Wednesday, February 16, 2011
By Sarah Tharp
Edited by Gina Edwards
SOYAPANGO, EL SALVADOR -- In the municipality of Soyapango, El Salvador lies Duarte Melendez, one of the most gang-ridden, violent and impoverished communities in El Salvador. It is home to 250 families as well as members of the most dangerous gang in the country, the MS-13.
Two years ago in 2009, the government incarcerated 85 percent of the men residing in Duarte Melendez to rid it of murders, robbery, extortion and the selling of illegal weapons and drugs. This left hundreds of children fatherless, and their wives without means of income.
“The mother has to create a plan to support the family and most of the time it has to involve their kids selling things on the street and other jobs,” said Daniel Menjivar, director of the Center for the Complete Development of Children and Their Families (CEDEINFA), a non-profit organization based in Soyapango.
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Labor, many children in El Salvador beg in the streets as a result of their fathers' incarcerations. Not only do they lose their opportunity to get an education, but they also often fall victim to sexual exploitation and prostitution.
One family of the Duarte Melendez community impacted by the arrests of 2009 was the Lemus family. When Merlin Lemus was 18 years old, her father was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the murders of several men, taking with him the family’s sense of the protection and financial security.
Merlin had to quit school to help her mother work and care for her siblings Oscar and Silvia and her elderly grandfather.
Prior to the arrest, her mother Silvia sold homemade snacks and fruits in the community. The financial pressures of having a husband in jail forced Silvia to start selling tortillas in the morning as well. Oscar, 8, had to start delivering tortillas in the morning throughout the neighborhood causing him to miss his morning classes.
“Life changed totally after he left. His presence gave security to us and he supported our family in many ways. When he was sent to jail, mother had to get more money to go visit him at least once a week and he is far away because he is at the maximum security prison,” Merlin said. “Silvia who is only four now has to take care of the household, do the dishes and clean the house.”
Moy Ramirez, a volunteer at CEDEINFA who has worked extensively in the Duarte Melendez community said that coping with having a father incarcerated is hard for the children involved.
“In the beginning, they try to continue their lives, and begin to work more, but most times it is not enough and the children have to give up more than the mothers intended,” he said.
The Mendez Family
Another family affected by the 2009 arrests is the Mendez family. The father to three young children, Mr. Mendez was incarcerated in November 2009 for accusations of several murders of the rival gang MS-18 in El Salvador, Menjivar said.
During his fourteen months in prison, his sons Victor and Jonathon--both under the age of twelve--managed the house and cared for their baby sister Johana while their mother Johana sold items on the street and house-to-house. From 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., the children stayed at home alone or under the supervision of families of the MS-13 gang. Consequently, both Victor and Jonathon could not attend school every day.
Without the security of a father, the families of the incarcerated live in danger in the Duarte Melendez community. In November 2010, tragedy struck the Mendez family.
“Last November Johana was killed by a member of the opposite gang and she was with little Jonathan. He saw when his mother was killed brutally with a shot in the head and she died immediately,” said Menjivar.
On Jan. 6, 2010, three months after Johana’s death, Mr. Mendez was released from prison and able to return to and care for his three children. Yet, their daily routine did not change much, even with their father back.
“I visited the father in his house. He got a job in a factory and he works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday so Victor is still taking care of the little ones,” Menjivar said. “I am working with him and talking and we are giving psychology assistance to Jonathan.”
Like Jonathon, children of incarcerated fathers often suffer psychological impacts. The Journal of Youth and Adolescence states that children of an incarcerated parent are more likely to have depression, poor academic functioning, and behavioral problems.
Menjivar has seen the physiological and behavioral affects while teaching English to 7 to 12-year-olds in a small school in the Duarte Melendez community.
“There are a lot of children who have been affected psychologically and in their behavior. The children are now very silent, do not play, they have no motivation and their grades are going down. Some others are very aggressive in classes and they do not want to participate in anything,” he said. “The psychologist from CEDEINFA is taking the cases of the most affected one once a week."
Jorge Aranda, a professor at the University of El Salvador in the capital San Salvador agrees that the “psychological impact is strong.”
After her father left, Merlin Lemus saw a difference in Oscar and Silvia.
“They are very sad and lonely. They do not play much like before and they are very shy. In the school, they are slow and do not want to go,” said Merlin.
Last month, Merlin’s mother died from cancer and now she is fully responsible for her family, which now includes her 9-month-old daughter Brenda.
“This is about love, my mother was a brave woman and I have to honor her by caring for my siblings, my grandfather and my little daughter.”
Photos courtesy of CEDEINFA.