They say Guajoyo is clean, that the epidemicof gang violence has not penetrated this community, but within the nocturnal walls, conversations of the people of Guajoyo suggest otherwise. Everybody lives in fear; prudent parents don’t let their children out of their sight after dark, and nobody goes to isolated parts alone. Part of it is the fear of the gangs that control neighboring communities – that is why we can no longer hold dances in the community, because they always attract gang members from San Nicolas who come to start problems with the youth here. But there is a definite fear of the young people of Guajoyo.
They call them imitators, fanatics: those young people who find gangster style and lifestyle edgy and alluring. They wear baggy clothes and belts with marijuana paraphernalia, and they paint giant “18”s on the school and community buildings. The 18s (diezyocho) is one of the two gangs that have the most power in El Salvador, and the tactic is too effective to be accidental. Neighboring communities will be controlled by different gangs – San Nicolas is the MS 13, and Guajoyo is the 18s. This means that neighbors become enemies, and small groups grow in size and influence in response to the fear of their neighbors, simply because they belong to the opposing gang.
The fanatics in Guajoyo are young people, usually age 14-20, who have this mysterious aura about them, which intrigues younger kids. Not only that, but adults are afraid of them. If a group of kids paints a big 18 on a wall, everyone knows who did it, but because of the fear that is associated with gangs, the adults and leaders – including parents – are afraid to say anything to these young people. If you publicly oppose gang members, you put yourself in danger. So even though Guajoyo is “clean” – there have not been violent acts here in the community – I would argue that the presence of this silencing fear is as bad as the presence of violence itself.
Different communities respond differently to this kind of situation, and unfortunately most options lead to further problems. Here in Guajoyo, parents fear for their children and don’t want them to be touched by the influence of gangs, so they tell them to withdraw. If there is a problem on the soccer field, they tell their son to stop going. If dances are breeding grounds for gang tension, they stop having them. If these imitators roam about at night, then parents make sure their kids are in the house before dark, not out spending time with their friends or getting involved in other activities. But I fear that this kind of withdraw just gives them more power, and creates a vacuum for true gang violence to enter the community.
We say that Guajoyo is clean, we put on a nice face for the outside world, but the truth is that this is a community dirtied by fear, and I hope the community has the courage to face it rather than withdraw.