Gangs in Central America’s Barrios: Children without Childhoods

By Salvador Stadthagen

June 1, 2010

Some barrios in El Salvador and Honduras are incongruously known by such names as “Divine Paradise” or “Heaven’s Field.” If you walk down the paved streets of of Mejicanos, Apopa or Soyapango in El Salvador or Nueva Suyapa, Rivera Hernández or López Arellano in Honduras you will see people have water and electricity. There is even a scattering of businesses and industries with signs advertising Coca Cola or purified water. These barrios give the appearance of “tolerable” poverty. The reality for young people growing up there is far darker and dangerous than appearances would suggest. In these barrios, a youth’s life is worth less than a pair of Adidas sneakers, or a cell-phone, or a branded T-shirt. These barrios are at the heart of the youth and gang phenomenon.

The USAID-funded Regional Youth Alliance program I lead in coordination with the regional Central American Integration System (SICA) recently conducted focus groups with young people in Tegucigalpa’s most violent neighborhoods. The story they tell is grim. Young people in enormous barrios of 160,000 like Chamelecon or López Arellano in Honduras, have few safe places they can go. Children are growing up without childhoods. Young people are afraid to leave their houses at night, afraid to walk to school or work in the morning or to come home in the evening. Even soccer fields, long a healthy fixture of life for Central American youth, are no longer safe. Many homicides are now occurring in broad daylight during games.

Gangs are becoming embedded in the very fiber of the community. Schools are becoming a dangerous place. A wave of homicides and extortion is engulfing the public school system in El Salvador. Extortion is becoming a way of life. Staying alive has a cost—you have to “rent” it. Students pay the gangs a quarter a day to be able to study. Teachers are intimidated into paying renta or protection money to neighborhood gang members from each paycheck. Young people providing door-to-door services (repartidores), bus drivers and ticket collectors are being killed for not paying their “rent.” Younger children collect for their 16-18 year old gang bosses and when they do not present clear accounts they too are killed. The homicide rate in El Salvador jumped to over 75 per 100,000 in 2009 and most of the perpetrators are young people.

Salvador-Stadthagen-300x225 In El Salvador, gang structures are more solid and militant, retaining a traditional gang culture. In Honduras, youth gangs are gravitating to carrying out killings and trafficking for drug criminals. The links between drug traffickers and gangs are becoming more apparent, in El Salvador just as they are in Honduras and Guatemala, as traffickers dump drugs along transit routes which gangs now increasingly peddle locally.

Emigration has undermined family structures. Many former gang members tell us that they were raised by grandmothers or relatives. In El Salvador, an estimated one-fifth to one-fourth of the country’s population went to the U.S. to find jobs. Parents left their children to be raised by grandmothers, uncles, cousins, and even by older siblings. The parents sent money to pay for food, school supplies, medical care, even local college tuition in some cases. But, growing up without their parents’ influence and protection, these children became fertile ground for gang recruitment.

Deportees from Los Angeles’s ghettoes or prisons reinforce gangs in their home countries and strengthen international criminal links. Deportees who come back to semi-rural communities set up urban-style clicas (cells). As paid assassins, or sicarios, hardened criminal deportees collect enough money to return to the U.S. in as little as three months. Other deportees to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala barely speak Spanish and are easy prey for recruitment into local gangs.

The gang stigma attached to these barrios makes it even harder for young people to find jobs. Youth from Nueva Suyapa told us they do not dare to place the name of their barrio on job applications, as they would be automatically refused. Instead they list a more acceptable barrio.

Barrio communities need their Government and donors to help them address the gang problem head on. Lasting approaches to the viral nature of gangs have to understand the realities of these barrios. Building a soccer field might seem obvious until you understand that many parks and fields but also community buildings and even schools are already there but have been abandoned or are underutilized. Reinforcing and rehabilitating the “hardware” of such infrastructure needs to be tied to the “software” of programs that deliver a protective and nurturing environment.

Faith-based organizations need support. They are almost universally present and often the only cement holding the crumbling foundations of these communities together. With meager resources, these priests, pastors and missions help people facing a lethal combination of exclusion, high urban poverty, migration, and insecurity.

Public, vocational, and parochial schools are an important place to start. Scholarships can, for example, cover $10 monthly vocational school fees, buy otherwise unattainable school uniforms and books, and cover bus fare to get young people into a healthy environment. Larger, more problematic schools can be provided with psychologists and other advisors. Currently, difficult and truant students are expelled from school, which only feeds the cycle of gang crime.

A good observer of the street scene in Central America recently incredulously remarked that she saw no public campaigns in the barrios: no posters warning about drug abuse and violence or positive, reinforcing messages for youth. Instead, gang graffiti is ubiquitous. I still remember the effective “fried egg” campaign against drugs when I was in college in the U.S. To have a chance, the communities in these barrios need public campaigns, on radios, TV and particularly in the streets.

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