20 years after the peace treaty, the daily homicide rate in El Salvador is higher than during the civil war SOS Children's Villages often organises events where children can come together to share experiences or learn something new. (photo: SOS archives) Santa Tecla is the capital of the department of La Libertad in central El Salvador. The city has a population of over 120,000. Almost 90 per cent of the population live in urban areas, and 40 per cent are migrants from other departments. The growing presence of the Salvatrucha and Mara 18 gangs in Santa Tecla has led to a stark increase in violence. Certain neighbourhoods, such as Guadalupe I, are now completely inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t have gang connections. These gangs, or “Maras”, are transnationally organised, financed through drug trafficking and arms trading, and have very strict codes of conduct. Gang members include children and young people from rural areas who have migrated to the city, and those from impoverished neighbourhoods where urban unemployment, especially amongst young people, continues to be a great problem. Often, these young people come from broken homes and are drawn to the solidarity offered by being part of a Mara. When a young person joins a gang, on average he or she lives for another three years. According to the Organisation of American States, nine out of ten murders in Central America are committed against young people, many of them in the course of gang wars. Children and young people need to be offered alternatives and hope for the future The safe and healthy development of children growing up in these circumstances is endangered not only by difficult economic conditions, but also by a culture of violence that puts them at risk of losing family members or becoming involved in criminal activities themselves. Parents, especially when they are young or single mothers, need support so that they do not lose hope and can provide a loving home for their family. In the 30 years that SOS Children’s Villages has been working in Santa Tecla, the area has changed a great deal, from a mainly agricultural coffee-growing region, to an urban environment that has become increasingly marked by crime and violence since the end of the civil war. We have therefore had to adjust our work here to the changing circumstances, for example by cooperating with psychologists to provide expert support to children who have had traumatic experiences. What we do in Santa Tecla SOS siblings having fun together (photo: K. Cortez) Our work in Santa Tecla began in 1982. Care in families: Currently, five SOS families can provide a loving home for children who are no longer able to live with their parents. Some of these families live integrated in the community. In each family, the children live with their brothers and sisters, affectionately cared for by their SOS mother. Recent changes in legislation have placed a greater emphasis on children living with their biological families. In cases where a judge has decided that a child in our care should return to their family of origin, SOS Children’s Villages provides regular support to ensure that the conditions in the family are stable and that the child is well looked after. Support for young people: When young people from the children’s village are ready to leave their family in order to pursue further education or vocational training, the SOS Youth Programme provides shared accommodation. The young people live together here and, with the support of qualified counsellors, they can learn to take responsibility, plan their future and prepare for independent adult life. Support for young mothers and their children: We also provide special care to young mothers and their children. Mothers and children live together with an experienced SOS mother. The SOS mother will help the young women with the daily care of their children and will ensure that they are well cared for. The house is integrated into the community but is very close to SOS Children’s Village Santa Tecla. The young mothers attend a special programme at school and this way they can continue their education, and improve their future chances.