Since the state of exception was enacted on Mar. 27, 2022, Salvadoran police have arbitrarily arrested thousands of minors for the simple offense of living in marginalized neighborhoods. After working with these youth —who I call 'the children of no one'— for five years, I frequently ask myself: How can one work with children when their government seeks to incarcerate them for 30-plus years? How do you talk and play with them, as police systematically arrest and disappear them? How do you talk about the ones who are already gone? How do you remember them?
These are the questions I am forced to ask myself right now as a researcher working with impoverished youth and children in El Salvador. As a Fulbright scholar and researcher funded by the National Science Foundation, and in collaboration with the University of El Salvador, I have researched how children understand, deal with, and adjust to violence. As part of my engaged scholarship, I founded the Salvadoran NGO ACTUEMOS!, through which we opened a youth center and afterschool program in a marginalized community in the municipality of Mejicanos. In our facilities we offer support to children and their families, most of them led by single mothers.
It was there that I first met who we’ll call Salvador in 2018. He is a boisterous, hyperactive, yet somewhat skittish 12-year-old who loves soccer and rap music. In our programs he would often act out in search of attention, and seemed not to mind whether it came from a staff member asking him to stop bothering others. He only came to the youth center to participate in a wide array of special activities. I got to know him little by little, at the center and while playing soccer. I clearly remember how he attended a workshop on macramé. Never have I seen him so calm and focused, and for multiple hours.
Emotionally, Salvador always protected himself with his sense of humor, clowning around in order to keep his distance from others. Of course, this behavior got him in trouble, leading to frequent expulsion from class at school. He is a sensitive boy, scared of conflict and fights. He would often take on the role of a submissive joker, poking fun at himself and never challenging others. I have never seen him cry, or perhaps he never allowed me to see. He visited the center sporadically, as if only because he had new jokes to tell. He would reappear laughing, reenergized, in the streets or at our facilities.
At home, scarcity and a drunk father reigned. Food, water, and school supplies always ran short. His situation was exacerbated by his father’s violent outbursts, usually triggered by alcoholism. Salvador became the main target of this violence, yet neither the school nor his neighbors intervened, in order to avoid conflict. Abused by his father and frequently expelled from school, where he at least got a free lunch, Salvador either found the occasional odd job or simply roamed the streets to avoid going home.
The last time I heard of him was eight days ago. He was living with an older sister. The police took him away without explaining why. He now is among the over 32,000 people the Salvadoran military and police claim to have arrested under a state of exception enacted on March 27. Under this emergency regime, individuals can be arrested without legal representation or even being told the cause of arrest. Families often do not know of the detentions, and are not given any information by the police about the whereabouts of their kin. Many have nobody to inquire about them. Salvador was taken from his house, and that’s all we know.
As part of the “war on gangs,” the Bukele-controlled legislature passed a law allowing 12-year-old children to be prosecuted as adult terrorists. Gang membership alone is punished with up to 30 years in prison. In neighborhoods like that of Salvador, police simply assume that youth belong to gangs. Walking while poor has become a crime, especially for young male adolescents, yet in El Salvador it is not at all clear what it means to be a gang member or to commit a gang crime.
El Salvador has modern legislation to protect children, yet for children like Salvador these laws might as well not exist. In these neighborhoods, the police don’t interfere with domestic violence as they usually claim to be too busy. Even worse, reporting cases of domestic violence might lead to reproach from the local gang for bringing law enforcement into the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this marked Salvador’s life.
As most kids, he sometimes hung out with the postes, the young lookouts for the gang. After all, he grew up with them, and they shared similar circumstances. Hanging out with them was not about gang membership, but rather about feeling a sense of camaraderie. As the children of no one, they relied on each other. They exchanged stories, horsed around, and shared the little food they had, or the occasional soda. Does this make for gang membership? These days, few people care to dig deeper.
But now Salvador is gone. He is somewhere in jail, but no one knows exactly where he is or how he is doing. I fear to think of how his personality will affect his adjustment to life in prison. I fear for him crying. Few of his neighbors dare to inquire. Most have relatives who disappeared too. Afraid of being next, they avoid inquiring about incarcerated friends and relatives.
At ACTUEMOS! we understood the cases of boys like Salvador as partial success stories. In this neighborhood big success is hard to come by. The fact that Salvador did not become a gang member was huge. Others have left the gang with our help, yet they, too, have been incarcerated in recent weeks.
I have written much of Salvador’s story in the past tense. I don’t know how he is or whether he is even still alive. I don’t dare to go there in my mind. I know he doesn’t belong in prison and that he will not do well there. I might never see him again, or I might see him after he spends most of his life behind bars as a “terrorist.” That is, if I am still alive at that point. I miss his laughter and jokes and wonder whether they will wither away in jail.
We are not supporting or defending the gangs. Nor do we excuse their violence in the communities. That said, facing them does not require a state of exception. Randomly incarcerating youth only makes matters worse. Kids like Salvador have many problems, but they are not the problem. They need support, not incarceration. They need protection, not contention.
Together with Salvador, much of the hope that inspires our work at ACTUEMOS! has gone. How do you work and play with children when they or their parents can simply be picked up by the police as presumed terrorists? How do you worry about their homework and emotional wellbeing in this context? Too many have disappeared already. And in that context, it even seems inappropriately self-indulgent to ask these questions.
Is there some sense in continuing to work under these conditions? Yes. Is it simply a Sisyphean task, one that only exposes us to incarceration? I don’t think so. Youth like Salvador always circled back to us, finding a place of belonging at our center. If we gave up, what would they have left? Some time ago, I had an 18-year-old boy tear up as we said goodbye. I promised that I would return in two weeks, yet he was still surprised when I did. He, too, is now gone. Others were simply suspicious of my intentions, because no one has ever cared for them. They are the children of no one.