The Salvadoran Armed Forces (FAES) have deployed 2,000 service members from the Águila Command to protect students at 1,063 schools in the most dangerous places of El Salvador, mainly areas plagued by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18) gangs. Since January 18th, the service members have been operating special devices for monitoring, patrolling, and guarding the schools – both outside and inside the campuses – as well as the transportation routes used by the students.
“In times of peace, we provide all of our capabilities in logistics, administration, and intelligence to the populace, to bring tranquility to the students and their families,” National Defense Minister David Munguía Payés said at the program’s launch. Through this effort, the FAES will support the government’s “United for our sons and daughters” program designed to encourage prevention activities to keep violent groups from gaining access to schools and instigating drug use.
The Armed Forces will conduct the program throughout the nation. In the country’s Eastern Zone, the Águila Command will monitor 247 schools; in the Central Zone, 402; in the Paracentral Zone, 157; and 257 schools in the Western Zone.
The Águila Command
Leading this effort is Colonel Renato Pérez Aguirre, the commanding officer of the Águila Command, a special public security support unit that has been deployed to protect schools’ perimeters since June 2014. From January to December 2015, the Águila Command sent 1,302 service members to support 651 schools nationwide, providing security and performing searches to prevent crime from entering the classroom.
“Our service members are ready to assist the student population and to protect and guard them from their homes to their schools,” Col. Pérez Aguirre said at the plan's launch. “This effort will energize protection for schools and make it more dynamic.”
The ceremony to launch this new effort to protect the most at-risk children and adolescents was held in the José Mejía School, which is in the Southern Zone of San Salvador where criminal subgroups under MS-13 and M-18 gangs converge. Parents of students welcomed the arrival of the Troops to provide public safety.
“We trust the efforts of our service members because the gangs fear them,” said Carmen Alférez, a 45-year-old housewife who has two children at the José Mejía School, one in fourth grade and one in seventh. “We trust that they will be there when our children need protection.”
This sentiment was echoed by Rigoberto Pineda, a 47-year-old electrician whose 7-year-old daughter is in first grade at the José Mejía School. The Armed Forces are the most trustworthy institution to guarantee students’ safety, according to Pineda.
“I know parents whose children are at schools that are being watched by the Military, and they have seen a difference in the climate of security,” he said. “The presence of Soldiers gives them peace of mind because the Soldiers monitor things and do not tolerate anyone who wants to generate violence.”
Cooperating with the community
For the members of the Águila Command, providing security at schools is a cooperative effort. The Troops stay in contact with the leaders of community organizations throughout the country, and board members in 120 cities that have created Municipal Violence Prevention Committees, with whom they work hand-in-hand to prevent common crimes and gang incidents.
“We joined this effort because we want to protect the residents of our cities, especially our children, from risk factors that lead only to social violence, and our teenagers from joining criminal groups and gangs,” said Azucena Linares, a 36-year-old secretary and member of one of the Municipal Violence Prevention Committees in San Salvador. These committees are part of a national strategy of the Ministry of Public Security to generate a culture of peace and non-violence among citizens.
The Armed Forces will also participate in other student protection efforts to prevent harassment, child labor, human trafficking, and domestic violence. For example, service members will also accompany students to discussions on the consequences of drug use and on the standards of civic duty that allow people to live together harmoniously, though details of those initiatives have not yet been made public by the Ministry of Defense.