El Salvador: Blood and Roses on Mother’s Day

“The best thing about Mother’s Day is the appreciation and love the mothers get – and give,” says Sagrario Tejada de González, who is handing out roses on Mother’s Day, celebrated on the 10th of May in El Salvador. “The worst thing for a mother is the fear that her son might get involved in a street gang.”

“The best thing about Mother’s Day is the appreciation and love the mothers get – and give,” says Sagrario Tejada de González, who is handing out roses on Mother’s Day, celebrated on the 10th of May in El Salvador.

“The worst thing for a mother is the fear that her son might get involved in a street gang,” she adds.

El Salvador is the fourth most violent country in the world, in spite of a truce between the biggest gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, which reduced the homicides by half. Lately, and up to the inauguration of the new presidency June 1st, homicides have risen again, to the despair of the Salvadorans. Depending on whom you ask, between 20 and 50 per cent of the homicides are related to gangs.

Sagrario de González, who is handing out the roses outside a gas station which she runs in Planes de Renderos, on the outskirts of San Salvador, thinks that the love of a mother could keep the young away from life on the streets: “If they had access to a mother’s love, they would not seek refuge in the gangs,” she thinks.

Behind her, a statue of Virgin Mary poses. The Bible is open at the passage where Mary is told she is going to have a son:  “Virgin Mary is the model for all mothers,” says Tejada de González, as she hands a rose to a young man. De Gonzalez, who is also a retired school teacher, explains that he is a former pupil.

“It´s not only about affection for our sons, but about love in general,” she says, adding that regarding the protection of the young, the father, or the complete family, is important, as is society as a whole.

Sagrario de González is hoping that the new President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén from the left party FMLN, who will be inaugurated June 1st, will do something for the gang members:

“They need something else to do. They should be offered jobs, education and business-opportunities,” she suggests.

Waiting for a solution

Meanwhile violence is increasing. There is a vacuum between the current administration, led by President Mauricio Funes (FMLN), and the new one. Nobody takes the lead and the Salvadorans are keeping their breaths, eager to get news about a security policy which could resolve the desperate situation.

So far, President-elect Sánchez Cerén has described the forthcoming government´s security policy as a combination of repression and prevention.

That might not be enough. The truce between the gangs, initiated in March 2012, was namely based on dialogue and mediation with the gangs. It was brokered by civil society, represented by Raúl Mijango and the Catholic Church, represented by Fabio Colindres.  The government acted as a facilitator. The outstanding result was that the murders dropped by more than 50 percent.

15 months later, however, after the appointment of a new Minister of Security, Ricardo Perdomo, violence started rising and has now reached almost the same levels as before the truce. The gangs have warned that if the security measures will not include a dialogue with them, with the Church and civil society as mediators, the murders might rise even more.

The peace mediators and the gangs mainly blame the Minister for Security for the current situation. Perdomo opposed the truce from the very beginning of his appointment creating obstacles by not letting gang leaders meet and interact, and hindering communication between the mediators and the gangs. Communication was also limited in the sense that journalists weren’t any longer allowed into the prisons.

Shortly before Perdomo restricted the communication between media and imprisoned gangs, I visited the Chalatenango prison, in northern El Salvador, the 8th of May, 2013.

In MS-land

“Welcome to MS-land,” says a sign at the entrance to the prison, and on the wall in the courtyard ‘MS’ is painted in meter-high letters.

The prison is exclusively for members of the MS-13. The government’s heavy-handed attempt to curb gang violence through the so-called La Mano Dura [hard handed] policies through the 2000’s, led to overcrowded prisons, where members of different gangs literally killed each other. To avoid civil war-like conditions inside the walls, the authorities separated the gangs and placed the groups in prisons of their own.

But new facilities weren’t created, and the Chalatenango prison, which has capacity for 400 prisoners, now houses 1,256 members of the MS-13.

From the small, dark cells, many pairs of dark eyes looked out from shaved heads, tattoos dancing across faces and bare torsos in the shadows. I tried to talk to a couple of the prisoners, but the conversations were brief, and the inmates turned away when I took out the camera.

Roses on the Wall

Out in the neat and clean courtyard the bright light dazzled me. There were some well-tended, seemingly newly planted plants. A small group was busy painting murals of meter-high roses. I tried to exchange a few words with the painters, but they were too focused on their work.

“They are busy beautifying the prison for Mother’s Day,” explained a young man with friendly and lively eyes under a bandana and a cap.

The inmates themselves fix almost all infrastructure, they repair damages, they paint –  and they themselves finance almost all of it, according to Guillermo.

He introduced himself as Guillermo, alias “El Negro,” one of the four spokespeople of the prisoners. His most important duties include communicating with the prison director and mediating between the prisoners and the outside world. “That way people better can understand how we live,” he explained. “And that is the best way for me to help my ”brotheres”,” he added, smiling.

He was also coordinating the painting of the roses for Mother’s Day, and the very necessary improvements of the prison´s facilities in general. Or, as he put it: “We are squeezed completely together here, the conditions are not suitable for humans. During the rainy season, the whole thing collapses.”

Doubled Sentence

Prison Improvements and the conditions of the prisoners are the most important demands of the gangs, as part of the truce. So far, one important thing has been achieved: the military, which previously operated inside the prisons, was removed. “They violated human rights all of the time,” according to Guillermo.

Another aspect is the legal system, which currently penalizes gang members who commit crimes much more severely than other civilians. Guillermo had been sentenced to 20 years for extortion. That is twice of what a non- gang member would get for the same crime, according to the anti-gang-law, introduced by President Mauricio Funes in 2010.

Guillermo’s hope is that the truce will lead to the improvement of prisoners’ rights, changed laws and more lenient penalties:

“I am aware of the fact that I made a mistake and I’m paying for it; therefore, I am in jail. I don’t ask to be freed, but I would like a little more merciful punishment,” says the 28-year-old, who still has 16 years left of his sentence.

Part of the Solution

“As gang members, we are marginalized and don’t count as real people. And as an ‘outcast’ you become frustrated and lose the ability to look ahead,” he reflected.

He wishes that the world had more confidence in him and his comrades: “Think more of us as human beings. We can contribute to the solution, of creating peace in El Salvador,” he urged.

Neglected Mothers

Back in Planes de Renderos, Sagrario Tejada de González explains that most of the workers at the gas station come from the neighbouring community  of Panchimalco, which struggles with poverty and gang controversies.

“There are many single mothers who have a hard time today,” she said. “Society does not appreciate the efforts they are making; they are neglected. They might have sons who are gang-members and who would like to bring them something on Mother´s Day. But since the boys are involved in [gangs] there might be obstacles.” Unfortunately for Salvadoran mothers and sons, these obstacles too often consist of gang violence, the justice system and prison walls.

Erika Brenner is a Finnish freelance journalist writing from Central America, erikabrenner.wordpress.com.