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EL SALVADOR: Giving Young Slum Dwellers a Chance

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Nov 18 2011 (IPS) - In a country where hard-line policies have failed to make a dent in soaring levels of violent crime, Salesian priest José María Moratalla has produced good results by offering educational and vocational opportunities to juvenile offenders and young people at risk of falling into crime.

Moratalla, who is better known as Padre (father) Pepe, is the founder of the Instituto Técnico Obrero Empresarial Don Bosco (ITOE), a technical school that provides primary, secondary and vocational education to 450 youngsters from the violent slums on the outskirts of the capital of El Salvador.

“We want to give a chance to those who don’t have any,” the priest told IPS. The institute and small and medium-sized cooperative businesses set up by former students are located in the heart of Iberia, a vast shantytown on the northeast side of San Salvador.

“A few days ago a body was dumped across the street, not far from where the soldiers patrolling the community are posted,” Padre Pepe said, to illustrate the levels of violence and impunity in the area.

El Salvador, which has a murder rate of 62 per 100,000 inhabitants, is the most violent country in the world, according to the “Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011” released in late October by the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva.

El Salvador is followed by Iraq – occupied by U.S.-led forces since 2003 – and Jamaica.

By comparison, the global average is nine homicides per 100,000 people. And according to the World Health Organisation, any country with a murder rate above 10 per 100,000 people is suffering an epidemic of violence.

The Small Arms Survey found that one-quarter of all violent deaths between 2004 and 2009 occurred in just 14 countries that have homicide rates above 30 per 100,000 population. Of these countries, half are in the Americas.

Since 1999, three successive Salvadoran governments have implemented “strong-arm” or “zero tolerance” policies without success against the increasingly powerful youth gangs known as “maras”.

Under these policies, young people can be arrested simply for sporting tattoos that distinguish them as gang members, or for using certain hand signs to communicate. But experts say the policies have failed because they have not included social reintegration efforts.

President Mauricio Funes, who took office in 2009 as the candidate of the leftwing guerrilla movement-turned-political party Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), has followed the same policies, and has even put army troops on the streets to carry out joint patrols with the police.

But like the governments of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which governed the country from 1989 to 2009, he has failed to curb the skyrocketing crime rates.

“We have an epidemic of violence, and in an epidemic like this one, repression is needed. But prevention and rehabilitation are also necessary, and these two components have been missing,” Padre Pepe said.

He came here from his home country of Spain in 1983, during the civil war between the FMLN and government forces that left 75,000 – mainly civilians – dead, 8,000 missing and 40,000 disabled between 1980 and 1992.

At that time, the priest said, thousands of people from the provinces were fleeing the fighting and flocking to San Salvador, where they built flimsy shacks with scraps of wood, cardboard and plastic on the outskirts of the city and along the banks of the rivers.

“Talking with these people, I started to see the need to give opportunities to those who haven’t had any,” he said.

Realising that even if they finished school, young slum-dwellers had few options, he founded the institute in 1985, to offer them training and the possibility of setting up workshops and cooperatives where they can work when they complete their studies.

Of the current student body of 450, 150 are youngsters classified by the authorities as “high risk” – in other words, they have been involved in gangs or criminal activities or are on the verge of falling into crime.

One example is 15-year-old Antonio, who was spending his time on the narrow streets of his neighbourhood with members of the Mara (or Barrio) 18 gang before his parents brought him to the institute.

“I liked hanging out with them,” he told IPS. “I wasn’t part of the group, but I looked like I was: I dressed and talked like them. I even did little jobs for them as a lookout.”

Now he is in secondary school at the ITOE and wants to become an electrician, one of the trades taught at the institute, along with auto mechanics, carpentry, soldering, and tailoring and dressmaking.

The students include juvenile offenders who were serving sentences but due to good behaviour were referred to the institute by the courts, to study and learn a trade.

That is the case of 18-year-old Ricardo, who was sentenced to four years for rape, three of which he has served in the ITOE. Now he is about to graduate from secondary school and has plans to go on to the university.

“I would like to study to be a lawyer, and eventually become a judge,” he told IPS.

With World Bank support, Moratalla is currently organising a project to create a music band made up of youngsters from the institute and from 40 other schools in poor neighbourhoods.

Just under one-third of the institute’s budget comes from the government – which grants it 300,000 dollars a year – and the rest is covered by donations.

The priest said an agreement with three universities will enable the ITOE to set up a business incubator that will be managed by today’s students, who will continue to run it after they graduate.

Moratalla’s work has the support not only of the Funes administration, but of civil society organisations, which see it as an important contribution to violence prevention efforts.

“It is a good example of how at-risk youth can be given tools to become good, productive citizens,” Ramón Villalta, the head of the Social Initiative for Democracy (ISD), told IPS.

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