There wasn’t much El Gringo didn’t know about Suchitoto. At least, he had an opinion about everything. From the way he spoke, he was something of a minor celebrity in the place. Everyone knew him, he said.
Everyone except the crowd of people hanging around the corner where the bus dropped off, I found. I didn’t have an address for El Gringo, who rented a few rooms in the hostel he ran, just that it was situated in “a quiet part of town”. Glancing around, that could be anywhere other than the particular corner the bus dropped off. The first few people hadn’t a clue who El Gringo was. I remembered the photo of the hostel from the website. It’s the pink hostel, I said. More blank stares. I figured I’d try at the next intersection. Still no idea. Eventually, after a few more shrugged shoulders and a couple of lengthy detours, I found myself outside the hostel, at the bottom of the same street where the bus had stopped. It looked just like the photo on the website had shown me, except it was now yellow. No wonder people had been confused.
El Gringo, aka Robert, was sitting on the veranda. A giant of a man next to the tiny Salvadoreans, never more so than when he stood next to his wife who was a good two feet shorter than he was, he extended a warm welcome and invited me to join him for a drink. Over the next couple of hours, he filled me in on his background. His Salvadorean mother had been quite influential in the world of special needs education before turning her attention back to her native country. Once established, she recruited Robert and rescued him from the gloom of a divorce, and he hadn’t looked back. He’d met and married his second wife, settled in Suchitoto and even been the chief of the local tourist board for a while. It had secured the hostel top billing on the local tourist map, for which he apologised, but it had also brought many good initiatives, most notably protecting Suchitoto from rampant and destructive overdevelopment. He’d just stepped down and was enjoying running tours around the Salvadorean countryside.
The following day, I headed out with Robert and his wife to explore the handicrafts of the region. Textiles are still significant, no more so than in San Sebastian, though in the past, the clack of looms could be heard in the street rather than within the workshops. All manner of items, from hammocks to throws to table settings, could be purchased direct from the manufacturer. Watching the enormous looms being worked with skill to create intricate patterns was fascinating, though some weavers have altered their designs from traditional muted colours to a much brighter palette emulating their Guatemalan neighbours, which is in greater demand from tourists. I purchased a throw for $4 without haggling, which impressed even Robert’s wife. She had a new set of table linens for El Gringo’s restaurant and in a pincer movement only women can achieve, we made Robert added a scarf to the pile too, as it was her birthday.
Next stop was Ilobasco, centre of another Salvadorean speciality – the sorpresa. These are small ceramic eggs, but come apart to reveal a surprise inside, hence the name. It is traditional that they contain the bride and groom for a wedding, but many seemed to depict the honeymoon instead. I opted for a tableau of pupusas being made, to save any embarrassing questions from customs on leaving the country. Our primary reason for visiting Ilobasco, however, was to drop in to Project Moje. Gangs are the thorn in El Salvador’s side. During the civil war of the 1980s, some of those that fled to Los Angeles became embroiled in a turf war which resulted in the creation of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Some gang members had been child soldiers, others were emotionally scarred after witnessing horrific violence; they came together to unite against the Chicano and African-American gangs in nearby streets with a fearsome reputation. A combination of toughened legislation against gangs in LA and the end of civil war in El Salvador meant that many gang members were deported and, lacking the skills and opportunities to live any other way, reestablished themselves in San Salvador, where they remain a significant threat today. Many had lived in the USA all their lives and didn’t even speak Spanish; little wonder that they clung together. In 1992, the newly created post-civil war police force was inexperienced and ill-equipped to cope with this new problem. Half the population was under eighteen and vulnerable, living in accessible urban slums. Employment opportunities were scarce – the civil war had wiped out the coffee industry – and guns were easy to come by. Today, of the estimated 450,000 guns in the country, only around half are legal. It was all too simple for teenagers to commit crimes to help them achieve the American lifestyle which they had seen on TV and aspired to reach.
The violence between Mara Salvatrucha and their rivals, Mara 18, is out of control. The government have cracked down and jailed many gang members, but they coordinate their fight just as effectively from within their prison cells. According to a report in Time magazine in 2009, the hard line government policy called Mano Duro aimed at curtailing gang violence has failed as a result of government corruption and widespread poverty. Leaders conduct business from behind bars. Mara Salvatrucha’s notorious Saul Turcios Angel, nicknamed the “Pitbull”, allegedly phoned gang members in the USA, ordering them to commit murders and other crimes.
Project Moje was set up to bring youngsters from rival gangs together and demonstrate to them that they could work together on vocational projects. It failed. The mutual hatred of the two gangs was too great. Offering the project’s services to one gang instead of both was also not an option, as the organisation would then be associated with one and become a target of the other. So, instead, it was rebranded as a project to offer young people a way of learning a trade and earning a living and thus not being ripe for gang recruitment in the first place. The director was optimistic, it could work. If it saved just a few youngsters then it was worth doing. We met Miguel Angel, in the second year of two spent with Project Moje. He’d been given training and advice on setting up a business and, at the age of eighteen, was nervously looking forward to going it alone next year.
In the meantime, he created pottery items from a small workshop at the back of the Project Moje offices which he rented at a much reduced rate while he learnt how to run his business and perfect his skills. He threw a pot for us, grinning all the time.
The director was surely right, I thought.