Sometimes we do a dinamica to help cultivate the kids’ creativity. We have one of them tell a story that includes actions, and as the kid is telling, the rest of us have to perform the actions as they come up. When it was Oscar’s turn he had us walking to the corner store to buy some queso fresco, chips and a two liter of Coka. Then Naomy took us staggering and gasping through the desert with no water to get to the United States.
With Jonathan, we were just minding our own business, walking down the street outside the parish, when suddenly the soldiers rounded the corner, grabbed us and threw us up against the wall of the nearest house, shouted obscenities at us, kicked out our legs, hit us with the butts of their guns, and then searched us. They didn’t find anything but they thought we were gang members, so they kept us there, all of us, the 40 year old third grade teacher Deysi, our 17 year old drawing instructor Bryan, myself, and a smattering of 15 or so boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 13. We were left kneeling down on the mildly clean beige tiling of the Open School, sweating, our hands crossed on top of our heads, acting out the blows in the back, our faces embodying the submission, the humiliation, but stifling our laughter too. And Jonathan was there smiling intently, loving the sinister control he had, framed by posters of non-violence and pastel artwork on the walls, the fans whirring oh-so-slowly overhead.
The dinamica is also a great way to see what is going on inside the kids’ heads. The only one being very creative was Naomy since she had only heard about life-threatening immigration from her aunt. Oscar is kind of chubby and probably goes to the corner store pretty frequently. Jonathan hasn’t actually been abused like that before, but he’s seen it happen plenty of times. His mom is an ambulatory bread vendor, and at 12, much of his unsupervised time is spent in the street where he’s become enamored with the gangster aura. Even if he stays out of the pandilla, he’ll just have to hit puberty to start receiving that treatment in the flesh.
Juan Carlos has been there for a while as a 15 year old. He’s totally tranquilo and humble but carries himself, especially in the shoulders, like he thinks he’s hot stuff. One night a couple months ago around 9:30pm, he went out to buy something from the store that he probably could’ve easily waited until the morning to get, but he went anyway, and sure enough the soldiers suddenly rounded the corner. He got slammed against the wall, searched and hit in the side by what he thought was some type of club or maybe the M-16 butt. His bruise the next day was big enough to have been either.
Luckily, perhaps, his uncle Pedro helps to run a pupuseria stand right down the street, and when Pedro saw what was going down, he told the soldiers to lay off the kid, that it was his nephew and he was clean. The commanding soldier told Pedro to eat excrement, called him an ass bandit and threatened to give him worse treatment than Juan Carlos was getting. Pedro, as a short fuse, quickly invited the soldier to put down his gun and they would see who the bigger man was. The other ladies at the pupuseria started chiming in without much diplomacy, and the soldiers ordered them to shut up. Martita reminded them it was supposedly a free country now, and she wouldn’t shut up for anyone, least of all a mess of cowardly dogs. Suddenly the soldiers had their guns pointed at Pedro, Martita and the rest of the women and children at the pupuseria accusing them of being a front for gang extortions. At this point, Josue (Pedro’s son) and Angelita, 11 and 8 respectively, made a break for it and ran away. Vanessa who is 6, just started to cry. The civilian population continued the heated argument with the armed forces who had their weapons aimed at the people they were supposed to protect. And this is 2011.
Our little corner of San Salvador, the 28 communities of la Chacra, is a “red zone”. People are poor, it's overcrowded, and it's essentially controlled by gangs, as opposed to the state, or the police or overarching principles of civic responsibility. It was September of 2009, when President Funes first decided to deploy the military into these red zones of El Salvador to try to combat violence and gang activity. At the beginning, lots of people in La Chacra were mildly content with the decision. “Better to have a soldier on the corner than a gang-member,” they would say. Human rights advocates and violence prevention organizations condemned the measure as alarmingly reminiscent of the civil war, contrary to the Peace Accords and a reactionary extension of the Iron Fist policies of previous ARENA governments. Nevertheless, people felt safer initially. But now, it’s been two years and people are fed up.
It has become a crime to live in these communities. Punishment is doled out by the seemingly permanent presence of patrols of anywhere between 3 to 8 soldiers, M-16’s in their hands and scowls on their faces, scouring the alleyways to “secure the peace”. If you’re a young male you’re treated like Juan Carlos. If you’re an adult and don’t keep your mouth shut you’re treated like Pedro and Martita. If you’re a child like Vanesa or Josue, we can’t yet conceive the scars you will bear.
The day after this incident, Pedro told me: “The soldiers still have the same mentality they had during the war- they haven’t changed. The sons of bitches think they are better than the people, that we’re stupid and need to be protected from ourselves, like we’re less than human. But I won’t take their crap. If Josue even thinks about joining a gang I’ll kill him myself, so I don’t need their help, thanks anyway. I don’t want those dogs around, and I’ll keep telling it to their faces. ”
And this is supposed to be part of the solution to the violence: that entire geographic zones be black-listed and militarized; that overwhelmingly good and honest people there be treated like criminals and thereby come closer to embodying the rage and violence of that criminalization; that the artisans of institutional violence (the soldiers) combat capitalism’s superfluous youth organized into networks of peripheral violence (the gangs). Funes has acquiesced to the perverse logic of an inhuman system that convinces us that the only way to fight fire is with more fire.
And so now we’re ablaze. Because it’s not the least bit arbitrary that La Chacra and other places have been marked by the security forces. Violence perpetrated by other actors is just as normal, and often times more brutal.
Last Thursday August 25th, we woke up to a veritable siege of yellow tape, soldiers, police officers, and even one of the few forensic investigators in El Salvador. When you see yellow tape you know there’s been a killing. When you see a forensic investigation truck, you know the attorney general thinks they might actually be able to solve the homicide in question.
We had a body in the river. Word is that the kids from one gang had spent the night torturing and chopping up a kid from the other gang with machetes, smashed in his face with rocks and then came into La Chacra and left him by the bridge going over the river . The idea was that he would get washed away down the Acelhuate and up into Lake Suchitlan and then over into the Lempa River, and by the time he was down to the ocean, it was just another missing joven. But the kid got caught in the shallows, and so he became the most pressing issue on everyone’s minds and lips for at least a few days.
On that day, I watched the story about the muerto on the news at 1:30pm and then walked up to the Open School for the afternoon jornada, dejected. As usual, Daniela and Grisel were waiting to jump on my back and grab my arms and tell me all kinds of random things as we walked towards the Open School. But today the first words out of Grisel’s mouth were, “Boorrich! Did you see the dead guy? They cut off his hands and everything!”
And then Daniela: “They cut off his head too didn’t they?”
Grisel responded, “No they just smashed it, but he was all chopped up. They killed him though didn’t they Boorrich?”
I paused and said haltingly, “Yeah it looks like that’s what happened…” How was I talking to two 11 year old girls about this?! I didn’t know what else to say tell them. Should I tell them it hadn’t actually happened? Tell them to not talk about it? To forget about it and concentrate on the abundant beauty and wonder in their lives?In the formational part of the Open School, we decided to contrast the killing to the culture of peace that we try to foment with them, but all the kids wanted to do was compare gossip about the event; what time the body had appeared, if it had happened in La Chacra or if people from somewhere else had only brought the body to dump it here. To be sure, it was the day that Jonathan most participated in the discussion. Deysi and Bryan and I told them peace starts inside each of them, and that it would be their job to build a world where they didn’t have to wake up to mutilated bodies floating in the shallows of the river that runs a one minute walk from their houses. It was injustice pues: the injustice of the world that we adults have created for our children.
Military occupation and violent repression of marginal populations (the police have also been responsible for extra-judicial beat downs, shoot-outs and unwarranted arrests in La Chacra and elsewhere) has not abated the violence in El Salvador. Homicides have only remained constant at 12 a day since 2009. The period from January to August of 2011 has been the most violent of the past three years, and August the most violent month of 2011. Militarization of red zones has also caused criminal networks to expand their activity and violence to previously calm rural and suburban areas.
This certainly isn’t all Funes’ fault though. The phenomenon of generalized violence extends far beyond his presidency, and constitutes both a tool and a result of global capitalism. But Funes made plenty of campaign promises about concentrating on violence prevention as opposed to repression of supposed criminals, and he should fulfill them. The closest he has come, and only in discourse, is a proposal to incorporate “at-risk” youth into “military-like” training that, although provided by the military, would not include weapons instruction, but rather a focus on civil protection activities. The formal proposal has not been presented, and there are many serious questions around how this could actually be implemented. One way or another, the idea that potentially violent kids should be trained by the one institution that is completely dedicated to practicing violence, doesn’t seem too preventative let alone logical, especially when they’ll just be returning to their same violent communities after their six month training period.
During recreation time that Thursday of the muerto, the kids were playing in the little parish park when two soldiers suddenly entered the park itself. I was sitting by the soccer court adjacent to the park, and could only see the sun shining off their black guns and boots as their camouflage blended in seamlessly with the plants and trees in the quebrada behind the swing-sets. Grisel went running after Jonathan right past them as if they were just another obstacle in their tag-like game of Agarra la Ayuda. I was shocked and enraged at the soldiers’ presence and almost went to tell them to get the hell out of the play area, couldn’t they see that there were kids there?! Didn’t they think the kids had had enough trauma for one day?! But the kids didn’t seem to even notice the soldiers. This is what they’re growing up with. Maybe I was the only one being traumatized. And the truth is that I was a little scared of what they might say or do back to me. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t dare to physically abuse me, but well, it was a tense day, so I just continued sitting there.
I watched Jonathan taunting Grisel in the context of the game, laughing about it and using words that he shouldn’t have. I remembered a few weeks back when we had suspended him from the Open School for a week because he just wouldn’t stop provoking the other kids, threatening to beat them up, and actually trying to do so when he felt it warranted. He had been devastated by the suspension. He really does like the Open School, especially learning to play the little drums we’ve got. Perhaps he had taken Deysi’s advice to treat his suspension as an opportunity to really start thinking about putting into practice the ideals of healthy self esteem, respect for others, cooperation with them, and the pursuit of his dreams.
Because now he’s back, and he I think he is behaving slightly better. But he’s still very much “at-risk”. So will he get recruited into military service? How will they do it? Will his mom let him go, or will she cry hysterically as the soldiers rip him out of her arms? Or will she be out selling pan and not even notice he’s gone until hours later? Or will he have already gotten closer to the pandilla as an aspiring postero? Will he already be brincado into their ranks? Will he already have been beat down by a solider or a police officer ? Will he wind up in the river? Or will he still be playing the drums three times a week in the Open School with me and Bryan and some of the other kids with rhythm in their blood? Will he finally be thinking about his dreams and what he’s got to do to achieve them?
What kind of dreams come from an imagination completely penetrated by violence?