Saturday 15 Jun 2024

From busting heads to breaking bread

In El Salvador, a unique initiative has taken violence off the streets as gangs sign truces and work to become better citizens

AFP | FEBRUARY 09, 2013, 01:10 PM IST

After a life of crime in one of Central America's mostfearsome gangs, a group of Salvadoran street toughs, some tattooed from head totoe, have now found a way out: making bread. Around 20 members of the Barrio 18gang have opened a bakery in the town of Ilopango, east of the capital, hopingto put their violent past behind them and become ordinary citizens following atruce between El Salvador's ultra-violent gangs.

"By making bread, we have hope for a betterfuture," said Oscar Vasquez, a 24-year-old gangster-turned-baker whoconcealed his tattoos under a striped sweater and blue pants. "If you putan effort into it and work hard, you can help your family, even though it's nota lot of money," said Vasquez, who has a four-year-old daughter namedTatiana.

They opened their bakery two weeks ago in a small house in ablue-collar neighborhood of Ilopango, where a sign reads "18Welcome." The bread shop is the first social reinsertion effort sinceBarrio 18 and their arch-enemies, Mara Salvatrucha, struck a major truce inMarch 2012. Mediated by a military chaplain, Fabio Colindres, and formerguerrilla commander Raul Mijango, and under the supervision of the Organizationof American States, the truce has cut the homicide rate from 14 to five murdersa day, according to the authorities. Some 50,000 gang members roam El Salvador,while more than 10,000 are in prison in this small Pacific coast country of 6.1million people. A wave of murders, extortion and other crimes have made ElSalvador one of the world's most violent countries.

With the support of Ilopango Mayor Salvador Ruano, the newbakers rebuilt a tiny home of 40 square meters that had no roof, no door, norunning water and no electricity. The house was painted blue and finally haslight. For now, neighbors are providing jugs of water to the bakery until the"pandilleros" -- as gangsters are called in Latin America -- makeenough money to reconnect water services.

The bakers start work at dawn, using a gas stove and a smalltable raised with bricks so that it's high enough to knead the bread. The bunsare then displayed on a counter. "Thanks to God, the product that we areselling is the product that we are making. The goal is to get young people offthe street," said Jose Galdamez, 32, as he carefully watched that thebread didn't burn.

As Caribbean beats played on speakers, one baker mixed flourwith salt, sugar and water while others pressed the dough with their hands. Thesmell of warm bread spread across the streets, attracting hungry children andadults. Some of the bread is put in a basket to be sold on the street, withfour men calling potential customers with shouts of "Here's the bread!"

Estebana Marroquin, who lived 20 of her 50 years in theneighborhood controlled by Barrio 18, said the bakery project was "a giftfrom God." "We are very happy because the mayor has given themsupport so that they change and don't roam the streets," she said.

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