Salvadoran Youth: Gangs and Immigration are only Part of the Story

Media coverage about youth in El Salvador often presents a pretty bleak picture. Youth, especially males, are portrayed as either belonging to the gangs alleged to be responsible for the country’s violence and insecurity, or as migrants leaving in droves for the United States.

Right now the media in El Salvador is focusing heavily on the gang truce and the assassination of Giovanni Morales, a 33 year-old rehabilitated gang member who worked with Padre Toño in Mejicanos, a Spanish priest who has been working with youth involved in gangs. Media has also been talking a lot about the growing link between MS-13 and the Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel.

These are very important issues that affect all Salvadorans, but focusing only on the violence or immigration presents a very skewed reality of Salvadoran youth.

According to the CIA Factbook, there are 1.27 million youth in El Salvador between the ages of 15 and 24, and there are approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Salvadoran gang members. Even if all those involved in gangs fall between the ages of 15 and 24, they would still only account for between 1.2 and 1.6% of that demographic.Similarly, if El Salvador’s net rate of migration (-8.78 migrants/1,000 population) holds for those between the ages of 15-24, a total of 11,150 youth would have left the country in 2012. If these numbers are considered accurate, there are approximately 1.24 million youth who are neither involved in gangs nor migrating.

That does not mean that gangs and migration are not issues for these 1.24 million youth. It means that a lot of youth are making the most of being in El Salvador and finding more productive ways to channel their energy and talent.

For instance, in Northern Morazán, where Voices on the Border has worked since 1987, there is network of well-organized youth groups that are trying hard to improve conditions in their communities.

These groups, which are all non-profit and not affiliated with any political party, are comprised of youth between the ages of 13 and 30, with an equal ratio of male and female members. Most of the youth come from families with extremely limited economic resources, yet they share many commonalities with their peer age group from around the world. When possible, they like to attend school, play soccer, and hang out at the cyber (internet) café where they check Facebook and chat with friends. Most aspire to find work that will allow them to stay in their own communities. Some want to be artists, others want to be psychologists or doctors, and a few want to maintain their ancestral ties by farming like their parents and grandparents.

Jose, a member of OSMIJ discussing the significance of the colors in the Kakawira flag

Jose, a member of OSMIJ discussing the significance of the colors in the Kakawira flag

In Cacaopera, a rural indigenous community in the mountains of Morazán, youth formed the Youth Mission Social Organizations (OSMIJ, in Spanish). The 40 members of OSMIJ strive for integration and development within Cacaopera through community service. They are engaged in a variety of activities related to local, economic, social, and political issues. Last month, for example, the OSMIJ held a workshop for all youth in Morazán to discuss their rights under the Salvadoran Law on Youth. In February they also set up an obstacle course in Cacaopera and held a well-attended community race, providing an opportunity for all ages to have well-deserved fun.

Members of OSMIJ recently gave Voices and a delegation from Georgetown University a tour of the community and a local indigenous museum. A 13 year-old member of OSMIJ named Ah tzict Amaya Martinez was our guide through the museum. With the confidence and knowledge of someone three times his age, Ah tzict spoke in depth about the community’s indigenous history, culture, and religious traditions.  His knowledge of the native, and virtually extinct, language, Kakawira, was a testament to his dedication and intimate connection to his heritage. Many other youth in OSMIJ share his passion and commitment.

In Ciudad Segundo Montes, also in Northern Morazán, youth have formed the Open House of Segundo Montes (OSCA, in Spanish) to promote youth leadership, development, sports, and culture. They offer a wide variety of workshops and trainings on an array of topics that impact local youth. During the municipal elections in 2012, OSCA hosted a series of debates between the mayoral candidates in Cacaopera, Jocoaitique, and Meanguera. The debates were well attended and offered an opportunity for youth to voice their priorities and concerns.

Sulma, a member of OSCA, during a planning workshop

Sulma, a member of OSCA, during a planning workshop

OSMIJ and OSCA both operate with almost no financial support from outside their community. They raise a little money from local organizations and residents, and often reach into their own often-empty pockets to fund activities. The lack of money has never prevented either organization from having a clear vision of what they want for their community and organizing activities to achieve that vision. In just a few years OSMIJ has become an important player in Cacaopera’s development.

These are just two of the many strong youth groups in Morazán, which is one of the poorest of El Salvador’s 14 departments and one of the most affected by the civil war. The region’s residents struggle with immigration, machismo, and many other issues, but the members of OSMIJ, OSCA, and other organizations are an inspiring example of how some Salvadoran youth are responding to their economic and social conditions.

It is important to understand and discuss gang violence and immigration in El Salvador – they are very serious issues. But these issues should not define all Salvadoran youth or overshadow the important role that groups like OSMIJ and OSCA play in their communities.

We at Voices on the Border have partnered with members of OSCA, OSMIJ, and other groups in Morazán on a number of activities in recent years, and have several activities planned for the coming year. If you’d like to support or be involved in these activities, please contact us at voices@votb.org.

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