Last week in El Salvador there were 13 murders within 12 hours, many within 10 minutes walking distance of my house here in San Salvador. The thing is, I had no idea until I saw the newspaper the next morning. El Salvador has recorded over 2,000 murders in 2014 alone, but I never see it because of a few very intentional lifestyle choices. I only travel in private taxis or in cars with friends. I live in a gated community with a guard who patrols at night in a house where you have to unlock three separate doors to get in. I avoid buses and the most dangerous areas of the city. If I walk at night, it’s always with a large, male friend and only in areas I know. These behaviors are now as routine to me as my morning coffee. And so when I hear about the incredible regional violence where homicide rates exceed those in Iraq at the height of the insurgency, I feel I have about as much personal experience to lend to the conversation as those living in the United States.
The truth is, however, that my reality is incredibly revealing about the social conflict unfolding in the Northern Triangle of Central America. As Salvadoran gangs go to greater and greater lengths for territory and power, the resulting violence, extortion, and abuse is concentrated on those least able to defend themselves. I have the means and resources necessary to keep myself safe. The poor, the marginalized, the displaced, the unconnected, and the invisible do not.
El Salvador is a place where your ability to exercise basic rights, including the right to life and security, is directly linked to your money and connections (which often are synonymous). The key to the gangs’ power is their impunity. They target those with no political or economic power, those whose resistance poses zero threat to the status quo or who can quickly be eliminated if necessary. It is no coincidence that the majority of minors traveling to the U.S. from the Northern Cone are young men aged 14-17. This is the demographic most heavily recruited by gangs in their battle for territory and power. Join up or die.
In contrast, I am safe. I am shielded from these threats by the simple coincidence of being born white, wealthy, and in the United States.
When I consider the true difference between my life and those targeted by the present conflict, I recognize one critical difference: choice. I have the ability to choose my life, whether that be my level of education, my career, my faith, or the place I choose to call home. For those whose rights are not guaranteed, no such choice exists. I don’t share this reflection as another contribution to the expansive literature on white privilege or guilt. Rather, I hope it sheds light on the deeply interconnected nature of the current child migrant crisis and human rights.
When faced with a humanitarian crisis, particularly one that involves children, we want that quick fix. We want to know there is something simple that can be done to stop the suffering of the innocent. The bad news is that the latest headlines reveal only the symptoms of deeply entrenched structural problems that encourage a culture of violence, extortion and impunity.
In a recent piece written by Lynette Wilson for the Episcopal News Service, she quotes Cristosal’s Executive Director, Noah Bullock, as he explains the complexity of the crisis:
“Both internal and external displacement… have common causes: lack of well-being in Salvadoran communities, generalized violence and the state’s inability to safeguard people’s lives and impose rule of law by prosecuting criminal organizations.”
You will find no quick fixes or recipes for reconciliation here. What I can say is I am grateful every day for my safety and that of my friends and family. I am grateful for the opportunity to do targeted, meaningful work that in a small way works for structural change, to build community organization, resilience and independence. For those of us with the inexplicable fortune of growing up in a society where our basic rights are guaranteed, this crisis is a rare illuminating moment for what that privilege truly means: safety, opportunity, and above all, choice.