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Credit: Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

The deadliness of youth

Being young in a country like El Salvador means being close to death. It means that you have to battle a savage present to fight for your future. It means making decisions: between hope and hopelessness, between humanity and the merciless law of survival of the fittest. Nicolás Humberto García made his decision early on.

He was 13 when he took part in an anti-violence programme, which took him to the local Radio Expressa in Tacuba. The station belongs to a network of 22 small broadcasters, who are committed to building civil society in the oppressed nation.  “We have to show the world that not every young life in El Salvador ends in a violent death”, explains Albert Riviera, a colleague of García from La Libertad, describing the idealism of the radio broadcaster. Nicolás Humberto García, this cheerful, engaged young man, had ultimately achieved the position of director of Radio Expressa. Then he too was was caught up by the curse that plagues the smallest country in Central America: 

the brutal legacy of a civil war that caused around 70,000 deaths between 1980 and 1991

and left the country with vast quantities of weapons and even more broken people and families. In the early evening of 10 March 2016, García’s body was found on the street in the area he lived in, El Carrizal. He had been shot and struck with a machete. He was just 23 years old.

Seven million people live in El Salvador, which is only about the size of Wales.  In comparison it is a densely populated country, and one with vastly higher levels of violence.  The year 2015 saw 6,657 murders, and in the three days between 16 and 18 August alone there were 125 killings. More than 50 per cent of all victims were between 15 and 29 years old. Out of all this blood, the statistics emerge as a chilling summary: El Salvador boasts the highest rate of violent killings in the world – 105 victims per 100,000 inhabitants. The global figure is 6.2 victims per 100,000 inhabitants.

Nicolás Humberto García's generation is considered a lost one. The proxy war by the major powers has left behind devastated souls and structures, so those born into this have often sought belonging, identity and economic security in gangs. Two major groups dominate the country: MS-13 and their rivals, M-18. Around 25,000 children and young people are supposed to belong to the latter, and the total number of gang members is estimated as 60,000.  They deal in drugs, extort protection money and carry out muggings, and they wage war with each other mercilessly. Between January and August 2015, 300 gang members died.

This was the hell against which García attempted to take a stand. 

The many radio stations in El Salvador, which often started out as pirate broadcasters during the civil war, are a powerful voice, particularly in rural regions, in which there are even fewer state structures than in the cities.  Here, journalism actually brings people together, creating identity and community spirit. García had achieved a degree of local fame, playing contemporary music, offering information about human rights and religion, and even interviewing anti-violence experts from the police. He absolutely refused, however, to give any air time to the gangs. This uncompromising stance towards criminal anarchy can cost you your life in El Salvador, as García knew from countless threats,

but in spite of this, it was the path he chose to follow. Sarraffin Valencia, president of the journalists’ association in El Salvador, says that many local radio reporters are subjected to these threats. It seems to be an existential question. Those who decide to join a gang are, on average, 15 years old. Someone who chooses a different path and starts working at a local radio station is also likely to be around 15, so these youths are setting a course between life and death before they are even able to grow a beard.

On 21 October the Attorney General of El Salvador stated that four gang members who were involved in García’s murder had each been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Their motive, he said, was the journalist’s refusal to join their gang.

 

written by Elmar Jehn; editor-in-chief, Berliner Kurier

 

  • Nicolás Humberto García

    The director of the local radio station Expressa was killed at the age of 23. 10 years earlier he started working there and made it to the top. There were three motives for his murder: First he did not want to join any criminal gang, secondly he forbade these gangs, to use this radio station. But thirdly, he allowed the police to advertise their anti-violence programme on Expressa. The country El Salvador (“The Saviour”) is marked by violent killings – it ranks on position one worldwide.