Ilopango, El Salvador (NI) – There is a whole generation behind bars, writes Amy Smith.
Huddled in a dingy classroom, groups of girls chat loudly as teacher Jórge Ramirez gets ready to begin the poetry class. Eventually, the dimly-lit room quietens and Ramirez announces today’s topic – ‘love’ – causing giggles to erupt from the back of the class.
It may seem like a typical teen school scene.
Yet, today’s lesson is far from normal. Set in the Rosa Social Female Reinsertion Centre, a Salvadoran prison surrounded by high-rise concrete walls and barbed wire, it is the place where many young women caught up in El Salvador’s bloody gang warfare end up. Frequently in the name of love.
Guadalupe, 18, a surprisingly gentle, articulate young woman, fell for a local 18th street gang member when she was just 15.
‘When I met him, it was really beautiful. He offered me everything and took care of my family. We had dreams together. I was in love,’ she said of their first meeting, with a reminiscent smile.
Sadly, Guadalupe’s joy did not last long; and her story is not unique. Since January 2015, gang-related violence has transformed this tiny Central American country, approximately the size of Wales, into the murder capital of the world. In the first three months of 2016, national authorities recorded almost one murder every hour.
The state argues that the country’s two main gangs, MS-13 and Calle 18, are behind the spike in violence. Gang members attest they’re defending themselves against alleged extrajudicial killings carried out by the police.
Either way, it’s Ramirez’s young pupils – like Guadalupe – who are paying the ultimate price. Aged between 14-24 years old, these young girls were either the partner of, or directly linked to, a gang member. Almost all are in prison for extortion.
Ramirez explained: ‘Many have been caught up in a cycle of violence since birth. They live in a context that’s dominated by gangs, even if they’re not directly connected. And if their mother or father is involved it automatically means they are.
Guadalupe’s story is one that Ramirez knows all too well. ‘The gangs approach the girls as if they want to court them – or fall in love with them. The girls feel supported. Often more so than by their own mothers and fathers,’ he continued.
With the way things are, you might be here today and gone tomorrow. Something could happen any moment
Following the initial romance, Guadalupe’s dream soon unravelled into a nightmare.
‘When you belong to a gang, you have to distance yourself from your family. The opposition gang won’t just hurt you; they’ll target your family too,’ she explained.
‘I regretted it a lot. I needed my mum so much and a hug from my brothers and sister, my dad, but it was just me and God.’
Sensing the risks involved, Guadalupe did try to break free.
‘The only thing I thought about was running away. I asked for help but people shut their door on me.’
Guadalupe believes it is the social stigma that surrounds gang affiliation, combined with youth unemployment rates of up to 26 per cent, that keep many young people in the gangs.
‘Many try to leave, but there is so much discrimination against them. Society doesn’t see them as human. So they become resentful and hateful. They become unconscious. They make mistake after mistake, but they don’t care anymore.’
Under peer-pressure to assist the gang, Guadalupe started to extort local businesses for protection money, threatening business owners if they refused to pay up. She was sentenced for two years and one month in prison.
When asked where her boyfriend is now, Guadalupe goes quiet. She told us that soon after she was incarcerated, he was caught in a rival gang’s territory and killed. She points to a tattoo on her foot marking the date of his death, October 2014. It’s a tragedy that, she says, happens all too easily on the streets.
‘With the way things are, you might be here today and gone tomorrow. Something could happen any moment.’
Back in the classroom, Ramirez told us that the prevalence of machismo – male dominance within society – in Salvadoran culture is responsible for this.
‘If one of the girls falls in love, and goes with a guy in the gang, she gives up everything from that moment on. She’s the property of that boy and she’s part of that circle.
‘And if she tries to distance herself she is not just exposed to the rival gang, but also to members within her own gang. She is condemned for life to live in this environment.’
I want to tell people who discriminate against us that they should get to know us and allow us to reintegrate into society. Maybe that’s how we can end all this violence
In an attempt to break the cycle, Ramirez has teamed up with Christian Aid local partner organization, FESPAD, to run a series of poetry workshops, which offer girls the chance to understand their rights as women and begin to process the difficult experiences they’ve been through. The workshops are part of the centre’s education and training programme which provides diploma courses and cookery courses to boost the girl’s employment prospects for when they leave prison.
It’s a space for the girls to process their experience and, as Guadalupe explained, focus on the future.
‘Thanks to the poetry, I’ve been able to express what I feel and get the sadness out. I have decided to leave everything behind me and start anew.’
Channelling her emotions into her poetry, she has a message for the Salvadoran state.
‘I want to tell people who discriminate against us that they should get to know us and allow us to reintegrate into society. Maybe that’s how we can end all this violence.’
But there is still much work to be done in the patriarchal society.
‘Some of the girls tell me they’re going to continue studying after they leave,’ Ramirez concluded.
‘Some of them, who have children, say they will dedicate everything to their children. But the gang leaders are out there waiting before them with open arms, whilst society continues to closes the door.’
This report prepared byfor New Internationalist.