Last May, gang members in El Salvador killed a 16-year-old pupil for refusing to join their gang. They shot him just behind his school.
Tragically, occurrences like this are not rare in a country plagued by gang violence. In August 2015 alone, 907 murders were recorded across El Salvador. Entire neighbourhoods are controlled by street gangs using threats, violence and forced recruitment of children to rule their territory. School dropouts become easy targets for gangs who recruit teenagers as drug dealers and couriers.
But Compassion EL Salvador is making a stand. Our church partners and project staff work alongside young people week in, week out, breaking the cycle of gang violence. Their strategy, first and foremost, is Jesus.
And with Christ at the centre, the strategy is working.
Meet 15-year-old Francisco and 15-year-old Daniel.
Francisco lives with his parents and 3-year-old brother in a metal-sheet house near a disused railway line in Sierra Morena. Since the trains stopped running, families moved in and began to build houses just 6 feet away from the train tracks.
Sierra Morena used to be known as a friendly place, but now the area is controlled by rival gangs, eager to recruit young men.
“I told Francisco that there are two paths, the good one and the bad one,” explains Juan Villalobos, Francisco’s dad. He was increasingly concerned about his son who was spending more and more time on the streets, missing Compassion project activities.
Project director Lorena Orantes took immediate action. Not only did she pray persistently for Francisco, she took practical steps. “We opened workshops that would help children learn English, music, and also productive activities. We wanted to make a big impact in the whole area, so we decided to start a shoe workshop. Today we know that this decision was made by God, because we have not only motivated but also kept our teens and youths through this productive workshop.”
For Fransisco, the workshop has rescued him from the streets.
“Just like my dad said, there are two roads each person can take: the good one and the bad one. I chose to stay in the [Compassion] project, because I realised that I was wasting a big opportunity. I like to be there, and I feel much better being there, because I learn more about God. I’m not lost anymore."
When Daniel turned 12, his family split up. His mother took his older brother and moved away. He hasn't seen them since.
His parents’ separation left Daniel with an emptiness that lead him to seek friends on the streets. But even though they offered him the love of a family, clothing, and food, they also introduced him to drugs.
There were days when Daniel would arrive at the project smelling of marijuana.
“Come on, Daniel. Let’s talk. What’s going on?,” tutor Maritza would say.
Realising that Daniel was being recruited to a gang, she began to pray for him and challenge his behaviour. She discovered that Daniel had already become a “postear”, an informant who sends texts to gang members to let them know their intended victim is on their way. The next step is full recruitment where members are required to kill to earn respect in the gang.
Maritza and the church pastor never stopped praying for Daniel. They talked him through the differences between continuing on the path to gang membership and remaining in the project. Praise God that their prayers were answered.
“I am thankful for Pastor Claros, for all the prayers he prayed for me, and for the advice of the Compassion tutors and my dad." Daniel says. "If it were not for them, I do not know what would be of me right now. I’m glad to be part of the carpentry workshop and project that took me away from gangs and drugs.”