Romero’s Message Needed to Solve Gang Violence in El Salvador

In May of 2015, there were more than 600 murders in El Salvador – a country with a population of approximately 6 million.  The Salvadoran Civil War ended almost 20 years ago, but, the wonderful people of El Salvador have not seen the ‘peace’ promised by the Peace Accords!

To be honest, the old left-right wars are a long-dead relic of the US/Soviet Cold War.  But, that global chess game destroyed the fabric of Salvadoran culture.  Financially, El Salvador is 50 years behind its possible future due to the loss of investment, modernization, technology and infrastructure alone.  But, the destruction of the family and the basic fabric of the society, has lead to even worse levels of chaos, violence and fear.

Defense Minister David Munguias Payes stated that roughly 10% of the population is involved at some level with gang activity.  During a recent visit to El Salvador, my taxi driver spent over 90 minutes talking non-stop about the violence in El Salvador and the government’s inability to fix the problem.   He lamented that as gang members are arrested and removed from the streets, the gangs have turned to a new solution:  young children.  Salvadoran laws, meant to shield children and to protect them, now are part of the problem.

The gangs are recruiting 8-12 year olds to do the work previously done by those 18-25.  Whereas the 20-something gang members might have been picked up and taken to jail, the 8-12 year olds are released from jail the same day into the custody of their parents or guardians.  My cab driver claims to know personally of a grandmother who is raising her grandchildren in the gang-life.  The kids are picked up by the police, returned to their grandmother’s care and it is she who sends them out again to extort and threaten her neighbors and businesses.

While interviewing a worker with a well-known NGO, I heard the same thing.  She told me that she worked in Somalia prior to coming to El Salvador.  She has known violence and corruption intimately.  But, when talking about El Salvador today, she lamented “the social fabric of this society has been destroyed”.  There is no faith in the government; the institutions of the society; the Church and even the family-unit itself.  Decades of poverty and inequality, followed up by Civil War, has decimated the family and the values that usually support the society.

Kill them!  Kill them!  That is the solution most often proposed by those on the Left and the Right.  As Daniel Alarcon points out in his recent piece in the New Yorker entitled “The Executioners of El Salvador”, everyone is exhausted by the gang-violence and increasingly the only solution that everyone can agree upon is – just kill the gang members.

This land is now in need of fallen ‘Soon-to-be-Saint’ Oscar Romero more than ever!  In 1980, just 3 days prior to his murder, Romero pleaded over the radio:   When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey a law contrary to the law of God. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God I command you to stop the repression.” 

In 1980, Romero was pleading to the Military, the Right-Wing leaders and the US Government to stop the violence directed at the poor.  But, today, the violence is not born out of the military, the violence flows from the gangs which are comprised of the society itself.  In reaction to these gangs, Church-attending, God-fearing, peace-lovingly people throughout the society are calling on the government to militarize the police, squash the gangs and in short – kill them!

So far, COAR is an island of innocence in a sea of despair.  But, there is gang graffiti now in Zaragoza.  If our NGO official is to be believed, there is no neighborhood, no corner, no village or hillside free from gang presence.  We can all clearly empathize with our friends’ calls for justice, law-and-order, and death to the gangs.  But, unleashing the military to solve the gang problem once again invites the military to be judge and jury upon the Salvadoran populace.

Over 300,000 people filled the streets to observe the Beatification Ceremony for Oscar Romero this past May.  Why were they there?  They were there to honor the man who stood up for the people, for the poor, for God, against violence and tyranny and injustice.  Would he call upon the military today to solve the gang problem in El Salvador?  Or, would he call upon the people to rebuild the fabric of society and the Social Contract?  Who will be the voice of the people today?

Can the 500,000 people involved at some level with gang violence hear Romero’s modified message “When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘thou shalt not kill.’ No GANG MEMBER is obliged to obey A COMMAND contrary to the law of God. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God I command you to stop the repression.” 

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