Providing Educational Alternatives to El Salvador’s Youth

Here are two NPR articles on Salvadoran gangs (Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Mara 18) and the growing threats of links between these gangs and the Mexican cartels.

The average age of gang recruitment in El Salvador is twelve years of age. Some children are recruited at the age of nine. Many of these children come from impoverished rural areas of the country. CAFRED builds schools and follows up for a minimum of two years, providing the programs needed to help at risk rural children to be engaged and productive, while offering them positive alternatives to violence. To learn how to support this important mission, please contact us at ____________________________________________________________________

Report by Jason Beaubien, NPR Correspondent (Mexico City)

The drug war in Mexico is having ramifications throughout the hemisphere, as
Mexican cartels seek new markets and smuggling routes for their products.

As the Mexican government has attacked the cartels, several of them have been
moving into Central America, where security forces are ill-equipped to confront
them. The migration of the cartels into Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador has
given the region the highest homicide rate in the hemisphere.

In El Salvador, there’s fear that the Mexican cartels are aligning themselves
with the country’s ubiquitous street gangs.

El Salvador has had a gang problem for quite some time. The two main gangs —
the 18th Street and the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS — are so powerful and so
volatile that their members get sent to separate prisons. Impoverished
neighborhoods in the capital, San Salvador, are clearly divided as belonging
either to the MS or to the 18th Street.

The gang members control street-level drug sales, charge local residents for
security and battle to keep their rivals out.

A Risky Business

Luis Alberto Espinoza Aranda is a 23-year-old gang member in San Salvador.
Tattoos on his shoulders reading “18” make his allegiance clear. “It’s a tough
life,” he says. “You suffer a lot of discrimination from the authorities and
ordinary people.”

Espinoza joined the 18th Street gang five years ago, along with his two
brothers. Just as Espinoza was completing a one-year prison term for murder, his
younger brother was sent away for drug trafficking.

“It’s a world where, like in prison, the authorities and everyone treats you
like you don’t have a right to anything just for the fact that you’re a gang
member,” Espinoza says.

He says the Mexican cartels have been moving aggressively into El Salvador
over the past couple of years, and that they mainly try to hire gang members to
transport drugs.

“This is the riskiest thing — to move the drugs,” he says. “Selling it
doesn’t pose that much risk. You’re just in one place. But when you’re moving it
around in the streets, this is when you’re going to clash with the police or the soldiers.”

Espinoza, like many gang members, also has a regular job — he and his mother
sell tostadas from a stand in the street. He’d like to get out of the gang life,
he says, but that’s a difficult thing to do. The 18th Street gang doesn’t allow
its members to leave.

CAFRED Provides Educational Alternatives

Connecting Street Gangs With Cartels

The Mexican drug cartels control roughly 90 percent of the cocaine flowing
from South America into the U.S., according to a 2010 State
Department report
. Much of that cocaine comes through Central America. As
the Mexicans move south, it’s led to huge
cartel massacres in Guatemala
, a skyrocketing murder rate in Honduras and more drugs on the street in El Salvador.

Howard Augusto Cotto, the deputy director for investigation with the
Salvadoran National Civilian Police, says there have been some large-scale
seizures of drugs recently in El Salvador. But, he says, there have been no
firefights between the security forces and Mexican narcos like those that have
unfolded, for instance, in neighboring Guatemala.

“The Mexican cartels are not paying with money; no, they’re paying with
drugs,” Cotto says. “A lot of people are talking about if the maras,
the gangs here, are involved with criminal organizations in Mexico. I don’t
think that in this moment that relationship is high or is strong, but we are
very concerned about that.”

The police commissioner points out that the Salvadoran gangs and the Mexican
cartels are very different organizations. The Mexican cartels have relatively
vertical structures focused on criminally lucrative activities. The
maras have horizontal structures, and offer security to their members
and a way to make some money. The Mexican cartels expanding into the country are a “very powerful enemy,”

The maras could offer — and according to some security analysts,
already are offering — the Mexican cartels access to a vast criminal network.
The maras have stashes of weapons, established communications networks
and ruthless foot soldiers who have no qualms about smuggling drugs or
assassinating rivals — for a price.

Both the 18th Street gang and the Mara Salvatrucha originated on the streets
of Los Angeles several decades ago. Their presence grew in El Salvador as
members were deported from California. U.S. officials warn that an alliance
between the Salvadoran gangs and the Mexicans could pose a great danger because
the Salvadorans already control street-level drug distribution in some American

‘Selling Drugs Is For The Benefit Of Everyone’

Usiel Pena, a sociologist in San Salvador, is standing on a dirt path amid
shacks made of cinder blocks and metal sheeting in the barrio La Victoria, which
is controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS.

Pena was a soldier with the leftist FMLN rebels during El Salvador’s civil
war. As a guerrilla, he was based in this crowded neighborhood. He says the MS
now controls this area the same way the FMLN did in the 1980s.

“It’s the same web, the same structure as when the guerrillas were here. It’s
the same neighborhood, the same little old grandmother who prays for them,” he
says with a laugh.

The smoke from cooking fires wafts through the air, as does the pungent smell
of marijuana. Outhouses serve as toilets.

The second in command of the MS in La Victoria is a 33-year-old who only
wants to give his nickname, “Blue.”

The head of the MS here, “Triste,” is laying low after a couple of people
were gunned down in the barrio the night before. Blue says the MS only sells
drugs to outsiders, except marijuana, which is permitted by the gang.

“Selling drugs is for the benefit of everyone,” he says. “If someone sells
drugs it’s because of all the needs of everyone in the community. There are
colleagues who don’t have a mother or anything, and only the gang helps them —
no one else.”

Protecting The ‘Civilians’

With his shirt covering his tattoos, Blue looks more like an evangelical
preacher than a leader in one of the most feared gangs in the hemisphere. He’s
wearing a short-sleeved beige button-down shirt and black slacks. His hair is
neatly parted and swept across his brow. Only his missing right arm, which got
blown off by a hand grenade, hints at his violent career.

Blue talks of the MS as a social organization that protects the “civilians”
in the neighborhood. They help get water lines connected. They’re refurbishing
the community hall. To him, it’s normal that residents have to pay rent to the
gang for these services.

His clique of the MS doesn’t yet work with the Mexican cartels, but he says
it would if the conditions were right. Roughly half the members of the MS in El
Salvador are in prison, and Blue says it’s nearly impossible for them to find
work when they get out.

“There are a lot of my colleagues who want to learn something, have
something, function in a different way without bothering people constantly with
extortion,” he says.

But for gang members in El Salvador, Blue says, there are few good options
available. And that’s why they’re quite open to the arrival of the Mexican
narcotics cartels.

One thought on “Providing Educational Alternatives to El Salvador’s Youth

  1. Very interesting article. It’s certainly a foreign world to me, as a Canadian, one I can’t begin to imagine living in. It’s wonderful to know that your work will change the course of the events for many of El Salvador’s future generations.

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