Salvadoran Families Organize and Face Lawbreakers

Translated from Gadiel Castillo's article "Familias de Caluco se organizan y enfrentan a los delincuentes" on

85 families from El Castaño, who fled from crime in 2016, have returned to their community.

Photo René Quintanilla,

Photo René Quintanilla,

In El Castaño, El Salvador, you can breathe easy. The anguish caused by gang threats and crimes that led 85 families to leave their homes in 2016 is a thing of the past. Since they have returned, the families work in coordination with the authorities to ensure that criminals do not disturb their lives anymore.

Daily life in the town, and the academic life of many youngsters, was shockingly disturbed when families had to leave their homes in September 2016 for about a month. Residents fled rising murder rates and gang threats in the area.

So many families fled this violence that school attendance in El Castaño fell from 106 to six students that year, community members say.

Now, a year and eight months after the families returned, the laughter, games, and races in the school hallways show that students are living in a different time now.

Photo René Quintanilla,

Photo René Quintanilla,

People can be seen walking through the dirt streets without worry. An old man sitting on a stone outside his house observes a group of children playing ball. Residents have returned to their work, which is mostly agricultural. They have left behind the horrors of days gone by.

Residents say the community’s organization, good communication, and collaboration with the police and army have been key to restoring the peace which had been robbed from them for many years by criminal groups.

Community resident Juan Zepeda says that after the return to El Castaño, "we live in new times.” Proof of that, he says, is that now he moves about without fear. "I am no longer afraid that someone will do something to my children, my teenagers," he says.

The director of the school, Dora Elena Rodríguez, has been working there for more than 13 years. Rodríguez talks about how difficult it was for them to function with just two teachers and so few students in 2016, not to mention the anxiety and fear generated by the criminals who managed to cause 25 murders in the area, 19 of which occurred in 2016.

"It was very difficult to see the majority of students leave. The school emptied overnight, it was very hard for us. Thank God, after a few weeks, the situation improved," she says.

That improvement came with time. Many of the children who left were staying in a shelter nearby. They would meet teachers in a park and go together to school. "That’s how we managed to graduate 86 students that year," says the teacher.

She adds that the police, non-governmental institutions, and the Ministry of Education itself collaborated to work on the return of the student population. Rodríguez saw talks directed toward children and parents about mental health issues begin to take effect, and fear was minimized day by day.

Photo René Quintanilla,

Photo René Quintanilla,

She also remembers that after the return, many of the children were afraid of the police, even crying when they saw them, because the police presence was so strong. In many cases, they had searched children’s homes.

"It was traumatic, the children ran away at first. But the community’s approach, the collaboration, restored peace, and now there are children who say they want to become police officers or soldiers," says Rodriguez.

Before the exodus

The first displacement came after gang members murdered a 20-year-old woman identified as Yesenia Carolina Rodríguez in the streets of El Castaño on August 31, 2016. But it was the murder of 64-year-old community leader Francisco Zepeda Barrientos which triggered the mass flight.

Don Chico, as he was called, was killed on September 13, 2016. Two days later, on Independence Day, the rest of the families decided to abandon their homes, their lands, and even their pets.

After finding out about this mass exodus, the government sent a group of police and soldiers to try to instill confidence in the local population. In one of the abandoned houses, the police installed a Joint Community Support Group, formed by two agents and three soldiers, who provided security 24 hours a day.

Sergeant Joel Castro, head of the police delegation in the area, says they captured at least 100 criminals, which, he says, led to the dismantling of the criminal structure that operated in the area. "To date, no major incidents have been reported," he confirms.

Resident Irma Portillo left the town after her brother was murdered in September 2016. She fled with her husband and children because they were threatened by gang members.

Photo René Quintanilla,

Photo René Quintanilla,

Now, Portillo says she feels "well-protected" by the authorities, which is why she and several of the residents interviewed by El Diario de Hoy ask that the police post never be removed.

"I hope something like that never happens again,” says Portillo, remembering the days of mass flight.

According to human rights organization Cristosal, which monitors cases like this in El Salvador, 701 people were displaced by violence in 2017. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office reports registering 38 cases in the first three months of this year.

Organized against crime

The residents of El Castaño said that authorities’ "cleanup" of gang members that committed crimes in the area motivated most of the families to return. "When they announced the capture of the mareros and all their collaborators, we felt confident in returning,” says Francisco Medina.

After they returned, the community began to organize against violence. A board and different committees were formed to ensure that the peace of mind they have enjoyed for more than a year continues.

Every 15 days, they hold a general assembly that deals with security issues, community improvement projects, and other efforts which helped reduce the number of crimes to one in 2017.

After the return, the community became more united, and now they control who comes and goes. "We keep track of who wants to live here, we look into their behavior, because we don’t want people to make trouble here," they say.

Young people receive training in workshops about computers and other topics, and with police support, talks are delivered about gang issues.

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Hannah Rose Nelson