SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – In Usulután department, 110 kilometers east of the Salvadoran capital, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18) gangs fight to the death over territorial control and harass youths in order to recruit them.
Amid this turf war, the National Civil Police (PNC) carries out a program in the department’s rural communities – dubbed “Educating Resistance and Gang Membership by Children and Youths” – that aims to prevent children and youths from falling in with criminal groups.
“We teach students why they should not join the gangs, using real examples about how to make decisions in difficult circumstances, how to choose friends, who creates violence in the country and how to live in harmony with the community,” said Inspector Eduardo Vargas, head of the Prevention Unit of the police delegation of Usulután.
Since July 2012, the PNC has delivered the program in two formats: one for primary school students, with six lessons in a three-month period; and another for secondary-level students, with 13 lessons in six months.
The International Academy for Compliance with the Law (ILEA) in San Salvador is responsible for training the eight police officers who carry out these sessions.
“We teach children how to protect themselves from the persons who may pressure them to join a gang. We explain who the right people or authorities are to go to for help and how they should act, in case they are harassed,” said Officer Luis Alberto Montoya Sorto, one of the program instructors in Usulután. “The idea is for them to develop an emotional balance which allows them to make decisions.”
The program started with 100 students in five schools in Usulután in 2012. This year it will reach 800 students in 40 schools, out of a total of 416 schools in the department.
For example, students learn that, when faced with any threat from a gang member, they should categorically reject any advances with a “no, I can’t do that right now” and immediately report the incident to the school principal or to police officers.
“We know children who had stopped coming to school because they had been threatened in the places where gang members live,” said René Ferrufino Ramírez, principal of the Cantón El Ojushte School. “Some have come back, and this is a positive response for us because they are interacting with the police and resisting joining the gangs.”
Some relatives of gang members even participate in the sessions, according to Vargas.
“None of the students who have taken the course are gang members, although they may be close to them,” Vargas said. “When they hear firsthand about the consequences of being a part of these groups, they don’t join. That gives us a lot of satisfaction.”
Usulután is among the municipalities with the lowest rates of gang-related homicides. However, in 2014 they increased considerably, according to the PNC: there were 40 murders recorded in the month of May, compared with 20 recorded in May 2013.
Nationwide, the police reported 1,471 homicides between January and May 2014, an average of 9.81 deaths daily. During the same period last year, 863 murders were reported, equating to a daily average of 5.75 deaths.
Adolescents say ‘no’
On June 16, the PNC graduated the second generation of children and adolescents who had completed the program, by awarding certificates and commemorative shirts to 100 students.
Mauricio Estrada Chavarría, a 12-year-old fifth grader, had been pressured to join the MS-13 gang in his town. He silently resisted the pressure of these youths to rob and kill as a prerequisite for joining the gang.
“I learned to say ‘no,’ to trust my family and the police,” he said. “I’m grateful to the officers who came to give us the talks. They showed us all the bad things that can happen to us if we join a gang. I hope we can continue to participate in this program.”
Parents had positive feedback on the changes in the children’s behavior, which included better academic performance and more confidence in confronting problems.
Every day, 35-year-old Isabel Quintanilla de Rodríguez, a homemaker and mother of two pre-adolescent girls, used to worry that her girls would meet gang members on the way to school. But thanks to the PNC’s sessions, she is at ease now.
“I feel very happy because it has helped my daughters to know how to defend themselves from the dangers in the street and how to ask for help in case of danger – above all because they walk in out-of-the-way areas in order to reach school where there isn’t always a police presence,” she said.
Another homemaker, Cristina de Amaya, 40, didn’t know how to advise her son on how to avoid the pressures of some gang members in her community, who wanted to recruit him into the MS-13.
“I can’t say that after the workshop my son is protected, but I can say that he is more determined not to become a gang member,” she said. “He knows how to say ‘no,’ resist the pressures and ask for help in case he is attacked. I have confidence in these new skills that he has learned.”