On June 28 recipients of the high school scholarships given by Sister Cities and SHARE gathered at the CRIPDES office in San Vicente for a scholarship assembly, among them, Jose Armando Hernandez. That afternoon, he was shot and killed behind his house in Las Anonas. He was 16 years old.
People in Las Anonas are still in shock, confused as to how a young man whose aspirations were to finish school and support the youth organization in the community could become one among the hundreds of murder victims in El Salvador. Usually when these kinds of things happen, the murmur that runs through the community is that the victim was involved in the gangs, that in a sense they brought it upon themselves. But as far as anybody knows, Jose Armando was not involved in any illicit groups; people say he could always be found either at school, at home, or participating in activities put on by the youth committee.
On the Friday that he was killed, Armando had come home around lunch time from the scholarship assembly. His mother hadn’t been feeling well, so he went to the hammock where she was resting to see if she was feeling ok. After checking on her, he went to rest in another hammock. After a little while his phone rang, apparently his girlfriend calling him. He stepped outside to talk for a while in the space of land between his house, the community meeting house, and a sugar cane field. It was there that he was shot in the chest, ran into the house, collapsed on the bed, and died on the way to the hospital in his mother’s arms.
In Tecoluca, the municipality that includes Guajoyo and Las Anonas, this kind of senseless youth violence is a new phenomenon in the last 3 years or so. What used to be recognized as one of the cleanest, safest municipalities now is famed for filling the evening news with increased numbers of deaths – 8 in the past 3 weeks that are being attributed to gangs.
Last week I attended a meeting with the mayor of the municipality where he spoke about the current actions of the local government and what role international solidarity can play in addressing this situation of violence. He spoke a lot without saying much, and the end the official response of the municipality is that their only role can be in promoting economic and vocational opportunities for youth through training and scholarship programs, given that gangs thrive where poverty and limited opportunities exist. He emphasized that the role of repressing gang violence and eradicating gang presence from the area belongs to the national police, whose presence in the area is minimal. At the moment, there are only a couple of posts in the area, with less than a dozen officers serving a region of over 20 communities where these 8 murders have taken place in the past 3 weeks.
International solidarity has played a vital role in past struggles by pressing the government of El Salvador, and local governments, to move forward on critical but difficult issues. The lack of initiative and slowness of current government officials means that now is an ideal time for us, the informed international community, to educate ourselves further on the gang problem and insist on being actively involved in the formulation of ideas to address the issues, so that we can then pressure for those ideas to be put into action. Sister Cities is currently working to formulate a letter to send to the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Security, as well as local government departments stating our concern and mentioning some actions that should be taken.
The one factor that has shown effective in El Salvador in combating this goliath is strong organization in the communities with active participation of community members. It is concerning to see this kind of organization, which is such a part of the history of this region, declining at this vital moment. It is those communities that stand up and say “we will stand together against any negative presence in our communities” that will have success in educating their youth to not be drawn by the lure of gangs, and keeping gang presence outside from coming in.
I have spoken with a few mothers of scholarship recipients in the past couple of weeks, and they are rightfully concerned about their children as they go to and from school and other activities. Two have already withdrawn from the scholarship and will not continue studying, and others are considering not continuing next year. It is a difficult decision for these youths and for their families, balancing their own safety with the desire to complete their education and the need to continue moving forward and organizing these communities even in the face of this threat.
In Guajoyo we continue to be problem-free, but gang presence encroaches from both sides, and over plates of beans and cups of coffee, the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of Guajoyo are talking about how they are concerned, but unsure of what steps to take. I am filled with conviction, and have doubled my work with organizing the youth in Guajoyo, but also unsure of what steps to take. We can only hope that God is with us and continue believing that a future free of violence is possible.