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July 18, 2019

Violence takes the normality

A young man squatting, welding a piece of metal.
A young man squatting, welding a piece of metal.

The violence in El Salvador is omnipresent. Young people find themselves caught between the police, youth gangs and the prejudices of society. They only have a chance if they distance themselves from the violence and take their future into their own hands.

Whoever deals with El Salvador will soon come across the term "Mara" - youth gangs that are active in several Central American countries. The German translation somewhat disguises the fact that these are widely ramified, highly professional and structured mafia gangs. In those places and quarters where they say so, they determine the everyday life of the people.

On trips to another part of the city for example. If your own neighbourhood is dominated by a different mara than that of your girlfriend, mutual home visits are not possible. Craftsmen deliver their goods to the territory border of the maras because it is safer for their customers.

Teenagers are lazy and out for easy money
According to the UN, El Salvador has had the highest murder rate in the world for three years. That the maras in El Salvador account for the lion's share of this evil can only be assumed. The low clearance rate does not allow for anything more. In many areas, the gangs dominate almost without restriction. Under threat of violence they can force almost anything: from extorting protection money from corporations, restricting access to their territories, threatening families until they hand their daughters over to the gang.

"I am saddened by how the violence and constant threats have long since become normal there," says Daniela Weber, our program coordinator for El Salvador, "just as much as the bad image of the young people.

They are considered violent and dangerous in El Salvador. Moreover, they would not want to study or work, but were simply looking for a quick buck. This is why most people in the maras are, according to the widespread opinion, the most violent and dangerous people in El Salvador. What they fail to realize is that a lot of structural violence drives the young people into the gangs. The gangs recruit their youngsters at school and put a lot of pressure on them. What exactly the maras do about this remains a mystery. Those who ask too many questions risk life and limb.

Pandilleros have no future
Young people are also under general suspicion by the state. The government has declared war on the maras and launched the action "to reclaim the territories" - with a lot of police and even military action. Again and again, young people are arbitrarily arrested or attacked with violence. Whether a gang member or not is often irrelevant. The young people are caught between hammer and anvil. There is a constant danger of being confused by the state as a pandillero - as a gang member - and by a mara as a spy by the competition. In both cases, they are threatened with harsh and often deadly violence.

Once a young person is suspected of being a pandillero, it can easily cost him his future: gang members are expelled from school and he is excluded from society. "There is a black and white way of thinking that hardly allows the rehabilitation of wrongly suspected persons, let alone dropouts," says Daniela Weber. The stigmatisation and lack of perspective drive the young people even more into the arms of the maras. The problem is perpetuated.

Young people prove the opposite
An effective way of escaping this dilemma is to become actively involved in society and speak out publicly against violence. In this way young people distance themselves from the maras and improve their image with the state and the people. Our partner organisations encourage them to do so. At the same time, they help the young people to build up a new perspective for the future beyond the maras with their own small businesses. In this way, they also refute the image of being lazy, which is inherent to them. Marco, who actually has a different name, has built up his own welding and bricklaying business, for example. In the meantime he even has an employee. He contributes to a better image of the young people.

Not only the young people but also our partner organisations speak out against the advocacy of violence. Specifically against those on women and girls - it is deeply rooted in the culture. On social media platforms, the jealous murder of a young woman was recently greeted with comments like "The bitch deserved it! Our partner organisations defended themselves against this with counter-comments. Publicly opposing violence and encouraging others to do likewise is the tactic against the current situation in El Salvador. In this way, the violence is to be taken away from normality bit by bit.

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