Finding the “space between” in El Salvador

Chances are, you’ve heard about gangs in El Salvador. From frightening headlines to tweets proclaiming that “MS-13 killers come in from El Salvador like water,” Central American gangs have been in the spotlight recently.

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world. In 2015, it was ranked 1st in per capita homicides globally, with 109 for every 100,000 people (Honduras was second that year, with 64 per 100,000). In 2017, El Salvador had a decreased but still high homicide rate of 60 per 100,000. Hundreds of thousands of people abandon their homes in El Salvador and neighboring Guatemala and Honduras annually, fleeing threats, attacks, sexual assault, and other acts of violence.

The government has shown little ability to control this violence. In 2014, El Salvador had a 95% impunity rate for homicides—95 out of every 100 murders went unsolved. Many citizens do not report crimes to the authorities. They fear retribution from corrupt officials,* or they simply doubt authorities’ willingness and ability to help.

The political rhetoric draws a harsh line between gang and non-gang, but the truth is more nuanced. For one thing, it’s hard to tell exactly how much of the violence in the country is attributable to gangs.** For another, there are precious few opportunities to explore the areas between evil and innocent. Marina Escobar de Vidaure, a researcher in her early 50s, was surprised to find herself in the middle of one such space at Cristosal’s Global School.

"With respect to human rights, it's not just about knowing them, it's about applying them," said Marina Escobar de Vidaure in an interview with Cristosal this month. / Foto Cristosal

"With respect to human rights, it's not just about knowing them, it's about applying them," said Marina Escobar de Vidaure in an interview with Cristosal this month. / Foto Cristosal

Marina attended the February Global School seminar on applying a human rights approach to social justice. Her friend Carolina works for the Global School, and she invited Marina to join the seminar. I sat down with Marina a couple of weeks ago on the patio of a sunny San Salvador café to hear more about her Global School experience. “I studied journalism, and now I’m a field researcher. I’ve always been interested in defending people’s rights,” Marina told me.

What Carolina didn’t know, and what Marina never imagined she’d share, was that one of Marina’s close family members, a teenager, was the victim of a brutal gang murder 7 years ago. Marina still tears up when she recalls the horrifying day she learned of the murder. “For us, it wasn’t easy. [The murderers] didn’t think about the pain they would cause us,” she said.

Marina’s Global School seminar group had the chance to talk with some former gang members. “I never imagined I would be face-to-face with gang members! Never,” said Marina. “I’d seen them before, been afraid of them on the street, but to have them in front of me, to listen to them? When I saw them, I thought: they’ve changed so much.”

Listening to the ex-gang members prompted Marina to share about the tragic way her family had been affected by gang violence. Although her story is not something she shares often, “I felt like it was the right time,” said Marina. “It helped a lot, to talk about it.” Even two months after the Global School seminar, it’s clear Marina is still thinking about her experience with the ex-gang members. “I think certain types of people need to change,” she said. After thinking for a moment, she added, “Even though it hurts, I understand they have human rights.”  

Marina is certainly not alone in her pain. Jeanne Rikkers, Cristosal Director of Research and Learning, says: “It’s often presented as a false dichotomy—either you think people should be punished for committing crimes, or you support human rights. But promoting human rights doesn’t mean abandoning justice.” In fact, finding justice without upholding every person’s human rights along the way may not be possible.

According to Insight Crime, a foundation studying organized crime in Latin America, the success of El Salvador’s hardline “extraordinary measures” targeting gang violence is doubtful at best. “I think more and more people in communities are questioning the wisdom of repressive tactics,” says Noah Bullock, Cristosal Executive Director. El Salvador may be ready to consider a more effective and sustainable way to build peace, one that respects the human rights of accused criminals and victims alike.

And Marina? She’s still navigating the “space between” that the Global School opened up for her. Thinking about the people who killed her relative, she says, “It’s true that everyone has rights, but them?” On the other hand, Marina understands that it is a violation of her rights as a victim that this terrible crime has been left unsolved.

The great power of the Global School is found in these in-between spaces, where participants are free to question their assumptions and consider new perspectives. Global School seminars are more than a vacation; they’re more than a flash-in-the-pan act of charity; they’re more than a lesson on human rights. The Global School is about planting seeds of lasting change—change that honors our shared humanity.

“Thanks to the Global School, I understand that we all have human rights,” said Marina. “But these crimes can’t stay unpunished! That’s what still bothers me.”

What in-between spaces do you want to explore? Citizen and illegal immigrant; straight and gay; authority and abuse—all these and more coming fall 2018. Challenge your assumptions at  

* 5% of the people Cristosal assisted in 2017 reported that they had to flee their homes because of violence perpetrated by the National Civil Police.

**Wolf, S. (2011). Street gangs of El Salvador in T. Bruneau, L. Dammert, & E. Skinner (Eds.), Maras (p. 52). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Hannah Rose Nelson