SAN SALVADOR — First his mother abandoned him, then his father. That's when, at 15, the Salvatrucha gang became Juan Carlos Ordonez's family. He quit school and began to steal, use drugs, rape, and murder.
But seven years later, Mr. Ordonez's gang tattoos are the only traces of his life of crime. After an arrest, he landed in a private program that has rehabilitated him and others caught up in the gang culture.
Part of the legacy of the region's armed conflicts and poverty, and the broken dreams of those who tried to escape these ills in the United States, gangs are prevalent throughout Central America. But in El Salvador, where the gang problem is most acute, the Don Bosco Poligono program is combining work and study to give troubled youths the tools for long-term self-reliance.
Noting that "the problem of gangs in El Salvador continues without any solution," Karla de Varela of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), says:"The Don Bosco Industrial Park is one of the best and most complete programs. It should be taken as a model and appliedon a national level." It is the only private, residential center to which the state sends sentenced youth offenders. In the past year, representatives of the program have traveled to Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama to present their program to government and private institutions.
While the social and economic causes of the gang phenomenon in Central America are varied and complex, a 1998 UNICEF study highlights the role of US gangs. The report says the gang subculture was brought to El Salvador by boomerang emigrants deported from the US after becoming involved in gangs in low-income neighborhoods of large US cities.
Once back in Salvadoran territory, many of the returnees set up offshoots of some of the biggest Latin gangs in the US, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.
According to Aida Santos de Escobar, a judge who works with youth offenders, 90 percent of minors convicted of crimes and sentenced to institutions are gang members. Calling the official response to the gang problem a "disaster," the judge says, "I would much prefer to send all my cases to the Poligono Don Bosco instead of to the state institutions."
Founded by a Roman Catholic priest of the Salesian order, the Rev. Pepe Morataya, the Don Bosco program set up shop in one of the most crime-ridden barrios of El Salvador more than a decade ago and started working with street kids and other troubled youth. Since 1996, the program has given a limited number of "scholarships" that allow young offenders who show good behavior to serve out their sentences there.
The program serves 45 youth on a boarding basis; the remaining 400 are day-participants. Children must be 14 or older to take part in the work program.
Experts say the program's strength is the combination of work and education. It differs from other private and state programs in that the kids don't just labor in workshops, but become paid employees of one of the eight micro-enterprises - which produce everything from bread to aluminum pots on the premises.
The youths work their way up from apprentice, to worker, to manager, to partner in the company, while contributing to a personal savings account that all participants must open when they start the program. The offenders' families are required to contribute a modest amount to their children's savings accounts - as a sign of family solidarity.
"We don't train the students to be qualified labor in a company, we train them to be businessmen. It is absurd to train the kids as qualified labor in a system that is not absorbing workers. Instead we train them to be a part of the solution to the problem," says Fr. Morataya.
He says that some of the program's graduates have gone on to set up their own microenterprises and others, who are still in the program, are enrolled in college. According to the program directors, 70 percent of those who complete the program maintain jobs, and more than half of those also continue their studies.
Today the center has 17 youth offenders and 10 more who have finished their sentences, but are staying on to finish scholarships. The rest are youths at risk or gang members who haven't had serious brushes with the law yet.
The Salvadoran government recently approved sending the Don Bosco program into prisons to work with 18- to 25-year-olds. According to the director of the Salvadoran prison system, 35 percent of the nation's inmates are gang members.
Ordonez credits Don Bosco with turning his life around. "If I had stayed in the [state] center, I would have been out on the street by now, doing the same thing I was doing before, because you don't learn much there," he says. "It's not like it is here," says Ordonez, who lives at the Don Bosco complex and makes money making pots and pans in the complex's metal shop. In his second year of college, he was reunited with his mother, whom he sees on the weekends.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor