VIDEO: Addressing gang violence in El Salvador

In the latest issue of World Vision magazine, we examine the issue of gang violence in El Salvador. Violence cuts short the lives of many teens and young adults. Some allow themselves to be tied down by these pressures; others use this weight — these emotions and experiences — as a stepping-stone to a better future. Below is an excerpt from this story.

By Heidi Isaza
Published August 7, 2012 at 12:00am PDT

Daniel Cuellar, 18, sits in the front row of his crowded high school accounting class, looking like a model student. He is clean-shaven, wears neat clothes, follows instructions, and even has good penmanship.

This Daniel is a far cry from the person he was just a few years ago. Although his childhood was relatively happy, he started down the wrong path with his friends. 

When he was 13, older kids on his soccer team offered him alcohol and drugs.

“I let myself be influenced by them,” he says.

Some of Daniel’s newfound friends joined gangs, and even though Daniel didn’t, his association with them was enough to put his life in danger.

On two occasions, gang members threatened to kill him.

Facing off with death

“It’s an ugly feeling,” he says. “[Knowing] that someone wants to kill you…because several of my friends have been killed by the gangs.”

Others have been shot or are in jail. “They are disappearing,” he says of former friends and classmates.

Recently, a friend of Daniel’s left the community to study in a nearby school known for gang activity. 

The 18-year-old boy was killed, and while his death is still under investigation, most community members assume gangs played a role.

“It hurt a lot. He was our friend. He got along with everyone,” says Daniel, tearing up as he visits his friend’s grave.

Choosing a different path

Daniel, a former sponsored child, was invited to a leadership workshop organized by World Vision.

“They talked about life goals, always accompanied by biblical values, and this started changing my way of thinking,” he says.

Daniel stopped drinking, doing drugs, and hanging out with the wrong people. He started going to church, reading the Bible, and realizing the importance of rooting his identity in Christ.

“Having God present gives meaning to other things,” he says.

Once Daniel turned his life around, he focused his attention on helping other teens in his community to do the same.

One of the problems Daniel identified was the lack of options and activities for teens.

“There isn’t anything to do, so you go to the streets,” he says. With World Vision’s support, he started a youth club to provide kids with a positive alternative.

During Saturday club meetings, Daniel guides more than 20 teens between ages 13 and 20 through discussions, activities, and games about developing goals, avoiding temptation, and rooting their lives in the Word of God.

“I want to help other youth,” he says. “I have changed, and they can change, too.”

He hasn’t given up hope that his former friends can change as well.

“They still don’t want to come [to the club]. But, I am going to convince them to come,” he says with a smile.

Prevention is key

To fight violent gangs, El Salvador’s government has tried direct attacks and repressive measures.

Several thousand gang members are in El Salvador’s jails, about a third of the prison population.

According to El Salvador’s major newspaper, the result has been that prisons are at 300-percent capacity, and gangs are even more organized.

Just as in fighting wildfires, the work has to focus on preventing flames from raging out of control.

World Vision is addressing the issue of the “fuel” by empowering teens to reach out to their peers through youth-led clubs — providing young people with a viable alternative to joining gangs.

By keeping teens like Jonathan and Daniel out of the gangs and equipping them to encourage and inform their peers, they are helping to protect children and change society for innocent families.

“[El Salvador] would be a different country, and that is what we are dreaming about,” says Marla Gonzales, World Vision’s advocacy coordinator in El Salvador.

“A country where we can resolve our problems without conflict, where we can have peace, and where the children can live safe and healthy [lives]. The worst thing we can do is lose hope.”

With reporting support provided by Laura Mata, Baltazar Ventura, and Gustavo Chacon of World Vision El Salvador.

Learn more

Read the story in its entirety in the digital version of World Vision magazine.

How you can help

Pray for children around the world who are at risk of being pulled into gangs and violent activities. Pray for positive influences in their lives that will help them reject a life of violence.

Sponsor a child in El Salvador. By sponsoring a child, you help provide a child in need with basics like food, healthcare, and education. Additionally, sponsored children gain access to programs that help point them toward positive activities that lead to a brighter future.