Teenage Tragedy: The Reality Of El Salvador’s Gang Violence
El Salvador is one of the most dangerous places on Planet Earth. It's particularly dangerous for the young, who are disproportionatelyafflicted by conflict and war, both in terms of physical danger and the punishing mental stresses.
For those living in this small corner of Central America, there is no war in the conventional sense. It is instead a constant and consistent threat in the form of gang violence and drug cartels. In fact, more people have died in drug violence than in El Salvador's 1980-1992 Civil War, in which 75,000 people were killed.
For Paco, a 17-year-old farmer working in El Salvador's cornfields - whose name, along with that of his family, has been changed to protect identity - the ever-present threat of drug gangs would prove fatal. For his parents, Elena and Santos, plus his younger sister, 14-year-old Alejandra, and brother, 12-year-old Jose, it would leave them with a gaping hole in their lives.
Paco's story is as tragic as it is commonplace in El Salvador. In February, while working in the cornfield, mother Elena was driven from her work by three gang members who were toting guns. When she alerted her husband, Santos, he went back to the field and found Paco lying dead.
Paco's family think that his friendship with a boy from his school may have led to his murder. Paco had recently been rejected from an apprenticeship as a mechanic, because the shop was in an area controlled by a different gang.
"At the workshop [where he did his practical training], he had been told that he could no longer go, because some people had come to find him, asking who he was, where he was from," explained Santos.
Jose and his father
"They were not going to welcome him, that's why, because of the violence and the gangs fight the territory. I had asked him if he could cross from one place to another and he told me, 'I have no problems with anyone'. The mistake is maybe being young. The crime and the most serious sin, today, is to be a young person, to be a teenager."
Despite having no affiliation, even the perception of gang involvement can be fatal in El Salvador.
"I was on one side of the field and went over to the other side where my son was fumigating," Elena told Save The Children, for whom she is a volunteer, of the day Paco was killed at the farm. "I then went to check on the cassava [the root which is a staple food in Central America]. I saw a man who seemed very passive. I never imagined he'd do anything to hurt us; I thought he just wanted to ask us something.
Paco's family are left without their son and brother
"I asked him who he was. Suddenly he lifted his shirt and I could see the gun, and he went in the direction of my son, so I screamed, 'NO!'. The man ran over to where Paco was. The man didn't stop pointing the gun at Paco."
Santos has an equally shocking memory of the horrifying day. "I ran very fast to the crop field, because the typical thing is that when they [gangs] catch boys, they take them away, they kill them and bury them," he said.
"When I arrived, I found him [Paco] dead. There ended the dream of a young man who wanted to serve the community. To date, we don't know if they have found those responsible. Many young people are perishing."
El Salvador's neighbourhoods
El Salvador has the highest murder rates in the world - 104 a year per 100,000 people - with children at particular risk. That is why Save The Children are attempting to raise awareness of the plight of kids in Central America.
They have released a report into the murder of children that named El Salvador as the third worst place on earth for child homicide, behind Honduras and Venezuela. All of the top 10 were Latin American or Caribbean countries, clearly pointing to the problems associated with the drug trade, which transits through the region.
The lucrative trade in drugs has fuelled devastating conflicts across Central America. The United States is the largest consumer of cocaine in the world, the vast majority of which is produced in South American countries, such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. This is then trafficked north and onwards through El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other Central American nations, creating huge competition between gangs in these countries over the lucrative trade.
Paco's brother, Jose, is comforted by his dad
Paco's murder has left his family shattered. Alejandra must now care for her siblings. She said: "I have to take care of the others. I shouldn't mistreat them, on the contrary, I must protect them, the same way Paco used to do with the three of us. Things have changed a lot because we feel empty. When it's time to eat, we know he won't be there. We feel this a lot because we can't see him anymore."
Save The Children are working closely with non-governmental organisations in El Salvador to give kids like Alejandra and Jose a chance. Their Heart programme uses art therapy to help children deal with their experiences and to share their feelings, while another, Formate Joven, gives kids the leadership, teamwork and entrepreneurship skills that they need to progress economically away from the gangs.
Save The Children have started a campaign, called End of Childhood, that calls attention to the problem. By raising awareness among those who are the end point of the Latin American drug trade, they are seeking to create an environment in which the harsh effects of that trade on the children caught up in it can be saved and not suffer a fate like Paco.
Words: Mike Meehall Wood