LA LIBERTAD, El Salvador, Nov 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A fter seven years with El Salvador’s notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, Rigoberto feared for his life as a dozen gang members armed with machetes and guns surrounded him on a football pitch.
“I thought, ‘This is the moment when my life ends,'” he said, recalling the night three years ago when they set upon him for violating their code.
“When I joined the gang at age 15 they told me, ‘If you don’t follow our rules, three things await you: jail, hospital or the morgue.’ I was very lucky. They beat me up and told me to leave the neighbourhood and never come back,” said Rigoberto, 23, who declined to give his full name.
He obeyed the gang’s orders and turned his back on a life of violent crime.
With no school diploma and the social stigma of being an ex-gang member, along with El Salvador’s high unemployment rate, Rigoberto’s chances of getting a job were slim. More than half of El Salvadorans under 24 have no source of income.
But Rigoberto was given a rare second chance. He is one of 120 men and women, aged 17 to 25, chosen to take part in a jobs training programme run by Solutions, an alliance of five local non-governmental organisations and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Over the next five months, he and other ex-gang members and young people at risk of being recruited by gangs will be trained as electricians and technicians to work in garment factories in Arce City, an hour’s drive from the capital San Salvador.
Keeping on the right track is hard, says another ex-gang member, Diego Rauda.
“It’s the easiest thing to be on the streets and get in with a gang. It’s hard to be training for months and not be earning anything. I feel the pressure from my in-laws and girlfriend to provide for our baby son,” said Rauda, 25, who is learning to repair textile machines.
“But the door has been opened and I’ve been given an opportunity. Hopefully I’ll get a job.”
With El Salvador’s 2012 gang truce in tatters, murders are on the rise. This year on average 11 people a day were murdered, making this Central American nation among the world’s most violent.
The question of how to tackle drug-fuelled gang violence is a key political issue and a top concern among El Salvadorans.
In recent years, successive governments have responded to gang violence with a heavy hand, sending army troops to bolster police efforts to fight crime.
Such an approach has done little to address the root causes of violence, including a lack of jobs, a corrupt police force and judicial system, and easy access to guns, experts say.
Jobless teenage dropouts make easy prey for El Salvador’s 60,000-strong street gangs, known as maras, which offer false promises of a better life and escape from abuse at home.
“It’s much easier and less expensive to prevent young people from joining gangs in the first place than by intervening when they are already in gangs,” said Oscar Cea, from Glasswing International, the lead NGO running the Solutions programme in Arce City.
“Society, the private sector, need to bet on and support programmes that focus on giving teenagers vocational and life skills so they can hope, and believe, a different future is possible and ultimately get a job.”
Waves of legal and illegal immigration to escape El Salvador’s 1980-92 civil war and poverty have seen 1.3 million El Salvadorans head to the United States to seek a better life.
This has left a broken social fabric and generations of children looked after by relatives after their parents went abroad.
“If you look at how a gang member grew up, you’ll often find their mother and or father went to the U.S. and left them behind as toddlers in the care of grandmothers, aunts or uncles,” Cea said.
“By 10 these kids are independent, without a paternal or maternal figure and guidance. Family disintegration is part of the gang problem.”
Gang life often starts with children skipping school and hanging out on street corners, where local gang members tempt them with offers of drugs, clothes and parties.
“Gangs fill a void. At first gangs are a source of respect, friendship, brotherhood and protection. But when recruits find they have to start taking part in criminal activities, like robberies or worse, it’s often too late to leave,” Cea said.
Gloria Garcia, a psychologist with the Solutions programme, says emigration has a long-lasting traumatic impact on those left behind.
“We ask people to draw their dreams. One 20-year-old woman told me: ‘I don’t know what to draw. My mother went away.’ The feeling of abandonment has a big impact on a child.”
A 30-minute drive away, in El Salvador’s second city of Santa Ana, lies a small shoe factory, known as Project Metamorphosis. Here, 70 former gang members and prisoners, including convicted murderers, have also been given a second chance.
“Gang members never really had an opportunity. We support those who have a desire to change and to rehabilitate. No one hires ex-convicts or gang members. Their families are also stigmatised,” said Nestor Granados, head of sales at the Project Metamorphosis factory.
“They find doors are closed. Most people just want to see them locked up for good... Society needs to recognise that violence is everyone’s problem. It’s not just a gang problem.”
Run by a Christian organisation Love Link, the factory has a waiting list with the names of hundreds of people hoping to get a job and earn the minimum monthly wage of $237.
One former gang member and ex-wife of a gang leader is relieved to have ended a life of crime.
“Many people get involved in gangs because they need the money. But before you know it, you are sucked in and are looking after weapons, selling drugs and involved in extortion,” said the 28-year-old, who did not want to give her name.
“Fear is always present. Fear the police will get you, fear a rival gang member will kill you, fear of walking into the wrong neighbourhood. I felt confined,” she said against the din of machines.
While she could earn up to $1,000 a week as a gang member, she divorced her husband and left the gang because she did not want to put any future children in danger.
But reintegrating into normal life is an uphill struggle.
“Before I didn’t really have to work. We had our own rules,” she said, glueing labels on shoes. “This isn’t easy money. It’s hard work.”
Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, editing by Alisa Tang.