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Young Salvadoran works to protect his community from gang violence

Man cuts another man's hair in San Salvador

Jose* has opened a hair salon in San Salvador, with the help of UNHCR, the Salvadoran government and local partners. Ⓒ UNHCR/Diana Diaz

By Diana Diaz

Adults often look back at their early teenage years, as some of the best ones of their life—a time when they were young, careless and free; a time when they could make mistakes and learn for the future. But for young men like Jose*, being careless, free or making mistakes is not an option.

“Being young in El Salvador can be dangerous,” he explains. “When you go out, gangs harass you. They want you to do favours for them, to collect their fees for them or alert them when the police are coming.”

Young women are often forced into sexual relationships with gang members, he adds, and young men are preyed upon to traffic drugs, run errands or become full-time members of the groups. “It is a difficult decision. If you say no, they threaten you or hurt your family.”

During the last year, the government registered 50.3 homicides for every 100,000 habitants—an average of nine people were killed every day in El Salvador. With a population of just over six million, El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world. With gangs relentlessly striving to control the territory, extortion, rape and harassment have been normalized in a culture of perceived impunity.

This constant state of terror has forced thousands of Salvadorans from their homes. According to a government study, supported by UNHCR, between 2006 and 2016, 71,500 Salvadorans were internally displaced, an average of nearly 600 people each month. Among them are thousands of brave young women and men who face the stark choice of leaving their communities or being killed, if they refuse to aid the gangs in their criminal activities.

“Violence must not dictate our future.”

Jose fled twice himself, to a neighbouring country, but was deported back home both times. Now he is trying to make his community safer, so others can stay.

“I’ve decided this situation must stop,” he says. “Violence must not dictate our future. We must regain control of our lives, despite the dangers we face.”

UNHCR is working with the new government, as well as humanitarian and development organizations, to spur initiatives that make life safer for displaced people in El Salvador.

“I am part of a group of young people who have been able to open small businesses and attend courses to make them thrive,” Jose says. “This has helped me regain hope.”

Though sometimes paralyzed by fear, he is determined to look forward. “I am one of those brave young men and women who, despite living in constant fear, know we have a future. We cannot lose hope. We can make our dreams come true.”

*Names changed for protection reasons.


What UNHCR is doing

UNHCR and government entities in El Salvador are working together to identify people with protection needs among displaced communities as well as those at risk of displacement. These partnerships also involve working together to carry out community-based programs that would allow people at risk to stay safe and find outlets to become self-reliant.

READ THE ONLINE EDITION OF THE UNHCR MAGAZINE