Monday, December 19, 2005

The Neighborhood

We thought we'd take some time and describe the neighborhood around the church a bit more. It is a mix of poor working class and extremely poor people with a high level of gang violence in amongst, and surrounding, the neighborhood. Soyapango, the city in which the colonia Amatepec sits has the second highest rate of gang activity in the country. Lourdes, a city just outside of San Salvador, has the highest, though lately, it seems San Martin may unfortunately be steadily moving toward that designation. There, if the kids from the church enter the plaza in town, they will be killed by the gang that claims that territory because the kids are from a rival gang's territory. It doesn't matter that the kids do not belong to the gang who claims the territory where the church sits, just being from that area is enough.
In Amatepec, the area where the church sits is considered neutral for the time being. There is one gang territory above the church-Mara Salvatrucha and one below the church Calle 18. The narrow strip in between is nuetral and is where the church sits. Within the past few months near the church and surrounding streets, 10 people have been killed due to gang violence, 6 in a span of three days, which gave rise to a protest march against violence which Amy participated in with the Catholic and Lutheran clergy in the area--three of the people murdered were members of the nearby Catholic church. Some were family members of gang members killed in retaliation, others where drug addicts who crossed the gangs, some were gang members, and some were cobradors(money changers on the buses) and bus drivers--shot either during robbery attempts or for refusing to pay "renta", ransom, for going through gang territory. The buses in Amatepec are notorious for getting robbed by the gangs. Not surprisingly, the rise of the "mara" or gang problem here, which is enormous, has U.S. roots. Over the past years the U.S. government has had a policy of deporting Salvadoran gang members who grew up in the U.S., and have been arrested, back to El Salvador. Many are the children of refugees who fled with their families to the U.S. during the war, though they were never officially given refugee status by the Reagan administration because in the eyes of the Reagan administration they were not fleeing a tyrannical or dictatorial government at odds with the U.S. I guess U.S. trained death squads attacking your village were not considered a great enough threat to one's well being. The two main gangs Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 were formed in the U.S. in L.A. where they learned their vicious tactics and were imported with the aid of the U.S. government back into El Salvador. The reaction against them has been violent and has had an adverse effect on the youth, especially in a colonia like Amatepec where all young people are viewed by the police as possible gang members and treated as such. The youth in our church would actually like us to make cards for them that show that they are members of the church so they can easily let the police know that they are not gang members. They are routinely frisked and asked to remove their shirts, where the police look for tatoos, a sign of membership in a gang. All members of our youth group have been approached by the gangs and have said that it has been communication with their parents and involvement in the church that has kept them out. Though in some areas, the gangs have now taken to shooting kids who refuse to join.
Yet it is not all darkness in the neighborhood. It is a very vibrant place with vibrant hard working people. People who have been through alot and have an incredible resiliency about them. The neighborhood is made up of mostly refugees and ex-guerillas from the war. Due to this it seems, the government tends to neglect the area, except after the spats of violence (now on the corners are military soldiers with M-16 rifles, and the police have been checking the buses for gang members) and basic things such as reliable water service and utility service are spotty. The neighborhood is not that far from rural El Salvador, so we see cows wander in from time to time and eat at the piles of garbage that tend to accumulate along the street and from the church you can see the hillsides lined with rows of corn. It is a close community where even the thieves and drug addicts seem to be known by people, and in a way, accepted as part of the community. Tiendas dot the street and you can get fresh tortillas at a little store across the street from the church and pupusas at a little stall further down the street. It's a very rough area, but full of life and it is in these places such as Amatepec, San Martin, or Ilopango, where Santa Maria Virgen sits, in amidst the darkness of violence and poverty, that God is raising up a church full of life and vibrancy.


Jessica said...

Amy and Vince,
Your description of Amatepec is truly moving...not only because of the intense nature of the place but also because your words are infused with honest hope. Even for those of us who currently live in El Salvador and hear daily about the homicides and gang activities via the newspaper and radio, reading your words is heartbreaking. Thank you for taking the time to keep us present in your experience and your daily lives. I for one...truly appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

I read your post on Amatepec with great interest. I live in Canada, and my friend was killed just one year ago in your town. He was a drug addict, that had tried many many times to get off the drugs that were so debilitating his life. He was a gentle soul, and only wanted to know he was cared for. He made the mistake of buying drugs off the mara's. When I wouldn't send him money to pay them off they killed him. On October 31 I will remember the day of his death. The last time I talked to him, he was in a phone booth, surrounded by gang members, pleading with me to send money. They had shot his hand, and I knew that it was over for him. I couldn't save him, he was in too deep. Can you please put some more pictures of the town area, above, and below amatepec. Of the shops. I long to see where my friend spent his time, see the streets he walked, wishing to be back in Canada, where he lived more years than El Salvador. I have been moved by your pages.