Mara Salvatrucha, Child Soldiers and War : Why not Thinking Ahead Can Make Things Worse

A month ago I was pondering on the issue of how easily junior youth  are targeted. In the media, adolescents are identified as the top consumers and movies and television are directly targeted for them. They are made for teens to consume more, to gobble up the latest trends and to ultimately feel towards themselves as the media sees fit. The genius of this is, they make it in a way that adolescents think that they are rebelling by becoming part of this movement.  It is highly reported that the more you expose adolescents to, the more likely they will consume what you have to offer.  We numb are kids with gadgets, we make their sense of worth be based on material wealth and consumption.

I usually do an exercise with the junior youth , which is for them to flip a magazine and ask them what they see. I then ask them to identify things with a critical eye, to see what the advertisement is really trying to tell you. We get so many messages piled on everyday about how we are supposed to think, act and identify with that we don’t even think about it. But the junior youth can make significant changes around them and actually teach their parents how things are done.

These are problems that junior youth face everyday. Usually people will say ” Well it’s not my problem,  the family has to be taking care of this”.  Well, I don’t feel that way. I feel that we should all work together, the parents being in the forefront , to allow themselves to become empowered.

Junior youth are targeted because they are at an age where their identity is still being formed. They are susceptible to all the messages and ideas around them. There are also times when in severe situations of war , this can become advantageous. An adult is not so easily swayed but  a junior youth can become swayed by the rhetoric which will have lasting effects on the world around them.

Literally, how we treat junior youth will lead to a lot of problems later on.  I will give you an example.  During the civil war in El Salvador, thousands of junior youth were recruited to become soldiers or guerrillas. They were exposed to a lot of violence, and were witnesses to  their families being murdered. Some of them became part of the very side that had murdered their families. Despite right-wing or left-wing rhetoric, both sides were to blame for this as both of them used adolescents to be part of their armies. Those kids , after the war, were now either adults or in their late teens. They knew nothing else but violence. That is what they were taught to be and that is their reality.

The United States granted many political asylum, and the idea was that if they left somehow they would have a better life. The reality was far more complicated. They arrived in Los Angeles and were targeted by the gangs in the neighborhood.  Whether they were attacked or they were again attracted to violence it was here that they formed two gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the L18.

If you watch the rites of these gangs today you can see that there are some very similar rituals to those Americanized gangs. The Salvadoran gangs quickly grew, adopting violence and crime as the way of life that was so familiar to them. Of course, this high level of crime leads them to be deported.

This deportation was not the end of the problem.  The deported members of the gang became increasingly restless and hostile of having being kicked out of the home they had known for so long. I remember being at an event at Proteccion al Menor and a former gang member threw a box at me and started yelling at me because of my American appearance.  When he opened his mouth he sounded completely American…because he was.

Those gang members would recruit people via the prison cells or in neighborhoods. Who would they target? You guessed it junior youth.  Because of the excessive migration to the United States, and entire amount of kids are usually left to their own devices while the mother tries to get a visa for them. These kids feel abandoned, and the gangs offered a sense of family that they never had. For them, violence and killing are signs of love and loyalty.  Their distorted sense of self revolves entirely around this.

It is really tragic if you think about it. Today, those gangs are the most violent in the world spreading their wings to many countries around the world and giving a concept that Salvadoreans are violent and abusive. The reality is much more complex.  Many countries , idealogies and fragmented thinking lead to this problem.  They are no longer the victims but become abusers.

This is why working on prevention is so important.  In the school that I am helping out with the junior youth program in El Salvador it now has the lowest index of violence in Santa Tecla. This is coming from girls who are generally from very humble homes and live in those neighborhoods infested with gangs.

I think the same way as I did in Spain : If I can reach one kid , and that kid empowers herself she can literally change her neighborhood and make it become a much better place. When we think that it isn’t our problem, when we believe that it’s someone else’s mess… well that’s where things get messed up.

We are all masters of our own decisions…. the other day I found out that a junior youth that had stopped going to the junior youth group had ended up in prostitution. It made me sad, and I wonder if her life would have been different if we had kept track , and tried to show that we cared more.

Junior youth can change the world, literally. Because of their susceptibility , they can either become pawns to other’s agenda, or they can become true agents of change.

I bring this up in light of the kony2012 campaign. Perhaps they may have good intentions , but if there are children soldiers, they have to be placed in an educational program which helps them let go of their trauma. They have to find way to find the underlying causes as to why this has happened and work on prevention methods. They need to be working in the surrounding areas and find out what the local people are doing to combat this problem. There are so many issues here that cannot be solved by simply putting one man away.



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