Sophia* has a cascade of dark curls and Cupid’s-bow lips that impose happiness on her whole face regardless of what she’s saying. Even when, in an empty classroom, the 15-year-old goes over a bleak list of options for surviving one of the most dangerous parts of growing up in El Salvador: school.
The problems began when she was 13. A gang member in her school instructed Sophia to pass drugs to another student, which she refused to do. Then he started asking her for money, then to go out with him and his friends. After school, they would be waiting for her. She told the principal and he told her parents to pull her out of school. So she moved out of her house and into her grandfather’s, which is closer to her new school she started in February, placed back in seventh grade. Going home is unsafe, so she doesn’t visit much.
Sophia plans to be the first in her family of 10 to attend university. There, she’ll study English or French. But first she has to slough through the dangers that come with attending school in El Salvador, where gangs may operate within a quarter of schools. Or, she’ll be pushed out by threats and intimidation like tens of thousands of children each year. She has an alternative plan, too: an aunt in Houston, who would take her in if she could make the harrowing and illegal journey from El Salvador.
Violence, and particularly sexual violence, is one of the strongest factors motivating a growing migration of El Salvador’s girls to escape through Guatemala and Mexico into the United States. Last year, the number of Central American children caught in Mexico was 55 percent higher than 2014 and 270 percent higher than 2013. Many of them are just like Sophia. She lives in Ciudad Delgado, one of the most dangerous municipalities in San Salvador, the traffic-clogged capital of El Salvador, which itself is the most violent country outside of a war zone. This year, the country displaced Honduras as the world’s murder capital.
Sophia doesn’t speak bluntly about the dangers she faces as a young woman, but the statistics do. El Salvador has the highest homicide rate of women and girls in the world. More than half of Salvadoran women report suffering from a form of violence during their life. Gangs use rape and sexual assault as initiation rituals and tools to keep control of their neighborhoods. If a girl refuses to go out with a gang member it’s not uncommon for her to be executed or disappeared. If a gang member missteps, the rape and murder of his wife or sister might be doled out as punishment.
On winding roads across the city and country, guards in neat uniforms and shotguns slung over their shoulders linger outside nearly every doorway. Twenty-five years after a peace accord ended a vicious civil war, during which death squads disappeared tens of thousands of people, the country is more dangerous than ever. Gangs that formed in exile in Los Angeles—like Barrio 18 and its rival Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13—returned to the country and carved it up into territories. Few Salvadorans today are untouched by gang extortions called la renta, or the violence that claimed one homicide per hour during the first three months of 2016.
This violence disproportionately affects El Salvador’s kids.
During recess at Sophia’s new school, the school’s director, Jose Solis, cracks jokes with the children lining up at the courtyard snack stand. Girls jump rope, and boys run their hands under a faucet, smoothing their hair down with the water. This school, he says, is a safe place for the students. The difficulty is keeping them in it. The year started with 350 students, but they’re already down to 288. “They were threatened,” he says of the dropouts, and there’s not much he can do about it. The teachers watch as the students walk home, but only until they’re out of sight. “Here, thank God, we haven’t had any problems because there are no gangs inside,” he says. “Only their fans who write graffiti in the bathroom.”
But in August, just a few weeks before we met, someone found Sophia’s phone number on Facebook and started texting her, demanding she send them naked photos or they’d hurt her family. The harassment got so bad she stayed out of school for a week. Her dad told her to tell her teachers she’d been sick. But really she’d been reading and watching TV at home, nervous that someone was watching her. She deleted her Facebook account.
“I don’t have many friends here,” Sophia says. “I don’t trust anyone because if I tell them something they might tell the gangs.”
Sophia says her two relatives are considering splitting the cost of a coyote to smuggle her to America. The rate has been rising rapidly as the border has militarized. Today, it can cost $7,000 for one attempt, and up to $20,000 for three. Being caught and sent back to El Salvador can be deadly. If the gangs find attempted deserters, they’re killed.
To social worker Yaneth Alvarado, Sophia hits the all the markers for someone at risk of stopping her education: she’s too old for her grade and has been forced to miss long stretches of class. Alvarado, a petite woman with dark hair and a serious demeanor, is an instant hit in the school’s courtyard. Students crowd around her and she knows them, and hundreds more in the 15 schools where she works, by name.
Alvarado’s job is inherently dangerous. She makes house calls to students who drop out of school or don’t graduate and tries to find solutions to get them back. She’s working with UNICEF to develop a home-study and virtual education program that will be tested in the coming year for the kids who can no longer go to school.
The school year is winding to a close in El Salvador, where it runs from February to November. But as classes end, it’s a critical time. Last year, 28,000 students dropped out, with the majority attributing it to the violence they experienced, and some 300 kids were killed while walking to school, says Cristina Pérez, who advises on disaster management for Plan International, a child-rights organization. “The Ministry of Education looks at it like a phenomenon,” she says. “All these kids are not dropping out of school because they want to.” She cites one school, where she says 85 percent of parents have a gang affiliation.
The most troublesome time for kids, Alvarado and the educators agree, is between the first and third grades—this is when they’re most easily used as pawns by their parents to extort their classmates. Rather than risk jail time themselves, some parents use their children—who only face a maximum sentence of seven years in prison—to do the gang’s dirty work. A teachers’ union representative told Reuters in May that sometimes children are forced to collect 10 to 25 cents from each of their classmates per day for the gangs. In these cases, Alvarado will sometimes go to the grandparents for intervention, but says, “it’s practically impossible to help.”
Organizations like Plan International and UNICEF walk a tightrope to operate in these neighborhoods. Though they don’t negotiate directly with the gangs, they’re being closely watched. Their lives are in danger if the gangs don’t like what they’re talking about. “All Salvadorans must know how to speak,” says Pérez.
A couple of blocks away, a marching band practices in the courtyard of a large, double-gated school, where more than 850 students study up to ninth grade. In a classroom near the entrance, students show off the work they’re doing in a robotics class. The class is a three-year-old project to get high-risk kids interested in school. A gangly and serious boy named Carlos* presented his model city, complete with funiculars dangling from a yarn pulley system. They would save the government money and reduce traffic, he recited, to the background rumble of bellowing brass instruments.
After the show, students filtered out, but Carlos stays behind. His classmates were told he would be interviewed about the robotics projects, but he really wants to talk about the gangs. Carlos started at this school earlier in the year, after being kicked out of his last one twice. Due to the two years of classes he lost, he’s 16 years old but only in 7th grade.
Carlos speaks bluntly about what he called his “aggressive” behavior. When he was 13 his friends started pressuring him to harass girls and get in fights—things he says he didn’t want to do. After a spate of trouble at his last school, his father told him he should switch schools, so he came here, where people didn’t know his past. He admits that if he had stayed, he probably “wouldn’t do anything in life.” He likes accounting and wants to start a computer business, study English and leave El Salvador. He says he feels safer at his new school, but not because there isn’t gang activity. This school is located in the middle of a territory controlled by the Barrio 18 gang.
“For some schools the front street is divided and they fight everyday,” says Noemi Lopez, a stately grey-haired woman who’s been principal for 13 years and a teacher for three decades before that. The gang leaders here respect the school, she says. Though just two blocks away is already the border with a rival gang, where shootings will break out.
Elizabeth Salazar, a petite math and science teacher who runs the robotics program, perches nearby. She says even the educators can’t venture past those two blocks, and if she did she would never take a student, go off the main road, or tell anyone that she works at the school.
The school tries to keep an eye on its gang-affiliated students, but without drawing attention to it. Some of the gangs wear certain brands or use certain slang to distinguish themselves. “When the kids start we don’t ask them if they’re in a gang, but we know by the way they behave and speak,” says Lopez. They do keep an eye on the kids and meet with their parents with concerns, but it’s often not enough. More than 250 students have dropped out in the past year.
It’s not just the students who take a risk by going to class each day. Dozens of teachers have been killed over the past few years, for offenses like giving a bad grade or confiscating drugs from students. Lopez says her job has become more dangerous than it was when El Salvador was wracked by civil war. “Before, you’d know who killed you,” she says. “Now you don’t know.”
*Names have been changed.
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from El Salvador.