“We must remove the tattoo from this country’s soul”
The Spanish parish priest Antonio Rodríguez
was arrested in El Salvador at the end of July
as part of a police raid against 127 gang members,
accused of illicit association and giving prisoners cell phones.
He was paroled in early August but re-arrested the next day.
For over a decade, Padre Toño, as he’s called,
has helped gang members reenter society.
We offer here excerpts from a text he wrote
defining his work philosophy,
followed by a journalist’s account
of a trip into his world.
Antonio Rodríguez / Juan José Dalton
The social work done by religious workers who belong to Servicio Social Pasionista SSPAS, a nonprofit civil society peace organization of the Corporación de la Pasión in El Salvador] comes from the importance we give to offering alternative development options for children, youths, women and all the other most vulnerable people in this society that marginalizes and stigmatizes people.
A vision that excludesTo put the importance and scope of the country’s situation in perspective, we must bear in mind that El Salvador’s 2009 Multipurpose Household Survey found that 59% of the population was less than 30 years old, and that El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have experienced a rapid growth of violence and crime over the past 15 years. The governments attribute this to the expansion of organized crime and trafficking in drugs, arms and persons to the United States as well as to the proliferation of youth gangs. In many situations it’s hard to establish the origins of violent criminal acts because the authorities don’t investigate or clarify the facts and most crimes remain unsolved. In fact, no more than 3% of all homicides are ever solved.
UN documents indicate that 6 out of 10 Salvadorans believe the country has become more unsafe and live with the fear of becoming victims of crime. This situation severely limits Salvadoran youth’s development opportunities.
Many of the opportunities that could provide development alternatives for Salvadoran young people are being truncated by the greatest problem youth face today: the belief that they’re the main perpetrators of violent acts in our country. If this belief is allowed to continue, it will perpetuate the crude and brutal exclusion of a great majority of its citizens, above all its youth. To be young in El Salvador is synonymous with being a violent criminal, largely criminalizing youth as a whole.
Among those most affected by the crime and violence are children and young people, especially those who live in the outskirts of urban areas and in poor rural areas. Although it’s not known exactly how many children and teenagers join gangs, some studies estimate it to be between 50,000 and 100,000.
Punishments and threats According to our philosophy, “being an impassioned religious worker means identifying with the social problems, feeling others’ pain and understanding the difficulties experienced by the neediest given the reality of violence in El Salvador.” We understand that development alternatives for youth will only become real when an honest effort is made to provide them the chance to be the primary agent in their own lives without handicapping them through prejudices built only on their being young.
aren’t viable options
If we review the measures the Salvadoran government has proposed and has implemented in the last ten years, we find repeated attempts to respond to a multi-cause social problematic with highly repressive methods. Today’s social situation shouldn’t be dealt with via a “hard hand” campaign because punishments or threats only serve to exacerbate the problem.
The mistake in the treatment of violence lies in the emphasis used by the public security authorities. They have employed a national security focus that has not proven to be the best alternative. In it youth have become the target of persecution. These reactive policies—numerous arrests of children and adolescents who commit offenses with drastic penalties and rehabilitation programs based on the suspicion of being young—haven’t worked.
Focus on rightsVarious civil society organizations have shown their disagreement with this approach and we have proposed as a more effective solution treating the phenomenon of violence—which we often don’t even understand or clearly comprehend the origins of—from a rights perspective, putting human beings’ rights as the priority.
The causes of violence are multiple and operate on distinct levels. On the macro level specialized studies show violent behavior to be the result of profound structural problems in society. For example, they point to social exclusion and inequality, which cause certain groups to suffer, and means that the State is not offering all its citizens—especially children and youth—access to the same basic services of education, health care, employment, security and justice.
The exclusion of children and youth is also related to globalization and consumerism. While globalization is efficient in promoting consumerism and creating economic expectations, it is inefficient in providing the means by which all can equally satisfy their expectations.
At the intermediate level, violence can result from limited social and community support. In El Salvador few community programs exist for children and teenagers. There are no recreation centers at all for sports and socialization in the outskirts of urban areas. In some cases churches become a space for socializing children and youth but often there are no specific programs specializing in preventing youth violence.
On the micro level various studies indicate that domestic violence and lack of family cohesion are factors that encourage youth violence. Abandonment by parents or other adults responsible for the care of children and youth, mothers who are overwhelmed and absent fathers all push young people into the streets and encourage aggressiveness. To these factors are added others of a psychological and cultural nature that contribute to young people getting involved in “street culture” and violent or criminal activities, including using and dealing drugs.
It’s an epidemic The problem of violence arises from a diversity of origins stemming from a complex historical social conflict whose specifics vary from case to case. Because of that, one of the more important premises that must be taken into account when considering prevention is that violence must be understood if it is to be prevented. An illness can’t be cured without learning what it is and where it originates, for we’d only be treating its symptoms without attacking the vectors that reproduce it.
The approach to violence as a public health problem is supported by authors such as James Gilligan, a psychiatrist with 25 years of work in the US prison system. Gilligan attempts to go beyond the dominant moral and criminal perspectives on violence to consider it instead as an epidemic with a specific pathogen—in this case a psycho-social one—with specific vectors. If we don’t pay attention to the etiology of the illness or treat the vectors that foster it, any other action such as suppressing or morally condemning the crime will be ineffective.
By this analysis, what we need in El Salvador is the guarantee of basic rights for all citizens. This is discussed in the rights we in SSPAS propose, i.e. provide the conditions people need to live with dignity. It’s a perspective that provides education, health care, employment and other conditions without which violence is generated.
A method with four elementsSSPAS is working to become a reference point in a reality where rights are especially absent for young people. Youth become the main actors in our focus on transforming conflicts and building peace, which in turn offers these young people the posibility of finding alternatives for their own development.
We approach our work in the broadest and most comprehensive way possible, covering the different levels of prevention with a method we ourselves have developed, known as POFY (Participation, Guidance, Formation and Psychological Care).
We strongly believe that the first condition we need to keep in mind for youth’s development is their participation in an active and productive social life to the benefit of society. Secondly, the POFY method proposes that young people need guidance and accompaniment that lets them discern and decide judiciously as thinking beings with opinions we should always view as important. Thirdly, formation with labor intermediation has to do with the right to education and decent employment, which in turn relates to the right to better opportunities for self-improvement. Finally, the fourth component is psychological care to help them recover their emotional health, not an easy task in the midst of the current inequality and high degree of social injustice.
Goodbye tattoosAmong the programs we provide is the removal of tattoos. We’ve called it “Goodbye Tattoos” and have offered it in the Padre Octavio Ortiz healthcare clinic since 2002. Low-income youth come to the program for a variety of reasons, the most common of which is seeking decent work and a better life in a society where a tattoo has become synonymous with crime and delinquency.
Responding to El Salvador’s gang reality, SSPAS works on behalf of young people who are asking for the opportunity to show that, independent of their past, they’re ready to change their future. Many of these young people are former gang members who want to re-enter society in the workplace or in school but aren’t accepted because of their tattoos.
In 2011 while presenting the book Una luz en la oscuridad (Light in the Darkness) I said, “Rehabilitation is a topic no one wants to touch and the mere fact that we’re talking about it makes us seen as dangerous … However we shouldn’t be afraid either ethically or in our conscience to support a human being who wants to be rehabilitated.”
Chronicle by Juan José Dalton This suburb of San Salvador, where Father Antonio Rodríguez works, is dominated by the feared Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). The graffiti on the walls announce it and so do the tattoos on the young people’s skin. These signs provoke terror in Salvadoran society, by now overwhelmed by violence.
of his trip to the Mejicanos barrio
The gang members hide nothing—it’s their barrio, their turf. Anyone unknown here wouldn’t dare cross the narrow street that rises sharply, lined with dozens of small houses, shops and businesses of all types. The image calls to mind the favelas or shanty-towns of Rio de Janeiro. The guide who drove me here warns that “if it weren’t for this car you wouldn’t get ten meters into this neighborhood without being stopped and your life would be in danger.”
When we visited the barrio there was a truce between the two big rival gangs: MS13 and Barrio 18 or Tribe 18. The cessation of conflict, sponsored by the Catholic Church and supported by the Mauricio Funes government, brought with
it a drop in daily homicides from 15 to 5. Independent official sources say there was also a decrease in other crimes such as extortion and sexual assaults, although the perception of violence and danger remained high.
A “chilled out” gang member speaksA large metallic door swings open silently and a gang member who is “chilled out”—i.e. no longer committed to or participating in illicit activities—receives us with a smile saying, “We’ve been waiting for you for awhile.”
With that, he begins to talk. “My name is Edwin and I’m 36 years old. I’ve belonged to MS13 since I was 14. The gang’s my family. We’re all brothers. If one eats, we all eat.” He’s wearing a sleeveless shirt to show off the tattoos on his shoulders and arms.
“This is the tattoo of the MS13 gang, the Mara Salvatrucha. It’s what identifies us and gives us a sense of belonging. This other one represents our lives.” It’s a clown with two faces: one laughing and the other crying. Edwin tells us that he finished high school and now works in a bakery as part of his re-entry into the workforce. When he gets up from the chair we can see that the letters have been tattooed in gothic style on his stomach. He turns around and on his back is the name of a woman. “It’s my mother’s name.”
Looking at the clown raises the question of what has been Edwin’s saddest moment while in the gang. He tells us, “While in I was in prison serving time for various crimes I learned my younger brother had been killed. It was so sad, worse than being in prison.”
And the happiest moments? “Without a doubt when my three children were born. The oldest is 12 and the youngest is 2. I only hope they don’t choose the path that I chose.” There are sociological studies that show a gang member only lives about 35 years.
Edwin tells us the tattoos are done by some gang members who acquire this specialty. Not everyone can do them. “It’s an art although it hurts. I think we suffer for a moment but it’s just a moment. I carry these tattoos on my skin and I’m not going to get rid of them, because I like them.”
Some gang members stopped getting tattoos or had them done in less visible places, for example on their legs or behind their ears or on their head because of the police persecution that was part of the “hard-hand” policies of the Francisco Flores (1999-2004) and Tony Saca (2004-2009) governments.
“They carry scars on their souls” We leave the barrio and head to the San Francisco de Asís parish. Father Antonio Rodriquez, fondly known as Padre Toño, is in charge of the church and is much loved in the parish, although the authorities sometimes hate him. Since coming to El Salvador from Spain in 2000 he has worked to rehabilitate the young gang members and return them to society. Padre Toño agreed to participate in the truce deal with the gangs. He says there’s no “human dimension” in the treatment of young gang members because there’s no plan to rehabilitate them.
“The tattoos give the youth a sense of identity, but they have much deeper marks from the violence and exclusion they have lived with,” explains Padre Toño. He adds that the tattoos also signify memory. “These are scars of the suffering they’ve been through; they reveal the exclusion of thousands of youth with no future and a State with no face or humane response.”
He runs the program called “Goodbye Tattoos” to remove them from young people of both sexes. “I’ve witnessed gang members getting their tattoos removed and despite this country’s machista culture, I’ve seen them cry, because they’re removing their identity and their memories… it’s very moving to see.” There have been many cases of youths who did no crimes but ended up in jail only because they had tattoos.
“We can remove the tattoos from the gang members but we can never remove the scars from their souls. This society must fully commit to the development of its people within society. Exclusion must disappear and society itself must “remove the tattoos from its soul so the violence stops and there’s peace,” concludes Father Antonio Rodríguez.
From the text by Antonio Rodríquez, in “Picar piedra—Iniciativas ciudadanas frente a la Violencia (Breaking Stones – Citizens’ Initiatives in the Face of Violence), a publication of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and from Juan José Dalton’s chronicle in Contrapunto Diario. Excerpts chosen and edited by envío.