Then the LORD said, “I have observed the ministry of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings.” – Exodus 3:7 (NRSV)
On our second day in El Salvador, we had a full day before breakfast. A worker at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) talked to us about their programs working with at risk youth.
There are so many barriers to employment here. Even though about 50% of students graduate from high school here, only 7% of these have math and language competencies. Competency is math is basic arithmetic.
When someone applies for a job, they need to provide their address. This in itself is a barrier if they come from an area under control from the wrong gang or from an area of known gang action. Many lie on their applications by giving a false address.
If they make it to the next step, many do not pass the language test because the materials are in Castellan Spanish, which is essentially a different language, and most do not have language competency. Most employers than have a form that requires you disclose whether you have any family or neighbors who are gang members. This is El Salvador, essentially everyone knows a gang member. Many employers a require a polygraph. This is done to protect the employer and employees from gang extortion.
If after this, they get the job, the barriers do not end. It is not unusual that people will need to cross different gang territories, which increases risk of kidnapping and extortion. Many of the jobs available to young people are in the service industry and require long shifts and late hours. Public busses stop running at 8:00 am. Some employers have private bussing but won’t go into certain neighborhoods because of extortion risk.
CRS works with young people (18-25) to not only obtain a job placement but then provides 6-12 months of additional support as they navigate the post-employment obstacles.
We might wonder, why the government can’t fix this, but the violence and fear are systemic — it is in the very ecosystem of El Salvador. Although the civil war has officially ended, it continues unofficially through the continued gang violence. Certain areas literal war zones (such as La Campanera, which I mentioned Tuesday).
Even where government programs exist, they are heavily subsidized by other organizations. For example, the government built an official facility to receive returnees and deportees about six years ago. They gather information and provide some basic funding to take a bus somewhere else in the country. But most returnees arrive with nothing but the clothes on their back and may have been on a bus for days if they are being returned from Mexico. It is NGO (non-government organizations) and religious organizations that provide trauma support, medical care, food, shelter, and protection services as needed.
A word on extortion. This is one of the primary ways gangs support their members. They approach businesses and individuals and offer them “protection.” To avoid extortion businesses not only have gates but also armed guards at their entrance. I saw this throughout the places we travelled including central San Salvador. It is not limited to rural areas or certain “bad” neighborhoods.
For larger companies, it’s a recurring cost of doing business. A large company like Coca Cola might budget over $100,000 for protection. One company named it “Donations to At-Risk Youth” on their financial statements. For individuals or small businesses this might be a one-time payment.
However, if you don’t pay the “protection fee” by the due date, the gang will give you hours to leave the country before they kill you. One woman shared that when her family member went to the police, they told them to migrate. There are groups like the International Red Cross that try to offer protection and resettle people in country when threatened as well as help deportees relocate for safety if they left the country under threat of violence. But many just leave when they or their family members are threatened. Those deportees resettled live in fear of the gang finding them again.
Virtually no one reading this will ever have these experiences in their life. Even hearing these stories from the people who have lived them, I can’t even come close to understanding the fear and trauma of what they have experienced. These are people the administration and certain media outlets tell us to fear. But our fear is false and weak in the face of true life and death decisions that people here are making every day.
What we can pray for:
- Openness in the minds and hearts of those of us living in the privilege of life where death and violence aren’t an everyday possibility.
- Encouragement of those on the front line working to find people protection from threat and help deportees try to assimilate, sometimes in a country they don’t even know.