How One Salvadoran Town Achieved Safety in a Valley of Ashes

Berlin, El Salvador (PanAm) – Unlike the rest of El Salvador, the small town of Berlín has succeed in keeping the ruthless maras under control. And it’s not because they built a wall like that which used to divide the German city with the same name.

Image Source: Tony Bowden, Flickr, Creative Commons El Salvador Passport Stamp

Image Source: Tony Bowden, Flickr, Creative Commons
El Salvador Passport Stamp

On November 9, in a ceremony marking the 26th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mayor of the Salvadoran Berlín, Jesús Antonio Cortez, explained his biggest achievement with pride: “We don’t have gangs,” he told the PanAm Post in a phone interview.

The town in the Usulután district, some 112 kilometers away from the capital, is home to roughly 24,000 people. So far this year, only four of the 5,614 murders registered in the country took place in Berlín, according to the mayor. None was linked to gang violence, rather to domestic fights and disputes between neighbors.

The wave of violence currently sweeping the Central American nation is a consequence of the clashes between security forces and the notoriously deadly gangs. It has caused a 77 percent increase in the number of homicides compared with the same period in 2014.

In Berlín, however, the streets aren’t full of tattooed armed boys, nor are the citizens locked up in their homes, afraid to walk out.

“Violence prevention has been the most important factor [for Berlín] to remain safe from the gangs. The whole community is on alert. When they see people who are not from the area and look like a gang member, they promptly call the authorities to remove them from the town,” Mayor Cortez told the PanAm Post.

Cortez announced the implementation of surveillance cameras on the main roads to better control who enters and who leaves Berlín.

“We know there are communities who need officials more than we do, and we would like to have more, but at this moment it is not possible. We have a Citizen Action Committee whose task is to prevent the youth from falling prey to the gangs,” Cortez said. “We visit them in their homes and tell them of the risks of joining a gang, of the chances that they end up dead or in jail, and we convey values to them to keep them from joining.”

The mayor has also rolled out sports and arts programs for young boys between 12 and 18 years old, who are the most vulnerable to gang recruitment.

“If a boy is passionate and thinks that joining a gang is a good idea, the police goes to his home and reprimands him. We have a low crime rate and we hope that it remains that way. That’s why we attempt to create ‘peace movements’ whose members tell the young that joining gangs is not a good idea, that it’s not the way to lead a good life,” he explained.

Oasis of Peace

Jesús Antonio Cortez recalled that, according to local history, locals named the town Berlín in honor of a German immigrant called Serafín Bremen, who arrived in the area, then called Aguas Calientes, after a shipwreck. On October 30, the community celebrated the 130th anniversary of what, according to Cortez, is El Salvador’s safest city.

“It’s difficult to remain isolated from the reality of the rest of the country, because violence is everywhere. We have the support of the institutions in our struggle against violence. And all citizens are responsible for making this city a safe one. We are proud of that,” Cortez argued.

Defense Minister David Munguía said on October 19 that gangs outnumbered El Salvador’s state security forces. This is not the case in Berlín, where, paradoxically, only eight National Police guards and four army officers are posted to oversee the whole population.

According to authorities, 60,000 Salvadorans have joined the maras, while the National Police has 24,000 officers. Even when taking into account El Salvador’s army of 26,000 men, the state is still at a numerical disadvantage.

Translated by Adam Dubove 

Prepared by Thabata Molina for PanAm Post.