I'm back in the US after a week in El Salvador! This has been an incredibly intense and enlightening week and I am excited to share my story.
My purpose for making the trip was to evaluate a possible partnership for LONA. I generally love traveling alone. However, my trip to El Salvador was a bit different. Unlike previous trips, I was acutely aware that I was entering a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world and that my light hair and fair complexion stood out.
On the plane to San Salvador, the woman sitting next to me expressed her concern that I was traveling alone. She cautioned that I would not be safe walking alone no matter what neighborhood or time of day.
I responded by telling her about my previous travels in Central and South America. I told her that I was mugged in Bogota, Colombia about seven years ago. Luckily, I was not harmed but I learned firsthand about the dangers associated with traveling alone in Latin America.
She stared at me for a minute and then said calmly, “they won’t mug you, they’ll kill you.”
I was completely shocked.
I did my research before leaving so I knew that the gang MS-13 has a strong presence and that most of its global members (about 70,000) are originally from El Salvador. However, I did not understand how massive their presence was until I began meeting with locals.
I spent the week with a local organization that works with young girls who are vulnerable to gang activity. Most live in impoverished communities and have dropped out of high school. I was lucky enough to interview ten girls about the impact of gang activity on their lives.
First, I learned that attending public school is incredibly dangerous in El Salvador because gangs recruit children as young as seven years old. Gang members wait outside of schools and persuade children to join them with offers of protection and income. If any refuse, they become vulnerable to gang violence.
Intimidation at school is one of the main reasons for El Salvador’s astronomical dropout rates. Astoundingly, only about 50 percent of youth attend early secondary school (7th-9th grades), and only half of them go on to complete high school.
El Salvador also has the highest homicide rate in the world for youth under the age of 19.
I knew gang violence was prevalent, but the girls I interviewed taught me that that practically all impoverished neighborhoods in El Salvador are controlled by either MS-13 or Barrio 18.
Gangs control their territory by charging a local gang tax. The tax varies from a daily charge for entering and exiting the neighborhood to gang members going door-to-door demanding payment for their protection. Additionally, all small businesses must pay crippling fees to the ruling gang in their neighborhood for protection.
Almost every girl that I interviewed had stories about gang violence. One girl talked about how she and her brother had been continually threatened by local gang members. Until one day, five years ago, when her brother went missing… After that, she quit going to school out of fear that the gang would kill her too.
I was heartbroken to notice that she had bandages on her arms from where she had cut herself. It took all of my strength to hold my tears until she left the room. By the end of the day, I felt devastated by hearing their stories. I couldn't believe the suffering they experienced every day.
Other girls talked about how they live as prisoners in their homes, unable to go outside for fear of violence. They told stories of people being shot and killed for entering a neighborhood where they weren’t known. In El Salvador, everyone knows that if you enter a gang-controlled neighborhood where no one recognizes you then you will be killed. No questions asked.
As I am processing all of this information, I'm allowing myself to dream and plan and create practical solutions for these girls. Gang activity is so widespread that in order to move to a safe neighborhood it takes a massive step up the economic ladder. Their situation isn't hopeless but without help from the “outside” world, they will never be able to afford to move themselves and their children out of these neighborhoods.
While the project we are planning is still in the works, I promise to keep you updated as our potential partnership unfolds. Regardless of the outcome of this particular partnership, I feel reinvigorated to create lasting economic solutions for women in the world who need it most. These women don’t need charity or pity, they need us to create opportunities that can pull them out of their dire situations. They are ready and willing to work and apply themselves, and I hope that LONA will be able to provide these opportunities for them to live a successful, fulfilling, and full life.
USAID El Salvador Education Overview
The World’s Most Dangerous Cities
It is not necessarily unsafe to visit El Salvador. I don’t want to contribute to a fear that keeps people from visiting this country. I met a couple of women (around my age) at the airport in San Salvador. They had been picked up by a tour guide when they landed in San Salvador and went directly to the tourist areas. They had an incredible time at the beach and nearby volcano. They said that they did not feel unsafe at any time.