Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Guns and violence

Monday, 4-11-11

**This blog is rated R and contains strong adult themes. If information about guns or crime bothers you then please do not read this post**

On the way to school today I saw several kids from my school buying things alongside the road. There are always people who have little carts set up selling candy, food, toys, jewelry, etc. As I got closer I could see that they had bought little toy guns. I sighed to myself. I’m not a huge fan of guns or toy guns to begin with, but I really hate to see children buying them. Unfortunately, kids have very easy access to toy guns here. They can almost always buy them somewhere along the road on the way to school. Most kids walk by themselves to school so it’s not like their parents are nearby telling them what not to buy. When all the vendors were here for Berlín’s Patron Saint Festival in March several of them sold actual size rifles and machine guns. They were easy to see and easy to buy.

In my third grade class today one of the kids was busy shooting his classmates instead of paying attention so I told him that there was to be no playing with guns during class. Not long after that I looked over and saw he was shooting them again. This time I took away his toy gun. I may not be able to regulate what kids can buy but I can say what they are not allowed to do during my English classes. I’m not terribly surprised that children are allowed to bring toy guns into the school. But it does make me really sad. It’s possible that toy guns are not allowed on school property but, like many rules in this country, they aren’t enforced or they are only enforced by certain teachers.

I want to say right now that if anyone is thinking that I’m being unreasonable or I’m trouncing all over people’s rights bear arms, please just let it go. I fail to see how arming children with toy guns is improving the Salvadoran society. Besides, this isn’t the US and the US Constitution doesn’t apply here. I also want to say that this has nothing to do with hunting and the toy guns aren’t related to hunting. 95% of the original forest in El Salvador is gone. There’s nothing left to hunt.

Every day I open the paper and there’s news about someone who has been killed in the country due to gun violence. One that stuck out today was two pregnant women who were killed in a city not too far from San Salvador. Those who died were a 17-year old girl and her 38-year old mother-in-law. On Saturday I read an article that said, “La violencia contra jóvenes estudiantes parece imparable en el país y ha tendido a agudizarse en los últimos días” (Violence against young students seems unstoppable in the country and has tended to worsen in recent days). The article was about 3 students who had been killed. There are a lot of people killed here as a result of gun violence. It’s hard to keep track of it all.

Here’s some food for thought:

The US Department of State
The State Department considers El Salvador a critical-crime-threat country. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world; violent crimes, as well as petty crimes are prevalent throughout El Salvador, and U.S. citizens have been among the victims. The Embassy is aware of at least nine American citizens who were murdered in El Salvador during the last year.

Extortion is on the rise and U.S. citizens and their family members have been victims in various incidents. Violent, organized gangs are a major factor in the crime situation and are often behind extortion attempts. Some areas of El Salvador are effectively controlled by gangs. Many gangs have access to military-style hardware, including automatic weapons and hand grenades.

Extortion tactics have included indiscriminate grenade attacks on buses, businesses and restaurants, resulting in the death or injury of dozens of people, including children. These types of attacks are unpredictable and the U.S. Embassy advises its personnel to remain alert to their surroundings and to minimize risk to themselves.

Many Salvadorans are armed, and shootouts are not uncommon. Foreigners, however, may not carry guns even for their own protection without first obtaining firearms licenses from the Salvadoran government. Failure to do so will result in the detention of the bearer and confiscation of the firearm, even if it is licensed in the United States.

Armed holdups of vehicles traveling on El Salvador's roads are common and American citizens are encouraged to remain aware of their surroundings and to drive with their doors locked and windows up. If confronted, do not resist the armed assailant(s).

Travelers should remain in groups and avoid remote or isolated locations in order to minimize their vulnerability. Travelers should also avoid displaying or carrying valuables in public places. Passports and other important documents should not be left in private vehicles. Armed assaults and carjackings take place both in San Salvador and in the interior of the country, but are especially frequent on roads outside the capital where police patrols are scarce. Criminals have been known to follow travelers from the international airport to private residences or secluded stretches of road where they carry out assaults and robberies. Armed robbers are known to shoot if the vehicle does not come to a stop. Criminals often become violent quickly, especially when victims fail to cooperate immediately in surrendering valuables. Frequently, victims who argue with assailants or refuse to give up their valuables are shot. Kidnapping for ransom continues to occur, but has decreased in frequency since 2001. U.S. citizens in El Salvador should exercise caution at all times and practice good personal security procedures throughout their stay.

The U.S. Embassy warns its personnel to drive with their doors locked and windows raised, to avoid travel outside of major metropolitan areas after dark, and to avoid travel on unpaved roads at all times because of criminal assaults and lack of police and road service facilities. Travelers with conspicuous amounts of luggage, late-model cars or foreign license plates are particularly vulnerable to crime, even in the capital.

Travel on public transportation, especially buses, both within and outside the capital, is risky and not recommended. The Embassy advises official visitors and personnel to avoid using mini-buses and buses and to use only radio-dispatched taxis or those stationed in front of major hotels.

U.S. citizens using banking services should be vigilant while conducting their financial exchanges either inside local banks or at automated teller machines. There have been several reports of armed robberies in which victims appear to have been followed from the bank after completing their transactions. Credit-card skimming is also a problem.

Visitors to El Salvador should use caution when climbing volcanoes or hiking in other remote locations. Armed robberies of climbers and hikers are common. Mine-removal efforts ceased several years ago, but land mines and unexploded ordnance in backcountry regions still pose a threat to off-road tourists, backpackers, and campers. The Embassy strongly recommends engaging the services of a local guide certified by the national or local tourist authority when hiking in backcountry areas, even when within the national parks.

This replaces the Country Specific Information for El Salvador dated November 18, 2010 to update the sections on Entry/Exit Requirements and Crime. http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1109.html

In 1996 San Salvador was considered the second most dangerous city in the Western Hemisphere, according to statistics. Since the end of the civil war in 1992 El Salvador has not seen a reduction in crime rates. Today San Salvador, and El Salvador in general, experience some of the highest homicide rates in the world, it is also considered an epicenter of the gang crisis, along with Guatemala and Honduras. The homicides reported in 2006 reached up to 3,906, in 2005 3,779 were reported; 57.2 violent deaths per every 100,000 people. Crime rates in general have been steadily growing throughout the years, from 2005-2006 crime rose 7.5%. El Salvador is the most dangerous and violent country in Central America. The government tried controlling the gangs with a tactic called "Super Mano Dura" which means "Super Strong Hand", however it has not been successful and crime rates have continued to rise.

Excerpt from “The Weight of All Things” by Sandra Benitez
“Caught between their guns were the people, the ordinary people for whose supposed benefit the war was being waged. On one side was the right, claiming it fought against the tyranny of communism. On the other side, the left, struggling, it said, against the injustice of oligarchs and militarists. But while the two sides fought for their principles, most of the dying was done by the people.” – About the Civil War in El Salvador 1980-1992

Excerpts from past blogs
“We passed a bank on the way to get food. There are always armed security guards at banks. Often times you’ll also see them at gas stations, when trucks are unloading, and various other places where you wouldn’t expect to see armed security guards in the States. The guy we passed had one assault rifle strapped to his chest and was holding another one. ‘One AK-47 isn’t enough,’ Kathy commented. I guess not.” – In San Miguel, March 24, 2011

“There is definitely more of a police presence here than usual. I guess the gang violence has been worse lately so there are a lot more police out on patrol. We passed several guys (military) with machine guns on what looked to be a main square. And then we passed a giant tank coming down the road toward us. There was a guy behind the gun of the tank with lots of bullets. A bit unnerving, but I still feel very safe here. Common sense and having Alfredo for a driver goes a long way.” – In San Salvador, September 10, 2010

Excerpts from my “List of Differences between El Salvador and the US”
* There are a lot of guns – police, guards, civilians. Also many machetes.
* Many guards, police carrying machine guns or rifles.
* Can’t take pictures in the airport. Why? When the guard with a machine gun asks you not to take a picture you don’t ask why.

Personal Safety
This is why when the Pastoral Teams tells us not to go someplace, it’s important they we don’t go there. When they tell us not to go out at night it’s because they’re concerned for our well-being. When we read in the Compañeros manual not to wear flashy jewelry or watches while we’re here it’s probably best to listen. When we tell someone from the Pastoral Team that we’re leaving the house and where we’re going it’s because we don’t want them to worry. This is not the Iowa. This is not Europe. This is not a Mexican resort. This is El Salvador and we need to listen to the people who live here. We need to listen to the people who are more concerned about our safety than whether we get go somewhere we want to go.

Of course, I don’t go out at night unless I’m with one of the ladies from the Pastoral House. I don’t go wandering around in parts of the city that I’ve been told to avoid. I don’t ever walk by myself to one of the cantons or caseríos (villages) around Berlín. Sometimes I get frustrated because it’s much less freedom than I have in the US. The “rules” create barriers that I don’t like and I wish didn’t exist. But just because I wish things were different doesn’t mean I should abandon common sense and the advice of the Team.

Importantly, I don’t feel unsafe here. I haven’t ever felt unsafe. I have never been in a situation where I felt threatened. Much of this I attribute this to using my common sense and listening to the recommendations of the Pastoral Team. I also credit many people in El Salvador with making me feel secure. The people I’ve met and spend time with have all been very caring and loving. From the people at the guest house where we stay in San Salvador to Alfredo, who often drives large delegations around San Salvador and on to Berlín. The people in the cantons greet us with open arms and open hearts. I know I am loved every day I walk into school to teach. And of course, the Pastoral Team and Kathy always make us feel at home. I know I am safe here, surrounded by my family and friends in El Salvador.

For more reading go to:

With a security guard in Berlin
Note the side arm

I took this picture in San Salvador, September 2010
After I took it Alfredo told me no more photos
of the armed guards in San Salvador

Guarding an archaeological site

Rifle & a machete

Gun holsters for sale in Santiago de Maria

Toy guns for sale in Berlin

A sign I bought and put in my room

A little boy in Berlin named Bryan playing with his fake gun


Anonymous said...

OK, I admit that your blog tonight does not make me feel any better about your safety in El Salvador. Please stay safe!!! Love, Martha

Tim said...

Hi Alisha,
Just started reading your blog. Thanks for what you share. I also hate seeing kids with toy guns.

Matt said...

I'm glad that you now know so many people in your area that look out for you. It is always good to be careful though and I know you are.