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Away from violence


In the wake of war and natural disaster, violence has taken root in many impoverished inner city areas of Central America. For young people hoping to find a different way, the Red Cross offers a helping hand.

Among the steep, uneven streets of mud and dirt, the modest houses of Hábitat Confíen sprout above the thick tropical vegetation. It’s a weekday morning and the streets are quiet in the neighbourhood, one of the many communities that make up Ciudad Delgado, a city of 120,000 people just a few kilometres from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.

“Hábitat Confíen is a community that sprang up as a result of the severe earthquake that occurred in October 1986, a time when El Salvador was in the grip of civil war,” recalls Mario Gutiérrez, a community leader and member of the community development association’s governing board.

In Hábitat Confíen, in the Ciudad Delgado section of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, young people take part in a hip-hop dance school, one of many activities implemented by the Salvadorean Red Cross Society through its Opportunities for social inclusion project.
Photo: ©Vladimir Rodas/IFRC

“The government built 1,040 homes at what is now Hábitat Confíen, and people affected by the war or the earthquake came to live here,” explains Gutiérrez, who himself was living with his family in San Salvador and lost everything due to the earthquake. “That is why families from all 14 of the country’s departments now live in this settlement.”

Life for the 5,500 residents of Hábitat Confíen has improved greatly in recent years with a decrease in the actions of violent groups in part due to projects launched by the Salvadoran Red Cross and other local and international partners. Yet violence remains a concern in the community and opportunities for young people are limited.

“Initially, conditions in the settlement were limited with few social services,” says Gutierrez. “But with the passage of time, we organize the community to manage various local institutions and development projects, which currently include entertainment spaces for children and youth with support from the Red Cross, which has joined us during the last five years.”

In the aftermath of El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992, unplanned urban expansion advanced at breakneck speed, one of many factors that has contributed to urban violence.

A different form of violence, a new challenge

Ciudad Delgado is not the only city facing these issues. Nationwide, El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the region with more than 2,300 murders in 2013, though that is less than half of the 4,000-plus killings reported in 2011, according to El Salvador's Misistry of Justice and Public Security.

This new breed of urban violence is recognized as one of the region’s most pressing challenges. In April 2011, the Salvadorean Red Cross Society launched a project called ‘Opportunities for Social Inclusion’, an initiative funded by the Italian Red Cross, the ICRC, the Swiss Red Cross and the Norwegian Red Cross.

The ministries of health and education and Ciudad Delgado municipal authorities are also collaborating in the project, which aims to improve the social inclusion of young people and their families in Hábitat Confíen.

While the project benefits the entire community indirectly, it has given concrete opportunities to more than 400 young persons and adolescents between 10 and 25 years old.

Set to run until December 2014, the initiatives facilitate opportunities that allow young people to display their artistic, athletic, social or leadership skills. The programme also offers an alternative for young people in order to avoid involvement in violence or the abuse of alcohol or drugs.

“The actions taken,” says Arquímedes Flores, the project coordinator, “strengthen youth and community structures, improve preventive and environmental health, and promote art, culture and recreation.”

Reactivating the community

The project involved the construction of a skate park, a school programme that benefits 1,500 students, a football pitch, a lookout point, a recreational park for children, and the creation of the Henry Dunant youth centre, where some 550 students attend workshops on sewing, making piñatas (figures containing toys and sweets used in celebrations) and candles, computer courses, dance classes (including breakdancing) and various art forms.

The Salvadorean Red Cross also offers an alcohol and drug abuse prevention and assistance plan for teenagers.

“When I was 12 years old, I started smoking marijuana,”, says one 14-year-old adolescent who participates in this programme. “There was nothing for us young people to do around here, we had nothing to occupy our time. So we joined the gang in our part of the settlement.”

“My mother would say, ‘So young and already smoking marijuana!’ But I took no notice of her… until one day I went to one of the programme’s workshops,” he recalls. “I met young people from other areas of Hábitat Confíen and started to get to know them. It changed the way I saw things… I gave up drugs and started going to school. Now I think about my future. I want to study aeronautics and be an astronaut.”

But how effective will such preventive efforts be over the long term? And what should the Red Cross Red Crescent role be in violence prevention? While the Movement has traditionally focused on responding to violence, more National Societies see the need to do more to influence some of the root causes.

“The Norwegian Red Cross has traditionally focused efforts on rural health projects and disaster risk reduction,” explains Lars Erik Svanberg, a programme adviser for the Americas region at the Norwegian Red Cross. “In view of the growing humanitarian consequences of urban violence, in the last two years we have shifted our focus towards this area of action.”
Svanberg doesn’t expect National Societies, as non-governmental organizations, to be able to tackle all the problems that cause violence, but he believes they can mitigate the humanitarian consequences.

“We think that the Movement, since it is founded on the principles of neutrality and impartiality, is well placed to become involved in this kind of work in the region,” he says.

As in many areas around the world, the Salvadorean Red Cross has often had easier access to areas controlled by violent groups than some other public services because its mission is purely humanitarian and it does not represent national government or public authority.

The biggest challenge confronting projects on urban violence here, according to organizers, is not to lose momentum, to ensure they are sustainable, through both secure funding and community buyin, so that the social impact of the project in the neighbourhood can expand and even spread to the rest of Ciudad Delgado.

Another challenge has to do with the gangs themselves. If the ultimate aim of the Salvadoran Red Cross is the integration and social inclusion of young people, including those who might be sympathetic or be involved in a gang, might the gangs see these initiatives as a threat to their ability to recruit new members and maintain power over rival gangs ?

Youth leadership in Guatemala

In the neighbouring country of Guatemala, violence also has its roots in the aftermath of civil war and the rapid, uncontrolled urban growth during and after the war. The community of Santa Isabel II, about ten kilometres from Guatemala City, for example, came into being as a community of returnees — people who fled during the Guatemala’s civil war and then were relocated here when the conflict ended.

“They were originally from the Ixil area in the department of Quiché, which has a mainly indigenous population,” says Miguel Ángel Estrada, coordinator of a social inclusion programme run by the Guatemalan Red Cross. “Although the indigenous worldview is based on a deep connection with the land, the conflict between 1960 and 1996 drove them from their homes. They went first to Mexico and were later repatriated by the government and relocated here.”

In this community, the Guatemalan Red Cross runs one of three violence-prevention projects aimed at young people in high-risk districts. The project in Santa Isabel II, called ‘Children and Youth For a Better Life’, was launched in 2011 and is being implemented in collaboration with the Spanish Red Cross and the ICRC, with the support of municipal authorities of Villa Nueva.

The main pillar of this project is a community centre run by the Guatemalan Red Cross. “This facility provides children and adolescents with a safe place to go; we want them to feel at home here,” says Duilio Monterroso, coordinator of the project. “We hope to develop young people’s leadership skills to ensure that their voices are heard in their communities. Developing such skills is a key factor in ensuring a better future for them.”

The first phase of this four-year project aimed simply to bring young people on board. “In an environment like this,” Monterroso continues, “where some children don’t even go to school, people start to dabble in drugs and alcohol at an early age. This is the first step towards joining a gang, which they see as a means of protecting themselves.”

The centre offers alternatives: a recreation area, drama classes, dance classes (including breakdancing and hip-hop), urban art classes and learning-support classes to help the younger ones with their homework.

If funding can be sustained and the programme continues to take root in the community, organizers hope to create a school at the centre “to help young people learn a trade and to promote microenterprises”, says Monterroso.

Integration of adolescents in high risk

In Nicaragua, the Red Cross takes a somewhat different approach, by working with teenagers who are already involved in the justice system. Consider the case of 19-year-old Donald Ordóñez: when he was just 14 years old, he was sentenced to five years in prison. “I had nothing, he says, “and one day I decided to take something that wasn’t mine.”

Today, Ordóñez is one of 60 young people attending workshops held at the central judicial complex in Managua, the country’s capital, as part of a programme called Transforming Leadership for adolescents and young people in high-risk situations.

This programme is part of a larger project ‘Human Rights of Childhood, Adolescence and Youth,’ which aligns with the Nicaraguan Red Cross’s strategic aim of protecting young people through defense of their human rights and by fighting against discrimination.

During the workshops, psychologists and social workers guide groups of 15 teenagers through activities and exercises that help them “to develop tools for coexistence and, above all, to stop resolving conflicts using violence,” explains Moisés Cordero, one of the programme’s psychologist.

“Our activities also aim to help them understand the power relations that exist in society in order to avoid them,” he adds. “For example, the power that many times they have had on women, or the power and violence of gangs to which some of them belonged in their neighbourhoods.”

The workshops are part of a programme run by the Nicaraguan Red Cross with funding from the Spanish Red Cross and the European Union and implemented in collaboration with the Nicaraguan judiciary.

“Judges decide when adolescents should participate in the programme to assist with their social rehabilitation and reintegration,” says Ericka Blandino, director of the section of the Nicaraguan judiciary that deals with enforcement and monitoring of penal sanctions imposed on adolescents accused of breaking the law.

The young people who have participated so far are offenders convicted of theft or drug trafficking. “Most of these children come from very troubled family situations,” says María José Blanco, the project coordinator.

With problems so deeply rooted, and the solutions required so comprehensive, most National Societies in the region say partnership with other organizations is critical. National Societies cannot take on the role of schools, justice systems, tackle the drug problem or reform national economies. But they can contribute towards helping positive community practices take root, especially among youth such as Donald Ordóñez whose lives are literally at stake.

“Now I am just thinking about my future. I don’t want to get involved in anything bad,” says Ordóñez. “I just want to go back to my village, León, become a bricklayer and get married.”

By Manuel Ruiz Rico
Manuel Ruiz Rico is a freelance journalist based in Brussels, Belgium








“With the passage of time, we organize the community to manage various local institutions and development projects, which currently include entertainment spaces for children and youth.”
Mario Gutiérrez, a community leader and board member of a community development association in Hábitat Confíen in Ciudad Delgado, El Salvador







Violence among gangs of heavily armed young people has been a feature of life in Ciudad Delgado for many years. But there have been some positive signs. Here, a gang member arranges weapons to be handed over to authorities as part of a truce between gangs in Ciudad Delgado in May 2013.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Stringer










“In an environment like this, where some children don’t even go to school, people start to dabble in drugs and alcohol at an early age.”
Duilio Monterroso, who manages a violence-prevention programme for the Guatemalan Red Cross









Boys and girls participate in a football camp, an activity offered by the Salvadorean Red Cross Society’s Opportunities for social inclusion project in Hábitat Confíen. One key challenge for the project is consistent funding, without which the activities could not continue.
Photo: ©Vladimir Rodas/IFRC










“Now I am just thinking about my future; I don’t want to get involved in anything bad.”
Donald Ordóñez, 19, was sentenced to five years in prison when he was 14 but now participates in a programme for youth run by the Nicaraguan Red Cross










This workshop, part of a programme run by the Nicaraguan Red Cross along with local authorities, seeks to help adolescents serving sentences for a variety of crimes but who have not been incarcerated.
Photo: ©Vladimir Rodas/IFRC





Students at a school in a difficult area of Medellín, where violence from armed gangs and criminal groups is frequent, take part in an Educational Brigades Project, in which students learn to live together without violence in a very uncertain environment.
Photo: ©Didier Revol/ICRC

First aid, a step towards peace

In a school playground in the Colombian city of Medellín, laughter and shouting can be heard where a group of young people re-create the scene of an emergency, with made-up injuries, stretchers and dressings. Suddenly, another group swings into action to help the injured and put into practice their knowledge of first aid. Wearing red shirts emblazoned with Red Cross emblems, these young people belong to the Educational Brigades, a Colombian Red Cross Society programme that has been running in the country for more than 65 years.

Now the brigades are also part of a project to prevent and reduce violence in schools called ‘More humanitarian spaces, more alternatives’, implemented jointly with the ICRC and the Antioquia branch of the Colombian Red Cross in Medellín.

The idea behind the brigades is to generate informal, participatory educational processes that involve the young people’s own life experiences and that help form them as fully-rounded people, with discipline, vocational skills and an ethic of service and concern for others. Ideally, they will also become leaders in the schools and act as guardians and mediators who promote a culture of coexistence and peace.

“The impact we are looking for is that the children say, ‘We do not want violence, we have other ways and alternatives to move forwards; drug addiction, arms and violence are not for me,’” says Valentina, a volunteer teacher in the Educational Brigades.

The experience with the brigades gives the young people an opportunity to develop their skills and creativity and allows them to go forwards more confidently in the difficult environment of the city’s most vulnerable districts. “We have seen many cases of drug addiction and threats in school because many students are already involved in the armed conflict,” says one of the students involved in the programme. “They bring violence into school with the aim of spreading their ideas. The goal of the brigades is to prevent this and show the way to a better world.”

The Educational Brigades are also a learning process for the ICRC and the Colombian Red Cross Society, as they seek to recreate and design activities that reflect the reality that young people face in Medellín today. The greatest challenge, according to organizers, is how to instil in the students the value of helping neighbours, love of life, respect for what is different and care for the environment and milieu in which they live. While the impact of the programme is difficult to quantify, there have been some concrete results: during the three years the brigades worked in Medellín’s educational institutions, they inspired 42 students to become active Colombian Red Cross volunteers.


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