No Safe Spaces for El Salvador's Youth

When RI was in El Salvador this past summer, a young man described how difficult it can be for kids to navigate going to school. Because the local high school in his San Salvador neighborhood was in the territory of the 18th Street gang, children who lived in areas within the rival gang MS-13 territory could not cross over to attend. These children had to go to a high school that required a bus trip – also not safe – and so many just stopped attending school. Over the years, the same high school had fallen under the territorial control of different gangs, so that sometimes it was only children located in MS-13 territory who could attend the school. The unpredictable interruption in education inside both territories meant that students were not prepared to reenter the classroom, and schools did not have remedial programs to help them. As a result, the decision not to attend could become permanent.

Families, academics, and advocates for the rights of internally displaced people (IDPs) told RI that boys as young as eight years-old are approached and recruited at school to take up tasks for gangs, and girls as young as 12 are picked to be “girlfriends” – which is really just a glorified term for a sex slave. Because of this, rather than serving as a safe space for children, schools are often considered one of the most dangerous places for youth who are trying to avoid recruitment in any form. This reality is not in dispute. As a “gesture of good faith” in support of the gang truce, in May 2012, the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs agreed to extend their cease-fire to school zones, as well as bring an end to forced recruitment in schools. As part of the agreement, all educational facilities, whether public or private, national or local, were no longer be considered disputed territory, permitting children to safely attend school for the first time in a long time, regardless of whether they lived under the same territorial control as the location of the school.

When the government said that it would no longer acknowledge the truce in January 2014, pre-truce gang practices resumed, including the use of schools for recruitment and territorial control. In 2014, 1 in 3 Salvador children in 6th grade reported having been robbed in the past month. And now, due to the risks facing boys and girls by the time they are 14 years-old, most are not going to school anymore. According to UNICEF, in 2013, 90 percent of elementary age children were attending school, but by middle school the numbers had dropped to 65 percent, and by high school, only 38 percent attendance. While some of these youth may have dropped out to take up work in support of their families, others were making the decision (with their parents) to cease studies because of violence – even when they were not displaced. According to a USAID report, 300,000 youth in El Salvador are neither attending school nor working.

While the number of arrivals at the U.S. border has decreased this year, this is not because less children are leaving El Salvador. Rather, the U.S. and Mexico have joined to intercept more unaccompanied children at Mexico’s southern border, so they’re not making it to the U.S. in the same numbers. 

There are also likely hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran children not in school because they have been forcibly displaced. According to government statistics, there are about 1.7 million school-age children in El Salvador. In 2013, at least 24,000 of them traveled without parents or guardians and were apprehended at the U.S. border. In 2014, that number increased to 32,000, and this year more than 20,000 unaccompanied children are expected to arrive at the U.S. border. While the number of arrivals has decreased this year, this is not because less children are leaving El Salvador. Rather, the U.S. and Mexico have joined to intercept more unaccompanied children at Mexico’s southern border, so they’re not making it to the U.S. in the same numbers. For example, in January and February 2014, Mexico deported 12,830 unaccompanied minors. During the same period this year, the number doubled to 25,069.And yet, over the last few months requests for asylum at the U.S. border by Salvadoran unaccompanied children and families have surged.

Like his predecessor, President Sánchez Cerén has stated a commitment to invest in and improve public schools. In September 2014, he announced a new forum, the National Council for Citizen Security (CNSCC) whose members would include government, civil society, businesses, churches, media, academics, and political parties. In January 2015, the CNSCC announced a new security plan called “El Salvador Seguro” at a cost of $2 billion over five years. It includes four focus areas, and one of the goals is to increase student retention in schools. Funding for the whole plan continues to be negotiated. In the meantime, USAID has invested substantial amounts of money into projects designed to “provide alternatives to crime and violence and gang involvement and to expand economic opportunities,” but too many are actually designed as after-school programs for children who are not attending school.

The greatest factor driving children out of schools is the violence inside the schools – not poverty, family livelihood, or a desire to join gangs.

These efforts are important in theory, but neither of them acknowledges that likely the greatest factor driving children out of schools is the violence inside the schools – not poverty, family livelihood, or a desire to join gangs. Without a doubt, equipping youth with higher levels of education would greatly expand their individual options and the country’s ability to counter the wages that can be provided by gangs. But until schools are safe, many youth won’t have any ability to take advantage of these programs.

For those youth who have been prevented from attending school, or who are internally or externally displaced and unable to go to school because they are on the run or in hiding, the government must design programs that can reach them. This could include online courses that are accessible through smart phones and other devices youth can easily access, teachers in safe houses, or remedial and vocational programs that permit children to catch up with their peers. In the meantime, both El Salvador and the United States need to accept that to a great extent, the country is not able to protect its youth, and they should pursue programs that meet this reality head on - because no amount of after-school programming will change it. 

Top Photo: Parents wait to pick up their children in the gang-ridden Mejicanos neighborhood of San Salvador.