Gangs Threaten All Civil Society: Worst violence since the WAR

“The violence is terrible.  Gangs occupy every inch of this country.  If you are young and you enter a neighborhood where you don’t live, they will shoot you dead on the spot.  It has not been this bad since the war!  No one is safe” remarked Rebeca (name changed for her protection).  

During our last visit to COAR in October of 2017, we were confronted with a horrible new reality:  the gangs are winning.  Gangs never existed in El Salvador prior to 1992.  But, with the Peace Accords, hardened, angry gang members were deported from US jails to El Salvador where they found a society without any social safety nets that was exhausted from a bloody civil war.  The war that had claimed over 70,000 innocent victims including Blessed Romero, the 4 US churchwomen, and the Jesuits of the UCA, was over but a darker, less predictable threat was growing:  sociopathic, narco trafficking, street gangs.  

With few government social programs, an economy in ruins, government security forces that no one trusted, and literally millions of Salvadoran fathers working in the USA to send money home to their families, young men were drawn to life in the gangs.   And, today, the gangs are so powerful and ubiquitous, young men must join the gangs when recruited on the street or be shot dead right in front of their homes or school.  For those who ask, where are the parents?  It is a simple answer:  they are powerless; living in constant fear.  If they speak out against the gangs in any way, the gangs will either kill them directly or kidnap/execute one of their other children just to make a point.  

For many Salvadorans, the level of violence and fear has never been worse – even during the war.  The following article strives to shed light on the severity of the problem in the hopes that while we cannot solve the problem ourselves, we can support those efforts at places like COAR Children’s Village that are trying to protect the young people and help them to be part of the solution for a better future.  At the end of the article, you will find links to two articles (NPR & NYT) that offer additional perspectives into this crisis and how it is hurting girls in particular.

Are the children and staff at COAR Children’s Village safe?  Today, yes.  Our facilities are located on 88 acres on the side of a mountain.  We have thick walls, fences, razor wire and security guards patrolling the facilities 24 hours a day.  Thus far, we have been safe – an island of hope in a sea of chaos.  About 15% of our total budget is spent on security guards.  Is that necessary?  Yes.  Here is a list of just a few headlines from the area:

August 2017:  Gangs gun down a local man in Zaragoza, on the highway to the Port of La Libertad

September 2017:  Man Shot To Death On the Outskirts of Zaragoza, on the highway to the Port of La Libertad

July 2017:  Gangs Kill Police Officer in Zaragoza, El Salvador:  4th Police Officer Killed This Week

These are just three headlines from the local paper about murders within a mile of COAR Children’s Village.  Nationally, this past weekend (10/19/17), there were over 50 murders tied to gang violence.  While meeting with local residents this week, we were just told of a family of 3 in the next town over that was murdered in their home.  The gangs kicked in the door and assassinated the entire family due to a dispute with one of their sons.  

As we were leaving for the airport, another shocking murder was uncovered:  Marco Antonio Batres Bendix was the owner of an extremely popular spot for local Salvadorans that featured pools and natural hot springs. This was not a destination for the rich and famous.  It was a place where the average Salvadoran could spend an afternoon with the entire family.  The owner invested most of the profits back into the business to make the park a place that everyone could enjoy.  But, at 2am on October 17th, five gang members knocked out the security guard, climbed the stairs to the 2nd floor of his house, pushed him to the floor – handcuffing him, and shooting him in the head, face and the chest.  No one is safe from the gang threat:  the wealthy and business owners are extorted for 10% of their profits (10% “renta”) and the poor are robbed for the few dollars in their pocket.  Worst of all, boys and men who are approached by the gangs only have one choice:  join the gang or be shot dead where they stand.  

In 2017, the gangs have begun to directly target the police, security guards, and government officials.  While our children, themselves, are safe, several have lost older siblings or relatives to gang violence.  The COAR school with a population of 900, unfortunately, has also not been spared from this epidemic.  In order to protect our children and our staff, we cannot share any stories, publically.  By simply posting a picture of our security guard, we could literally invite his extortion or assassination.  This is not hyperbole – it is the reality of life in El Salvador today.  We would have liked to talk more directly about our security efforts or show pictures of our kids, but, for everyone’s safety, we have elected to talk solely about the threats in the area.  

How do we know that the gangs are winning?  Ask any Salvadoran.  The fear is tangible.  Parents are literally keeping their children home from school because they fear that while simply walking to school they will either be kidnapped, murdered or recruited by gangs.  The threat is so real that when a parents learns that their child (or family) has been approached by a gang member, they quit their job and move the family to a new location 5-6 hours away.   The gangs are so powerful that if they simply announce that they will “rob or kill a bus driver tomorrow”, all of the bus drivers, city-wide, call in sick and the country grinds to a halt.  In response, the government has now ordered the Salvadoran military into the streets.  It is too soon to know if the militarization effort will make things better or lead to unknown other terrible consequences.  

And so, with this year’s Giving Tuesday campaign, we are dedicating this entire fundraising effort to raise awareness of the problem and targeting those funds to pay the $56,000 that is needed for just one year of security protection at the Children’s Village.  For 37 years, COAR Children’s Village has provided shelter, food, education, healthcare, love and support for El Salvador’s children.  Born out of the Salvadoran civil war, we once again find ourselves offering shelter and hope to a generation of children who only see violence and pain on the streets and in their nightmares.  Please consider supporting our Giving Tuesday campaign.  Click here to donate.

Further Reading:

NPR article:

New York Times article: