With its murder rate and levels of violence, Central America is among the most dangerous regions in the world outside of active war zones. Battles are waged between heavily armed gangs -- and, much like war zones, it is often the innocent who are most affected.
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The sun shines bright on a small cinder-block house in eastern El Salvador. But Maria Esperanza*, 27, and her 3-year-old twins, Carlos Antonio and Estrella Elizabeth, stay inside their small, dark home.
“I’m afraid,” says Maria, “especially at night.”
Providing for her twins was already a daily struggle for Maria and her husband, Marcos, who sold wood for cooking. When someone offered him a better job, he took it and gladly began delivering bread.
“We were poor, but we lived in peace,” Maria says.
Then everything changed. A few months later, Marcos was driving his route when two men with guns approached him on a motorcycle. “They told him to get out of the truck because they wanted to kill him,” recalls Maria.
Afraid for his life, Marcos accelerated. He hit the motorcycle with his truck and kept driving. They shot at him, but missed.
For few terrifying weeks, Marcos and his family stayed locked in their house. “He didn’t go to work because he was afraid.” No work meant no food for his family.
Then a call came. “They said if he didn’t give them $3,000 in the next 72 hours they were going to kill him,” she says.
To protect his wife and kids, he fled. Without income and without support, life became desperate for Maria. “I don’t have money to provide for my kids. I can’t even buy them food,” Maria laments.
Although it’s been several months since Marcos left, Maria barely leaves the house. “I’m afraid someone will come and take revenge on me or the children.”
To make matters worse, Marcos was detained for trying to illegally cross into another country. He is currently in a detention center, serving a three-year sentence.
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El Salvador has a violent past and present. In the 1980s and 1990s, a brutal civil war divided the country, resulting in mass destruction, mass killings, and mass migration; as much as 25 percent of the population fled.
Street gangs embody the latest face of violence. The roots of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (or M.S.13), often called the world’s deadliest gang, go back to the civil war.
“Many problems today are a result of the lack of help for families that were impacted by the war,” says Marla Gonzales, director of advocacy for World Vision in El Salvador.
In addition to lacking basics like food, clean water, health services, and education, many children lacked an important ingredient for success -- love.
“Children grew up without family, didn’t know what it meant to be loved,” says Marla. Between immigration and mothers working two or three jobs, there is a generation of children who were essentially abandoned.
“It’s an identity problem,” says Marla. “They don’t know who their family is. They don’t know their identity in Christ. Gangs are giving them the answer.”
The gangs essentially hold the country hostage. “There are areas where you can’t go,” says Marla. “The violence is so high that if you go in you might not know how to get out.”
In the rural areas where World Vision works, fathers are afraid to leave to find work. Parents keep their kids home from school because they can’t take them, don’t want them to risk the journey alone, or are afraid of violence in class. The gangs affect everyone, but children bear the brunt.
“The people who are dying are between 12 and 25 -- our youth,” says Marla. With an estimated 52 percent of the population of El Salvador under the age of 25, “it is worth it to bet on change and dream that change will happen,” she says.
Through child sponsorship, World Vision is betting on a different future for families in El Salvador, providing access to healthcare, education, nutrition, clean water, and support for parents. In addition, World Vision has initiated special programs to help youth leave the gangs by providing alternatives. World Vision is also empowering teens to reach out to their peers through preventive youth-led clubs.
Prevention might be the only hope for El Salvador. If kids are engaged, have a dream for the future, and know that they are valued, there is no motivation for them to join gangs.
“Change can happen,” says Marla. “The worst thing we can do is lose hope. El Salvador could be a different country, and that is what we are dreaming about: a country where we can resolve our problems without conflict, where we can have peace, and where the children can live safe and healthy lives.”
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Soon after Marcos left, Maria’s twins were sponsored through World Vision. They are receiving support to attend early childhood education centers and have received special financial gifts from their sponsors, which Maria has used to purchase goods for their house and additional food for the family.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of these individuals.
Child sponsorship in El Salvador does more than just provide access to life-giving basics like clean water, education, and healthcare. It helps protect children, giving them an alternative to the gang life and building the foundation for a better future. Consider sponsoring a child in El Salvador today!