A spike in foreign media coverage of El Salvador’s escalating gang violence brought to mind a recent conversation with my friend Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro, pastor of San Salvador’s Emmanuel Baptist Church.
“Forty people were killed last Sunday in El Salvador,” wrote Stephanie Nolan in the Globe and Mail. “Forty-two on Monday, 43 on Tuesday, 30 on Wednesday, and on through the week. Even the brutal civil war in the 1980s never had a week like this one.”
“More than 3,830 people have been murdered in El Salvador this year,” wrote Jonathan Watts in the Guardian. “With one killing on average every hour, August is on course to be the deadliest month since the 1992 peace accord. On current trends, the homicide rate will pass 90 per 100,000 people in 2015, overtaking that of Honduras as the highest in the world (not including battlegrounds like Syria).”
Less than two weeks earlier, together with two of my work colleagues, I met for conversation in the lobby of a Toronto airport hotel with Miguel Tomás. He was on his way to Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador, where he would participate as a global partner in The United Church of Canada’s General Council meeting.
Miguel Tomás began the conversation by reflecting on what was going on back home, and what Salvadoran churches were trying to do about it.
“A church does not exist only for itself. It cares for its health so as to serve,” he said. “The church has as its objective to serve the poor.”
The ministry of Miguel Tomás is shaped by that of Archbishop Oscar Romero—“the prophet,” Miguel Tomás said, “who never abandoned his people.”
In the midst of civil war, Romero and other church leaders—including Miguel Tomás—pressed for peace talks in the hope that negotiations might bring about an agreement that would end the oppression and improve the lot of landless farmers and the urban poor. Romero’s assassination on March 24, 1980, captured the world’s attention; his witness continues to inspire new generations of peace-makers.
For about two years in 2013 and 2014, a rough sort of truce held between two of the major gangs. The truce was brokered among imprisoned gang leaders by a Roman Catholic bishop, and then supported by other church leaders and civil society groups. But the truce collapsed early this year, in part because the government could not see itself negotiating with criminals and because there seems to be political gain to be made by appearing tough on crime.
Most news stories about gangs limit themselves to describing acts of violence without explaining who the gang-members are, how they operate, and how they extend themselves in Central America, Mexico and parts of the United States.
My direct experience of gangs (or “maras,” as they are called in El Salvador—a word derived from another which means “friend”) is limited, and always mediated through church-based relationships. Those connections made it possible to talk, at least occasionally, with young gang members when I lived in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Those young people always said that the gangs provided security to their barrio (neighbourhood) and kept the police out. The police, it was made clear, were not just a threat to criminals, but also to anyone who organized for any sort of positive social change.
The Salvadoran maras emerged in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and with subsequent waves of deportations, later expanded in El Salvador and elsewhere.
Culture of Peace
In San Salvador in January 2013, I talked with Miguel Tomás and with several youth leaders at Emmanuel Baptist Church (known as IBE and pronounced e-bay).
They see gang violence as a “war among the victims” of poverty and exclusion. What they hear from gang members is that they don’t want future generations to grow up the way they did. At the same time, they are not willing to give police free rein in their communities or for the government to ignore them. Appalling violence is the consequence of this impasse.
Since 2010, IBE has developed a program called “Culture of Peace” for work among children and youth. The intent is to “create an alternative to what exists now.” The program promotes transformation and mediation of conflict. Activities include: education (including work in and through schools); leadership development; recreation; and arts and culture. In part, it is rooted in a “Casa de la Juventud,” a house-office near the IBE church, but it’s also mobile: a “Cal Pipil” (a Nahuatl term for a village) can go to communities as a sign of solidarity. While IBE doesn’t feel equipped for work directly with active gangs, other organizations were doing that.
Program coordinators also participate in other networks, a church presence in youth civil society groups.
“The Culture of Peace is a ministry,” said Miguel Tomás. “It’s about the spirituality for a culture of peace. It takes us back to biblical theology as sources to inject strength into the struggle for peace.”
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