in the community, they think we’re all gang members…”
This was the account of a young man who had to write an essay at school, he made use of this written assignment to describe the persecution he was experiencing. The young man died two weeks after writing it. This is what it means for many young people to live in gang territories; they struggle every day to survive and resist dying.
What repercussions does gang violence have on youth development?
Basically, it hinders a free and full development, and it limits the possibilities of deciding their own future. However, this situation experienced by young people is not due exclusively to the phenomenon of gangs, but to a series of social conditions that make it impossible to build other futures. The state has a great responsibility and so does society in general. Why does a young person, boy or girl, join one of these groups? Gangs do not arise from nothing, there are conditions that allow their existence and people who support them.
What differences exist between the impact of violence felt by young men and young women?
The highest number of homicide victims in this country are young men. They are the ones who suffer the most violence from political and military forces and experience more limitations and territorial displacements. A young man cannot enter any territory. In the case of women, although the homicides are less frequent, they are more linked to their status as women than to the phenomenon of gangs. Girls are sexually assaulted and are often forced to have sex without consent. They are seen as territories of conquest, over which men can exercise power.
How do you value the public policies aimed at the youth of El Salvador?
There was a wrong bet with insufficient efforts. There have been welfare policies, designed from a risk approach, that seek to keep young people “entertained” so they avoid getting into trouble. Public policies consider young men and women as inactive agents, not protagonists of social & economic development. In addition, policies have always been designed with very few in mind, not addressing the diversity of youth. And repressive policies have exacerbated the problem of gangs.
How could these policies be improved to promote a culture of peace and reduce violence?
First of all, I think it is essential that these policies are built participatively and in a bottom-up manner. Secondly, there needs to be an awareness of the situation that youth find themselves in. This is one of the main shortcomings of our country, that there is no available data that allows us to analyze the situation of young people in different contexts. Thirdly, it is necessary to take the discussion on the culture of peace to a higher level of analysis: what do we mean by a culture of peace? What kind of peace are we referring to? This dialogue has been pending since the Peace Agreements. Peace was often understood as the absence of conflict and, in order not to generate conflicts, it was better not to get involved, not to organize, not to participate, not to exercise one’s own rights, etc. But we should rely on community organization. We should recover the knowledge and experiences that we acquired throughout our history, which seems to have been forgotten. We have to look back, acknowledge our history, take up learning again and begin to build the future.