By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Veteran Salvadoran head teacher Francisco Zelada is used to working in the shadow of death threats and violence, part of the rising tide of gang violence in El Salvador that has carved up city neighborhoods and made targets of teachers and children.
Zelada, who runs a small school in Planes de Mariona in the capital's northern suburbs, says that in the past two years he has received several death threats from gang members, some sent by text message, others a menacing voice on his mobile phone.
"The last death threat I received in March said: 'We'll shoot you while you're driving your car'. We're afraid. Some schools and the areas around them are totally controlled by gangs," Zelada told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview in the capital, San Salvador.
"We fear reprisals from the gangs. Any decision you take and they don't like, like disciplinary action against a pupil, can bring a threat," said Zelada, who also heads a teacher's union, SIMEDUCO.
Extortion by gangs is another serious problem for children in schools, an official from the charity World Vision said.
There has been a surge of murders in El Salvador, one of the world's most violent countries, since the breakdown a year ago of a 2012 gang truce between the Barrio 18 criminal group and their rivals, the Mara Salvatrucha.
In August alone 907 murders were recorded across the country - the highest toll in any month since the 1980-1992 civil war.
Some 60,000 gang members are wreaking havoc in a nation of 6.4 million people. Entire city neighborhoods are controlled by powerful street gangs known as maras, who use extortion, sexual violence, threats, killings and forced recruitment of children to rule their territory.
At Zelada's small school, pupils as well as teachers are caught up in the gang warfare.
In late May, gang members killed a 16-year-old pupil. "He didn't want to join the gang. So they shot him against a wall just behind the school," Zelada said.
The drug-fueled gang violence is a leading factor behind the steep rise in El Salvador's school dropout rate, according to SIMEDUCO and non-governmental organizations.
"It's a war zone. We're talking about the future generation of this country being educated in fear, or not being able to go to school," said Norma Alfaro, education coordinator for World Vision in El Salvador.
In some neighborhoods, parents are afraid to send their children to school in case they have to cross streets that divide gang territory or are branded a gang member by a rival gang.
Teenagers stand on street corners in poor neighborhoods, checking who enters and leaves, while other gang members frisk strangers and demand to see identity cards.
"Families and children tell us they are afraid. There are places where going to a shop, hospital or school becomes a matter of life and death because you have to cross into territory controlled by a rival gang. People are prisoners in their own neighborhoods," Alfaro told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview in San Salvador.
Increasing numbers of children are dropping out of school as a result - at Zelada's school, enrolment in the new school year fell to 232 children from 287 in 2014, a fall he attributes mainly to gang violence.
"I personally know of eight families whose children were in school last year, some had five children here. They were forced to abandon their homes because of threats. From one day to the next, they left the neighborhood carrying their furniture and what they could," Zelada said.
Some families leave the area, others take their children out of school. Dropouts become easy prey for gangs, who recruit teenagers as messengers, informants, arms couriers and street drug dealers, World Vision said.
The education ministry plays down gang violence as the main reason why children are leaving school, and says it is just one of many reasons for high school dropout rates, including migration, teenage pregnancy, and poverty.
"School desertion doesn't necessarily involve the issue of crime," Vice-Minister of Education Francisco Castaneda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
"There's a tendency to paint the country as one you can't walk the streets in. The government is committed to fighting criminal groups and those linked with organized crime. We're assessing those schools where there are signs criminal groups are active," he said.
HIGH DROPOUT RATE
The main reason why children dropped out of school from 2013 to 2014 was because their parents moved house to seek work elsewhere in the country, often as farm or domestic workers, Castaneda said.
Of the 1.4 million children attending school in El Salvador, up to 70,000 dropped out last year, 8 to 10 percent of them because of 'fears about crime,' he added.
But the union SIMEDUCO says more than half the children who left school in the past year did so because of gang violence and intimidation - either of pupils directly or their families.
"Parents cite a change of home address as a reason why they take their children out of school but this masks a reality that people are leaving their homes because of the insecurity and are going to other parts of the country or the United States," Zelada said.
"The sons and daughters of gang members who go to school in the area of a rival gang also receive threats and have to leave. The authorities aren't giving this serious problem the attention it deserves."
In 2011 the government began posting soldiers outside school gates to protect pupils from gang violence, but the initiative failed.
"The solution hasn't been to have the armed forces around schools," Castaneda said.
To prevent children having contact with gangs on their way to school, the government is expanding the number of secondary schools so that children do not have to travel to other neighborhoods and towns to go to school, he said.
Extortion is also forcing children to leave school, with gangs running extortion rackets inside schools, charging both teachers and pupils a protection tax, known locally as the rent, "la renta".
Gang members are known to charge children inside schools a daily 'renta' of 0.25 cents, according to World Vision.
"Parents have to take their children out of school or they leave the neighborhood because they can't pay la renta every day," said Alfaro.
The escalating gang violence means many of El Salvador's state schools are no longer a safe haven for children, according to the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF).
"Even during the civil war which I lived through, there were moments when fighting would stop for three days to allow for child vaccination program. Among the criminals today, there's no longer respect for schools as a safe and protective place," said Marina Morales, UNICEF's education officer in El Salvador.
"Schools have to recover their role as protector. They've lost that role. It doesn't exist today."
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)