Gang warfare is endemic in the country, but working in community radio can give young people the confidence and sense of purpose to find a way out of the violence.
Last March, the body of Nicolas Humberto Garcia was found in the town of El Carrizal, bearing machete and bullet wounds. The 23-year-old was the director of Radio Expressa in Tacuba in Ahuachapan State on the western-most tip of El Salvador. He had been working at the community radio station since he was 13.
While his killers remain unknown, there are strong suspicions that their motive was linked to his work. Garcia had refused to be recruited by gangs or have them use Radio Expressa to broadcast in the Central American country. He had granted the police air time as part of a violence-prevention programme. His youthfulness and Radio Expressa’s combination of contemporary music alongside programmes on human rights had brought in young listeners and radio career aspirants.
A man as young as Garcia heading a radio station is not uncommon in rural El Salvador, which has a strong network of community radio stations. Under the aegis of the Radio and Participative Programmes Association of El Salvador (ARPAS), 22 community radio stations operate across the country by fragmenting a single radio frequency – 92.1FM. The stations discuss local issues that are often not picked up by the mainstream media, while holding the government to account over delivering basic rights.
The high rate of youths volunteering and working for community radio stations has tremendous significance for El Salvador – the smallest country in Central America, with a population of 6.7 million – which has been deemed one of the most dangerous countries in the world that is not at war.
At least 6,657 people were violently killed in 2015, amid violence between alleged gang members and police. More than 50 percent of homicide victims are aged between 15 and 29. Indeed, so high is the murder rate that the country this month celebrated a rare single day without a homicide.
According to one Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, between 20,000 and 35,000 young Salvadorans belong to youth gangs, with 15 as the average age of joining. Social exclusion is a major reason for joining a gang, which represents an alternative source of stability, identity and livelihood. High rates of poverty, inequality, unemployment, school drop-outs, and dysfunctional family structures, as well as easy access to arms, alcohol and illegal drugs have contributed to the violence.
Interestingly, the average age staff start working at the community radio stations in El Salvador is also 15, according to ARPAS head Leonel Herrera. These stations also provide something the gangs do – instil a sense of identity and belonging among the youth. Having an impact on the lives of around 300 youths, the ARPAS network was born out of the desire to democratise the country, after the Chapultepec Peace Accords, which ended a 12-year civil war, were signed in 1992. At the same time, communities returning to El Salvador from neighbouring Honduras also felt the need for a communication channel for families split between the two countries.
Radio Victoria thus came into existence in Santa Marta in Cabañas state, near the Honduran border, on July 15, 1993, and initially began broadcasting with just a 5 watt FM transmitter and a bamboo pole for an antenna.
Other radio stations then began mushrooming across the country. People who had learned to manage radio equipment at guerrilla radio stations during the war were able to contribute towards the new wave of community radio stations. A long legal battle to prove their legitimacy began after the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) forcibly shut down many stations in 1995.
An amended telecommunications law meant the auctioning of the radio spectrum, and ARPAS purchased the rights to the 92.1FM frequency, which it offered to all the stations under its umbrella. ARPAS was formalised as a legal entity.
“We were once termed ‘pirated’ radio stations. But thanks to ARPAS, all community radio stations are considered legal and have permits,” says Herrera, who was elected president of ARPAS five years ago. Each station has representatives in ARPAS, and together they constitute an assembly which elects the president.
A voice for the community
Oscar Beltran was 11 years old and living in a village in Honduras when Radio Victoria first started broadcasting. It was an emotional moment, as he and his mother heard of their community from across the border.
“I realised how powerful radio is, helping people express their feelings,” says Beltran, who heads the operations at Radio Victoria today. Upon returning to El Salvador he joined the radio station at the age of 15 “out of curiosity.” He says he learnt everything about his country in the 19 years he has spent working at the station.
For Beltran, Radio Victoria is a political project and is an essential part of the history of Santa Marta, which has witnessed rape, persecution and other atrocities during the war.
“Santa Marta was considered dangerous because it was rumoured that it was a refuge for Communists,” he says. “These rumours had to be dispelled and give a voice to its marginalised population.”
Once a month, Radio Victoria takes the equipment to the community. “We have created groups of 30 people within the community who are dedicated listeners, as we want them to evaluate the content and build the agenda,” says Beltran.
Maricela Ramos, 30, joined Radio Victoria when she was 20, and was surprised to find many of her colleagues were much younger than she was. Like Beltran, it was curiosity that drew her in. “Very soon, I fell in love with the work and now it has become a life project,” she says, noting that it offers the opportunity to change lives.
“Radio pushes people to think critically. Mainstream media only focuses on violence in Santa Marta, and not on the brilliant women leaders who have emerged from here,” she says. “Besides, women who have lost their sons and husbands are still braving through life, smiling… These are the stories I enjoy telling on the radio.”
Ramos thinks the impact of community radio can be especially felt among rural youth.
“We need to understand why young people join gangs, instead of warning them against joining. People think the youth are inexperienced and irresponsible,” she says. “The country is full of recent graduates with no jobs as nobody wants to hire them for their lack of experience.”
Nahum Menjivar, 20, has been volunteering at Radio Balsamo in La Libertad in southern El Salvador for a year, while pursuing his studies in communications at a local college.
“My friends assume that the work here is easy, but that’s not the case. It is challenging, and I love it,” he says, acknowledging that he has acquaintances who have joined gangs. “Working at Radio Balsamo has helped me see the world differently: I have learnt about the larger political realities of El Salvador, and Radio Balsamo has become an alternate source of education.”
Juanita Darling, an associate professor at San Francisco State University, and author of “Latin America, Media, & Revolution: Communication in Modern Mesoamerica“, asserts that the close-knit groups of returning Salvadorans from Honduras and the popularity of radio are reasons why the youth feel responsible towards their communities:
“I met several youngsters who feel upbeat when their neighbours shout out and say that they had heard them on the radio earlier in the day. This is extremely reassuring for any young person. The community radio stations thus not only offer companionship to the youth, but also the opportunity to work on some of the problems that foster gangs.”
Beltran, who was born in Honduras, never met his father. He says that in the chaos that followed the war, his generation did not receive a formal education. He says he was lucky to receive counselling.
“Our parents were affected by the war and carry their trauma with them even today, which is visible in their everyday lives and interactions,” he reasons.
This is also perhaps why violence is rarely discussed on the community radio stations as fervently as it is in the mainstream media. Beltran does not feel the need to add to that noise.
“We have proved that information is everyone’s right and have won the battle against the power of information control,” he says.
Instead, the programming focuses on social issues and projects that could be improved upon.
“Our community reporters feel responsible towards the community through their reporting. The onus is on us to show them another way for the country’s future,” Beltran stresses.
This different perspective has also meant questioning power, leading to death threats. Ramos had to flee to Ecuador in 2011 after being threatened on account of her reporting on the impact of mining in Rio Lempa. According to Beltran, the Canadian gold mining giant Pacific Rim (now OceanaGold) had even offered $8,000 a month to support Radio Victoria on the condition that it stay mum about the impact of mining. (The allegation is unconfirmed but has been widely reported on).
After the devastating war, El Salvador was eager to rebuild the country and relied heavily on investments in mining. Inevitably, this meant the massive felling of trees, depletion of groundwater and pollution of Rio Lempa. A significant grassroots movement led by La Mesa (the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador) has been campaigning for a just water law and a ban on metallic mining. The movement against mining became louder with mining exploration by OceanaGold, which led to active mobilisation of Salvadorans through various media.
Before his murder in 2009, environmentalist and anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera had a weekly radio show. When he disappeared, Radio Victoria organised a community search that recovered his body. Mystery continues to shroud this case as Rivera’s body had been found bearing severe torture marks, with some saying that gangs killed him due to a personal dispute.
“People in gangs often don’t know what they want, except for an easy way out of poverty. I am working in Radio Balsamo and talking about my music and our environment because we have to change the narrative. We have to show the world that not every young life in El Salvador ends in death,” says Albert Riviera, 25, who decided to volunteer at Radio Balsamo after he returned to his true calling: composing music.
Beltran has lost many friends to gang violence, but he believes that radio offers an alternative.
“If I could, I would strengthen projects where the youth can learn and discover their own potential. It is amazing to watch how the confidence of a teenager soars when he speaks on air.”