In less than a year, El Salvador’s culture has socially and economically transformed because of a truce that has carried on since March 2012 between two of it’s largest gangs—Bario 18 and MS-13. With 50,000 active gang members and 10,000 in prison, the region is considered one of the dangerous places in the world. In a collaborated effort between the Organization of American States, El Salvador’s military chaplain Fabio Colindres, and former guerrilla commander Raul Mijango, the mediated truce has lowered the homicide rate from 14 to 5 murders a day in the country.
20 members of Bario-18 have taken this opportunity to substantially change their future in what may seem like an unconventional way—opening a bakery. Located in the town of Ilopango, the bakery acts as a path for the former gang members to leave violence behind and the first step in the complexities of re-integrating into society. Ilopango Mayor Salvador Ruano, supported the initiative by helping the group rebuild a 430-square-foot home that at one point had neither a door, roof, electricity, or running water. Since then, everything has been restored except for the running water. Neighbors in the area are supplying the bakers with jugs of water until the bakers can financially reconnect the water services. A welcome sign with the words “18 Welcome” hangs outside the blue-painted-converted home.
For many of the former gang members, the bakery is an outlet for them to gain skills, free themselves from their past, and work toward lifting the stigma of what they used to be. Outside of the potential financial sustainability former gang members could achieve, the bakery aims to help direct youth out of the streets. Oscar Rivera, a veteran baker, trained the gang members in different techniques and stated the bakery “shows that if you give young people job opportunities, they can abandon the street.”
The bakers begin their work day at dawn using a gas stove and a small table propped up with bricks. Throughout the day some of the baked bread is placed on the counter tops while some is packaged into baskets for bakers to sell on the street. Although it only opened two weeks ago, a community within a community has been built and officials are declaring the city “free of violence.”
The unprecedented longevity of the truce between two of the largest gangs in the region has shown that measures toward peace are possible. We can only imagine what the creation of similar social reinsertion plans could look like for the country and the world.
– Juan Frausto
(Photo credit: AFP News)