The news in the UK has recently been full of stories of gang violence and the apparent menace of young men stalking the streets.
Such images have been stalking the streets of San Salvador for much longer – and we had the opportunity to see some of these images face to face.
The extreme violence and continued impunity of the civil war created in El Salvador a culture in which lives, and especially the lives of the poor, were seen as disposable.
Many children being born into this society end up seeing their own lives and the lives of people around them as disposable.
It is not surprising that El Salvador has one of the highest rates of murder and violence of any country “at peace” and gangs are blamed, sometimes unfairly, for much of this violence.
Equipo Nahual is an organisation sponsored by CAFOD trying to find a different approach to tackling the gang problem of the city.
Wilson the director took us to meet young men who having been alienated from their communities, had been drawn into gangs as an alternative family.
Most had fewer than three or four years of schooling and few prospects to help them see any alternative in their lives.
Equipo Nahual’s approach is to befriend such young men, give them a safe space to talk about their lives, help them find something productive to do, and so bring them to a point where they could benefit from therapy.
We saw the scale of the opportunity and of the problem in a 24-year-old called Julio (not his real name).
He was scarily honest about how he had found, through Equipo Nahual, a chance to start his life again, to come to terms with his past, and to keep out of the way of the police.
But he was also honest about how he had raped a woman and been present at the murder of four men.
He struck us as being clearly a man in need of forgiveness, but we felt challenged as to what was necessary for that forgiveness.
Part of the complexity of the Catholic faith is the way in which we name the sacrament of forgiveness - do we need confession? Or penance? Or reconciliation?
The Salvadorean justice system, corrupt and politicised as it is, would offer no solution of reconciliation.
The goal of Equipo Nahual is to bring about reconciliation within the community, since without this no future would be possible for Mario or the thousands of young men like him.
Small gestures such as a neighbourhood clean up campaign are enabling the young men to change their community’s view of them.
The work of Wilson and his team is hard and it is slow. But at least it is an alternative.
Sadly we cannot share the faces of Julio and the others with you directly. When we asked, as we always have on this trip, if there was any objection to photographs being taken, we were met with a strong “no”.
We were told that a French journalist had once taken photographs of these youths that were seen by members of the local police – who then, it is claimed, victimised them.
So we were to have no photos of the gang members. But do we have photos of their artwork since this is one of the productive activities in which they are engaged.
Curiously, they produce charming cartoon pictures which they then sell in the neighbourhood.
The image with this post was painted by Julio for his five-year-old daughter Ysela and his four-year-old son Mario whom he is bringing up alone – and for whom he hopes there is a prospect of a better future.
Julio – gang member, artist, father.
Posted by RaymondP
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