In some parts of El Salvador, crime is a big problem. Gangs try to convince youth that crime can provide a better life with little effort.
We recently talked with Yesenia Alfaro, CFCA project coordinator in Santa Ana, who said the moral support of sponsorship is helping youth resist the lure of crime and gangs.
What are the challenges that youth in El Salvador face?
They live with discouragement, with an education system that is not the best.
If they can succeed in school or in high school, the percentage of college graduates is very low. Even if they finish college, the employment opportunities are minimal.
Keeping young people motivated requires hard work and effort, because they have all these situations. In a numerous family, the oldest sibling often has to sacrifice their education.
Single mothers have to raise their children as a mother and as a father. This is also one of the difficulties that young people have, in that there is no father figure in many homes.
I believe the hardest part is that young people are constantly invited to be part of a gang and are vulnerable because they have so many needs and few options.
The gang members say to young people, “You can’t earn in the decent way, but there is an easy way to earn money. You’ll have everything easily and faster.”
Sometimes the youth believe them and join the gang. But sometimes they don’t want to get involved, and then gangs try to hurt them or their family members.
Do you know a story of a youth involved with gangs?
In the program we have communities that are at high risk of gang violence. These places are protected by gangs, in which at least one family member is related to gangs.
In San Salvador, the capital, we had a youth in the CFCA sponsorship program who was involved in gang-related incidents along with his mother. They were arrested by the police. They left the program shortly afterward.
Currently it is not easy to distinguish who is in a gang and who is not. In high-risk communities, the youth are very vulnerable to joining a gang.
How does CFCA help youth overcome these obstacles?
We support them not only economically, but also emotionally. Being part of an organization is an additional motivation, as well as sharing a friendship with a sponsor and the CFCA community.
Our help with educational and nutritional costs is also a motivation, and the family is motivated to make an effort to cover their other needs.
Youth in the sponsorship program reach higher levels in education in their communities compared with youth who aren’t in the program.
We encourage parents to talk with their children so they can know who their friends are and where they’re going.
For parents who attend the CFCA meetings, we always emphasize good communication with their children. We encourage them to be aware of every detail.
Usually whenever these gang members or criminals share their stories, they speak of a family breakdown ñ that their family never paid attention to them. They didn’t find the love at home that they found in gangs.
We talk with mothers about this all the time. We have workshops on how to educate children.
Mothers who have children need to start now, because when they get older it is very difficult to talk with them.
We believe that the family is very important to help youth stay away from these environments.
What helps us is that we don’t work alone with the child or young person; we need the support of their family.
What is CFCA’s role in these situations?
Basically our role is being able to learn as much as possible from the youth, to be able to give options and not close the doors. We are trying to open doors for young people.
If we see that the youth really want to follow our rules, policies and guidelines and even if their conditions are not the best, we try to help them.
If they are knocking on doors and all are closed, they will choose the easier way: crime.
What are your challenges?
The biggest challenge, I think, is the discouragement in families. Getting people motivated and having families believe in themselves are the difficulties we go through.
What are some causes for the high percentage of absenteeism in schools?
Sometimes children and youth have to work. Many families work in agriculture. In some cases the older brother has to work to help their younger siblings.
Recently we visited one community where a mother commented that her 20-year-old son had to work different jobs since he was 14. He did this so his younger brother and sister could attend school. She is a single mother.
Many Salvadoran families ask one son to sacrifice for the other siblings, so they would be able to study.
Do you hear about gangs inside schools?
I’ve heard stories from CFCA social workers in communities. They say gangs are not only in public schools but also in private schools and college.
In different institutions, there are gang members looking for more people to enter into gangs and sell drugs or extort money from people.
The government is supposed to send the police into schools, so they can spot these gang members. But it’s very difficult to detect who is a gang member.
Some girls have stopped attending school, because gang members wanted them to be their girlfriends. They had to leave school because they aren’t safe on their way home.
Can you tell a story of a youth with gangs?
About five or six years ago we had an incident. It was the main reason we stopped bringing youth into other communities.
A CFCA social worker was visiting a community with a young CFCA scholar. They got off the bus when a gang member grabbed the CFCA scholar and took him away.
When gang members take someone, the end is almost always fatal.
The social worker was very scared and ran to the CFCA office in that community. The office members called us and we tried to see what we could do.
It was a terrible time for us. We thought he would turn up dead, but thanks be to God, he appeared 5 hours later, all beaten, but alive.
The social worker took him to hospital, where X-rays showed he had internal injuries.
The gang members did this because the CFCA scholar had entered into a different community. When the gang members didn’t recognize him, it was like they gave him a lesson: “Don’t come back to this community.”
The social workers always have to go with their CFCA shirts as identification.
If CFCA staffers don’t know the community or don’t go with another CFCA staff member who is from the community, they are in danger. That is one of our most difficult challenges.
All our activities are organized so that a young person does not have to take risks going to another community, even when interacting with youth from other communities.
We have to take all these details into account for CFCA birthday celebrations and workshops. Any activity that is in a group must be within their community.