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Summer 2024 newsletter


Bob and Liz Cunningham, El Salvador

Members of the prison ministry team from Our Lady of Peace in Merliot, El Salvador.

75,000: That’s the approximate number of people who were killed during the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992). It is also the approximate number of people who have been arrested and imprisoned over the past two years as a result of the Salvadoran government’s gang crackdown, referred to as the régimen de excepción (state of emergency).

People in prison are often ignored or forgotten. On the one hand, the régimen de excepción makes it easy to ignore or forget them here because the majority of people on the streets feel safer and there is hope for greater economic opportunity. On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore or forget a prison population that has tripled in just two years. El Salvador now has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Youth prisoners in El Salvador

Since Liz and I arrived here in El Salvador in January 2022, we’ve been through three phases of everyday life. The first was characterized by widespread gang violence, extortion and control of territories. We walked to work and people would slide a finger against their throats and shake their heads to warn us from going in a certain direction.

The second phase was living under military occupation. The state of emergency suspended constitutional rights and gave broad powers to the police and military to arrest and detain people. Police and soldiers patrolled the streets with machine guns, set up roadblocks, ordered men and boys off buses to search and inspect them for gang-related tattoos, conducted neighborhood sweeps and arrested large numbers of people without making charges.

Now, in the third phase, life on the streets is much calmer. The prisons are full, and there’s a new mega-prison that houses 40,000. There are still police and military patrols and gang activity in some areas, and there’s still crime, but it’s not nearly as widespread or organized as it was before. Unless someone in your family has been arrested, people don’t talk about the prison situation.

After I graduated college, I spent a year working as a social worker in a county jail in California. The conditions in the jail were horrendous. Built for 400 men, it held close to 900. It smelled and sounded like a zoo. After I finished my year of service, I never wanted to go back inside a jail ever again, but I couldn’t get the smell out of my nose.

Shortly after we arrived in El Salvador, Liz and I started visiting Mariona Prison, one of the larger prisons here, with Maryknoll Father Jack Northrop. We attended Mass, sang in the choir, helped distribute food and socialized with the men. But with the state of emergency, prison volunteer programs were suspended throughout the country.

In the past year, things have started to open up a bit. Now I am a member of the prison ministry at Our Lady of Peace Parish in nearby Merliot. We visit the juvenile prison in Tonacatepeque weekly. The boys range from 12 to 18 years of age. I understand that most have been or still are affiliated with the country’s notorious gangs. Almost none have been baptized, but they come to Mass, some of them perhaps more for the bread and pastries that we hand out afterwards than the spiritual food, but in any case, they come.

The entrance gate to the Tonacatepeque Juvenile Prison

On a recent visit to the prison, I gave a reflection on a scripture reading from the First Letter of John. Since my Spanish is limited, I had to boil down the message in simple terms. My reflection was about how Jesus showed us who God is. As John said, “God is love.” If you have experienced love — through a mother, a grandmother or a friend — then you have experienced God. And what is love? Love is a commitment to support the growth, i.e., the life, of oneself or another person. We have a lot of prayers and rituals, but when we say what we believe, basically we are saying, we believe … in love.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God …. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him (1 John 4:7-9).

As I looked out at a couple of hundred boys seated on the floor in their white shirts and shorts and tried to gauge if they were understanding what I was saying, I caught the eye of one boy who was nodding in agreement. He knew Love; he knew God. What I was saying didn’t require good Spanish or sophisticated reasoning. It just needed to be said … with love.

If the end justifies the means, then all is well in El Salvador. Personally, I am deeply troubled by the suspension of constitutional rights, arbitrary arrests and detentions and harsh prison conditions. But if I’m being completely honest, I feel just as troubled, if not more so, by my tacit acceptance of the tradeoff between relative calm on the streets and mass incarceration.

I am living with what’s happening here in El Salvador, but I can’t get rid of the smell in my nose. The end doesn’t justify the means. Where there is love, there is God; and love lives in Tonacatepeque youth prison. So I can’t ignore or forget that one boy — or the thousands of other boys and girls, men and women in prison here. I hope none of us can.

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Bob Cunningham
Working together with his wife, Liz, at Patronato Lidia Coggiola, Bob Cunningham accompanies and supports the education and empowerment of the people in El Zaite, El Salvador, particularly children, adolescents and women.