Anonymous, San Salvador, El Salvador

 I was 2 weeks into my trip in El Salvador when I had the urge to meet someone who could share their experiences about the situation in a gang-infested neighbourhood. 

I finally met someone who I shall refer to as Oscar. Oscar is a young kid who is in his early 20’s. He lives in a neighbourhood controlled by the 18th St. gang. 

His neighbourhood gives the impression that it’s friendly and free of gangs due to the organised surroundings. It has lamp-posts along the streets, paved roads, nearby amenities and there is a certain aesthetic that projects order in the area but that does not deter the gang from operating there. Either way, gangs will operate in middle, poor and extremely poor areas regardless.  

Oscar enjoyed playing football; his Dad influenced him to start and he has since adopted it as a way to escape from all his problems. He notes, “football isolates me from all my problems. I believe that quality education and sports could end the violence in the country”. 

He has never been attracted to the gangs and states that he hasn’t heard of forced recruitments where he lives. In his own words he explains, “After seeing many things around my house, such as killings, fights etc. I realised that belonging to gangs was certainly not the life I wished to lead”. 

He explains that neighbours, friends, acquaintances and even gang members admire him for never wanting to join the gang. 

Many young people, he explains, end up in these groups because they feel alone and lack love. At the same time, kids at an early age wish to emulate other gang members’ behaviour to gain respect and dress in designer clothes that the gang can supply to them if they join. 

Oscar had to drop out of school due to the violence generated by the gangs and recalls the time when he used to go to school: “in order to reach my old school I had to take a longer route to avoid entering the rival gang’s territory”. 

He made the mistake of entering the rival gang’s territory once under the persuasion of a close friend of his who told him that nothing was going to happen to him. The gang saw him, did not recognise Oscar as a local, questioned him and ended up beating him up. For that reason he remains within the demarcations of the 18th St. gang since. 

The police carry out many operations to tackle gang activity. Oscar says that they arrest many every time they turn up in his area but then the next day one can see many new recruits organising to counterattack the polices’ offensives. 

Overall, he says that although it hurts him to say it, as he grew up with many gang members, he believes the only way to end the problem is by exterminating them. 

On the other hand, and although it seems as if people trust the work that the police do overall, the youth is constantly under threat. Oscar tells me of a time when he was robbed by a policeman; he elaborates on the story: “I have suffered some muggings from the police in the past but one that I vividly remember involved an officer who was also an MS member. He was known very well around the area. After he robbed Oscar he turned his lower lip inside out to reveal that a letter ‘M’ and ’S’ were tattooed on the skin.  

I am particularly interested in knowing more about the rules and whether he could enumerate them. Oscar starts with the ones he remembers which apply to anyone in the area: no red shirts allowed, refrain from mentioning certain words such as Mara in allusion to the Mara Salvatrucha, refrain from listening to certain mainstream bands such as the Latino group ‘Calle 13’ –it is strictly prohibited to talk about the rival gang at all –a number 13 on shirts in prohibited, you cannot approach any girl  at your own leisure in the neighbourhood as they might be tied up to the gang, you have to stick to certain haircuts, do not dress in certain styles, certain Nike trainers are not allowed, and you must avoid tying shoelaces in the shape of an 8. 

Oscar feels watched, limited and censored all the time due to the orthodox rules imposed. For example he has to stop playing football and return to his house after 9pm as the gang has imposed a 9pm curfew on everyone, and everyone must obey. 

His dream is to be a photographer one day and study for a degree in psychology, but the financial obstacles make it hard for him to see it happen.  

Finally, Oscar says that God means everything to him and notes the following, “ God is the one who gives us a chance to live and protects us at all times”…

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