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President Trump has referred to members of the MS-13 gang as "animals." Attorney General Jeff Sessions says the gang is infiltrating the U.S., calling unaccompanied minors from Central America "wolves in sheep's clothing." There's been a strong focus by the administration on legal crack downs but less talk of how to prevent young people from joining gangs in the first place.
For two organizations working thousands of miles apart, that is their shared goal: to show young people a vision of their futures beyond the gangs.
'You're Being Watched'
It's only a 10-minute drive from the four-star Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador, El Salvador, to the neighborhood of Las Palmas. Celina de Sola is our escort into the community which is known throughout the city as a territory of the 18th Street gang.
"The reason we can't take pictures and all that stuff is because, you know, there's always people watching," de Sola says. "Everybody knows exactly who comes in, exactly who leaves, what they're here for and so, even if you can't see, you're being watched."
We take a sharp left onto a narrow street. You get the sense you're traveling into a ravine or gully when you enter Las Palmas. Most homes are constructed with concrete blocks and tin roofs, and they're sort of stacked on top of one another. It's densely populated with one main road in and one road out. As de Sola explains, it's extremely isolated from the rest of the city.
For residents of Las Palmas, one's daily routine is dictated by rival gang territories. Simply walking up the hill and across the street to a bus stop could end in violence.
We arrive at the neighborhood's only public K-12 school and meet Maritza Trejo. Eight years ago, she started volunteering at the school and now works full-time as a regional education manager.
On Trejo's first day, she asked four different cab drivers to bring her to Las Palmas. They all refused to drive her there.
Trejo says the stigma chained to the community is hard to break. It's kept people from finding work outside of the neighborhood.
"A lot of the kids change their address, you know? They don't put Las Palmas; they put just San Salvador," Trejo says. "But the employers know that so they'll keep asking, 'OK, so where exactly in San Salvador do you live?' "
Trejo explains that when people see Las Palmas listed on an ID, they immediately see "gangs."
"So, they think maybe you're not a gang member, but you're probably the cousin, the brother," she says. "And so the employers don't feel safe, and they would rather just not take the risk."
A Safe Space In A Violent Country
It's a Saturday, and the school is full of children, from 7-year-olds to high schoolers. They're here for cosmetology club, science club and English club. A group of teenage girls practice a dance routine for an upcoming competition and others run and kick soccer balls off the walls.
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. But this school is a safe space — full of colorful murals, music and laughter — and secured behind a blue steel gate.
Fifteen-year-old Karen is working up a sweat playing soccer. She takes a break to talk about why she's at school on a Saturday. We're only using her middle name to protect her safety.
"If there were no clubs here at school it would be a lost cause because in this country that we're in today, in the times that we're living in, the society is influenced by a lot of crime," she says in Spanish. "If there were no clubs right now, [young people] might be in the streets stealing, killing and all kinds of other things."
The nonprofit Glasswing International runs these clubs as part of its' community schools program. Glasswing has installed similar initiatives in more than 40 schools across El Salvador, as well as in Guatemala and Honduras.
De Sola, our escort, is the co-founder of Glasswing. She says the community schools program is more than arts and crafts and sports. It's about building resiliency in young people and helping them envision possibilities for their futures beyond the narrative they're surrounded by everyday.
"In El Salvador, young people are exposed to a lot of violence, they're exposed to a lot of trauma. So, these kinds of activities really take all of that into consideration," she says. "Their grades improve, their self-esteem improves. These are all really important characteristics when you're talking about violence prevention and youth development."
The Stigma Crosses Borders
More than 2,000 miles away from Las Palmas, in East Boston, Diego Pizarro carries a white piece of paper with names and addresses scribbled on it.
Pizarro is a front-line youth worker with Roca, a community organization based in Chelsea that focuses on keeping young men out of jail. In recent years, the organization has created a specific outreach program for Central American youth. Pizarro says that's a direct response to an increase in unaccompanied minors relocating to the Greater Boston area.
"We have very young kids who cross the border, most of them, without an adult," Pizarro says. "Most of them are fleeing because something horrible happened to them. But crossing the border is, for them, is freedom."
But that freedom can be short-lived. With more and more access to social media, Pizarro says, a young person's roots travel with him.
"What we often see is kids who are coming from ... a certain part of the city in El Salvador, where it's either MS[-13] or 18th Street, sort of, regulated, if they belong to that barrio, that immediately labels these guys as one of them," he says, "When they're not even trying to be a part of it."
Pizarro digs up names and addresses from court records and stops by parks where he knows Central American youth in Greater Boston hang out. His goal, he says, is first and foremost to let these guys know he cares. By the time a young man has made it on Pizarro's radar, chances are he's had a run-in with the police, ended up in court and might be serving probation.
And this is exactly where Roca wants to step in.
"We figured out look, there's a whole group of people people just write off, but if they get the right support and you spend enough time, in fact they can succeed and be who they hope to be in their hearts and in their minds," says Molly Baldwin, founder and director of Roca.
The organization recently expanded into western Massachusetts and started a program in Baltimore. The group has been working in Chelsea and Greater Boston for 30 years helping young people get their GEDs, develop job skills and, like Pizarro says, just make positive connections.
"Right before I went to meet you guys," Pizarro explains, "I was sitting with a young man, and he says, 'You think I want to be this? You think I want to represent this? No, I don't think I have a choice. There's a lot of guys that want to hurt me, and I don't want to be sitting around waiting for that to happen.' "
The young man, he says, is originally from El Salvador.
Back in Las Palmas, we're asked to put our equipment away when we leave the school gates. The less attention we draw, the better. We walk down to a field where a pick-up soccer game is underway. I get the OK to pull my equipment out of my bag and I ask a few of the teenagers about the reputation of their community — what outsiders think.
"There are people who think badly of the community," says one of the young men in Spanish. "They look down on the community and people from other communities think that this place is dangerous."
But then, I ask the young men what they think about Las Palmas. A few of them chime in: "Beautiful. Calm. Peaceful."
De Sola, the Glasswing co-founder, smiles and says, "This is why we're here."
This article was originally published on October 23, 2018.
This segment aired on October 23, 2018.
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