El Salvador is a country of extremes. In this small country extravagant wealth exists alongside abject poverty. There is incredible natural beauty and incredible destruction of the country’s natural resources; great faith and hope, but also great despair and disillusionment.
The economic situation is difficult for the majority. While El Salvador has embraced the international market, signed a free trade agreement with the United States, and even adopted the US dollar as the national currency in 2001, the poor have seen few benefits. Exports and international investment have not sparked real economic growth, especially for the poor. The minimum wage is about $200 per month, but the cost of living is so high that many who work full time still struggle to make ends meet – and the situation becomes more difficult when supporting a family. Unemployment is so high that people are grateful for any job that can be found, and often bear long work hours, difficult working conditions and exploitation. Even the minimum wage is sometimes not respected, as the government does not oversee the treatment of workers in many businesses.
Salvadorans do what they can to respond to this reality. When stable employment cannot be found, they turn to the informal sector, which may mean selling bread around one’s neighborhood every day to washing windows of passing cars to selling hand-made jewelry or clothing. This work may provide a small income, but the reality is that life for the poor is a daily struggle to survive.
One manner of responding to this situation of poverty and disenfranchisement is to take power by any means possible – and many Salvadorans have resorted to violence and crime as a manner of taking control over their own lives and the lives of others. El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world.
While some of this crime is a result of random violence and delinquency, much of it is highly organized. El Salvador is a war zone between the two main gangs – La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang. There are approximately 50,000 gang members in El Salvador, and they gain control over the population through fear tactics, extortion and intimidation. Gangs charge “rent” on many sectors of the formal commercial sector - from street vendors to private homes to local business to the bus routes. They maintain their power through fear of violence, which they will not hesitate to use.
For example, in June 2010 two buses in Mejicanos, on the outskirts of San Salvador, were attacked by gang members. During the first incident, gang members intercepted the bus, doused it with gasoline, set fire to it and closed the doors so no one could escape. When passengers tried to flee by climbing out of the windows, they were shot. Eleven people died on the scene, seven were badly hurt, six of whom later died. Roughly ten minutes later, other gang members attacked another bus on the same route, killing the driver, a passenger and an 11-year-old girl. Many claim that these attacks were acts of revenge on the bus company because they were unwilling to pay "rent" to the 18 Street gang because they were already paying rent to MS 13. Whereas before the violence was mostly executed among those involved in a gang, now the civilians are being targeted in an attempt to instill fear in the population. In August 2015, when there were 911 homicides, (the highest murder rate since the civil war) the Salvadoran Supreme Court declared anyone affiliated with the gangs would now be considered a terriorst.
In March of 2012, a truce, mediated by the Catholic Church and the Salvadoran government and backed by the Organization 0f American States, was signed between the two rival gangs in which they agreed to diminish the incidence of homicides, which had risen to an average of 12 a day, in exchange for better living conditions for their encarcerated leaders. Initially there were signs of hope as the homicide rate dropped to an average of 7 a day, but it has now risen again to an average of 11 a day, thereby increasing doubts as to the legitimacy of the truce.
But, during the first 6 months of 2015, there were 2,965 homicides. However, during the same time in 2014, there were only 1,400.
The motives for this kind of violence are hard to know, but the results are clear: the Salvadoran population lives in increasing fear and insecurity, with violence reaching levels that were not seen even during El Salvador’s civil war. Given, this insecurity and poverty of opportunity, many people flee.
A few years ago the U.S. embassy estimated that an average of 740 Salvadorans were abandoning their country every day, mostly bound for the U.S. Today's estimates run between 400 and 500 a day. If all were leaving permanently, El Salvador, with a population of six million, would lose one percent of its population every five months and half the population in twenty years. Currently, more than 2.5 million Salvadorans live in the United States - more than a third of the population of El Salvador itself.
This phenomenon is not so much about what the US has to offer as it is about what El Salvador does not have to offer. According to Dean Brackley, migrants flee because of a lack of economic opportunities. There are simply not enough jobs to support the people, and not enough resources put into the education system and social services to care for the population. El Salvador, simply put, would not function without remittances, the money sent to Salvadorans from family and friends who live in the US. They are estimated at $2.5 billion annually, which is 17.1% of the GDP.
The impact of such migration on a society is substantial. Families are torn apart as one or both parents leave in search of a way to care for their children, often leaving them behind to be raised by other family members. The emotional and economic stress is often overwhelming.
El Salvador's national reality is one of extreme economic and social inequality, marginalization, violence, and insecurity. The country's history has been a cycle of domination and exploitation which has left wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few while the poor are increasingly pushed to the margins. Today, the majority of Salvadorans live in poverty and struggle to pay for basic necessities, a situation which has only grown worse with time, especially after the global economic crisis. Unemployment is extremely high and there are few opportunities for high school or university education. People live in fear in gang violence and delinquency. Natural and man-made disasters inflict the most destruction on those who are the most vulnerable: the poor
It is not a coincidence that El Salvador happens to be a country drowning in poverty, violence, and despair. El Salvador's current national reality was created by the exploitation of its people and resources, which has been happening for hundreds of years. To understand many of the country's current problems, it is necessary to understand the fundamental causes of injustice.
In the sixteenth century, the indigenous populations of Central America were conquered by the Spanish in search of power and wealth and with the authorization of the Catholic Church. The indigenous were forced off their ancestral lands and forced to work as laborers for the Spanish, growing crops but never benefiting from their export. Thus began a cycle of exploitation that has continued for centuries.
In 1811, unrest among the population of Central America grew until Spain capitulated in 1821 and ceded its political dominion. The Federal Republic of Central America was formed, but it wasn't until its dissolution in 1841 that El Salvador became an independent republic. However, the reality for the majority remained the same. The foreign conquistadors were merely replaced by a local oligarchy, the Creoles, who were decedents of the Spanish conquistadors. The poor majority were kept in destitution, with extremely high levels of malnutrition, infant mortality, and illiteracy.
In the late nineteenth century, coffee became the king of the international economy. Seeking to take advantage of the high price of coffee, the economic and political elites - the oligarchy - passed land decrees in 1865 and 1881, which converted the majority of arable land into huge coffee-producing haciendas. These land decrees mandated that if, on any farm, two-thirds of the land were not devoted to the production of coffee, it would become property of the state. In addition, any lands that were communally owned (communal lands of the indigenous people, for example), had to be divided between their owners, or they too would become state property. According to the government, communal lands were "contrary to the political and social principles upon which the republic was founded."
This time was one of extreme desperation for the poor in El Salvador. As people were forced off their lands, they were also separated from their means of survival. There was extreme malnutrition; El Salvador had the lowest average caloric intake in Central America. In 1900, there was a 30% literacy rate. The poor were denied access to political processes, as the economic and political elite were one in the same. Coffee barons became presidents. The economic and political elite were united with the military to carry out their will. When the poor are so violently exploited and denied the ability to improve their situation, the result can only be explosive.
Economist Alberto Masferrer wrote about this period in El Salvador's history:
"The conquest of territory by the coffee industry is alarming. It has already occupied the highlands and is now descending into the valleys, displacing maize, rice, and beans. It extended like the conquistador, spreading hunger and misery, reducing the former proprietors to the worst conditions - woe to those who sell! Although it is possible to prove mathematically that these changes make the country richer, in fact they mean death. It is true that the cost of importing maize are small in relation to the benefit of exporting coffee, but do they give the imported grain to the poor? Or do they make them pay for it? Is the income of the campesino, who has lost his land, adequate to provide maize, rice, beans, clothes, medicine, doctors, etc.? So what good does it do to make money from the sale of coffee when it leaves so many in misery?"
Military repression continued for decades, which instilled fear in the population, not willing to address the fundamental causes of social unrest: social injustice, inequality, land rights, and exclusion from the political system. In the 1970s, a new movement began, recalling El Salvador's past popular movements. People began to organize – farmers, students, unions, artisans. But the government continued to respond in the way it always had, with violent repression. So-called "death squads" – off duty soldiers hired by the rich – kidnapped, tortured, and killed anyone they suspected of "communism." In 1980, all-out civil war broke out. Over the next 12 years, approximately 80,000 Salvadorans were killed. With the signing of the Peace Accords, the war came to an end, but the fundamental causes of unrest were not resolved.
Political corruption still exists. Social inequality is perhaps greater than it has ever been. The gap between the rich and poor continues to grow. The disintegration of families caused by migration to the United States has torn at the fabric of society. Violence continues to plague the Salvadoran population, though it has changed from the violence of a civil war to a violence associated with highly organized crime, narco-trafficing, and gang wars.
Even a brief overview of El Salvador's history makes one thing clear: the cycle of domination and exploitation has left scars. This history is not a thing of the past but a reality that continues to influence the lives of Salvadorans today. The marginalization of the poor, the poverty of opportunity, and the violence with which the people live are not random creations but the result of structures of social injustice which remain deeply ingrained.
Programa Velasco seeks to respond to the reality here in the way that we can – by taking small steps and "planting seeds that will one day grow". We cannot end the violence and fear in which people live, but we can create safe spaces for children to learn, laugh and grow, and spaces for parents to start to let go of the fear and stress they live with in the daily struggle to stay afloat.
We cannot fully change the economic structures that keep the poor impoverished, but we can offer women entrepreneurs opportunities to invest in themselves and their small businesses, to gain technical and leadership skills to keep moving forward. Child sponsors and other donors offer their friendship, support, and solidarity, and together we all seek to move forward and create pockets of hope in the midst of this harsh reality.