In communities across El Salvador, music is helping hundreds of at-risk youth to steer clear of a life of gangs and crime. The philharmonic youth orchestras are part of the El Salvador Crime and Violence Prevention Project’s holistic approach to prevent crime and violence and spread opportunity.

In one of the most violent countries in the world, the sounds of music are helping at-risk youth to steer clear of a life of gangs and crime.

In Ilobasco, El Salvador, more than 100 youth ages 8 to 29 who live in some of the toughest neighborhoods are picking up musical instruments instead of gang affiliations.

Eleven-year-old Jhonnatan Marroquín could have been a crime statistic in Ilobasco. Instead, he is a guitarist.

“Ever since I took up the guitar, I’ve been very busy,” says Jhonnatan. “It’s fun and I don’t get involved in anything bad, like gangs.”

Ilobasco and eight other communities in El Salvador are organizing and managing local philharmonic orchestras to engage at-risk and vulnerable youth in positive, forward-looking activities.

The El Salvador Crime and Violence Prevention Project—an innovative program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International—is working in Ilobasco and other communities to devise ways to bring lasting peace to troubled neighborhoods.

The project has formed municipal committees that coordinate crime prevention and safety initiatives and has helped to develop community-run activities that engage at-risk youth to steer clear of crime and gangs. Using a variety of initiatives—from art, music, and dance clubs to outdoor activities—the project has already helped 53,000 Salvadoran youth in 55 municipalities.

Ilobasco, a town of some 65,000 residents located about 30 miles northeast of the capital city of San Salvador, had 91 reported homicides in 2014 and 88 murders in 2015—putting it well above what experts describe as epidemic rates.

Manuel Antonio Henrqiuez, Coordinator of the Municipal Committee to Prevent Violence in Ilobasco, is honest about the challenges facing his municipality.

“We’re among the 50 most violent municipalities in our country,” he laments.

But he is not giving up on his town, and he is hoping that music is one of the ways to get at the root of the problem.

A fair chance to play

The program Jhonnatan participates in consists of a youth orchestra school – a type of town philharmonic. USAID’s El Salvador Crime and Violence Prevention Project funds nine philharmonic schools that are reaching more than 600 at-risk youth at no cost to them or their families.

Mario Ernesto Acosta Romualdo, a psychologist who used to coordinate the philharmonic prevention tool for the El Salvador Crime and Violence Prevention Project, says a multi-pronged methodology is used to determine where this type of an intervention could tip the scales in favor of peace.

More than 100 youth in Ilobasco take part in the philharmonic orchestra. Photo by Rene Urrutia.

“We select the communities where we think we would have the greatest impact, looking at several risk factors, including gang activity, dysfunctional families and domestic violence, drugs, alcohol, among others,” says Acosta Romualdo, who has since left the project.

Poverty, migration to other countries, single-parent households and other factors mean that most of the youth in the target areas have no formal background in music, let alone access to musical instruments.

Fortunately, the USAID-funded program provides the curriculum, equipment and stipends for teachers. The community contributes space for the practice sessions and to store the equipment, while the Secretary of Cultural Promotion assists with training the instructors.

Youth are tested to measure their potential and aptitude, though no one is turned away from the program. After about eight months of constant practice and positive reinforcement, they are ready to perform in public.

Youth empowerment beyond the music

Tito Antonio Alvarez works with the Ilobasco Mayor’s Office and is a coordinator of the town’s philharmonic orchestra.

“This is a great project,” Alvarez says. “It’s helping the youth, especially to overcome all the social problems we are living with here in El Salvador. Before this program began, the youth here in Ilobasco would spend their time hanging out with friends or at home, or just walking around the city. Now they spend their time on music.”

While keeping at-risk youth engaged in positive activities, the philharmonic orchestras play a role beyond keeping the at-risk youth busy. Psychologist Acosta Romualdo says the targeted youth suffer from low self-esteem and other conditions that can be addressed through the program.

“It’s important to reinforce this equilibrium and build the self-esteem so they can see their short-, medium- and long-term potential,” he says.

This approach stems from the El Salvador Crime and Violence Prevention Project’s strategy of encouraging at-risk youth to see a future beyond today.

Acosta Romualdo notes that the effects of the program extend beyond the young musicians themselves.

“We’ve noticed that when an instrument enters into a home, it impacts everyone, not just the youngster. The entire family becomes interested; they see the learning that goes on. They see the dedication, and they begin to live those kinds of values of working together and helping out,” adds Acosta Romualdo.

Eliseo Castellanos sings the praises of the philharmonic orchestra program.

He is in his sixth term as Mayor of Ilobasco, which has more than 100 youth participants in its philharmonic orchestra.

“It’s a real nice thing. We see a lot of enthusiasm,” Mayor Castellanos says. “We have five music instructors who are teaching the children, and we feel this is definitely helping with [youth crime and violence] prevention. The community is very enthusiastic about it and that makes me really happy.”

Ilobasco’s Mayor adds: “I speak with the youngsters and with the adults. They are all motivated. This is really working. We really need this.”

Building family and community pride

Jhonnatan’s mother is an enthusiastic supporter of the philharmonic orchestra. In Jhonnatan’s case, learning how to play the guitar has been especially helpful because he was born with a spinal condition that keeps him in a wheelchair.

“He has been a bit shy and used to ask me why was he in a wheelchair. It had been difficult because our part of town is rural and it’s hard to navigate in a wheelchair since there are a lot of stones in the road,” says Julia Irma Marroquín. “He would tell me he wouldn’t want to go to school because he would fall off his chair. But ever since he started in the orchestra school, he says he wants to go. He wants to learn. He wants to sing me songs.”

Psychologist Acosta Romualdo is familiar with Jhonnatan’s situation in Ilobasco.

“He and his mother would tell me that oftentimes he had been excluded because of his physical condition,” Acosta Romualdo says. “But now, even though the classes are on a second floor with no easy access for him, the kids and the instructor lift him up for class and bring him down afterwards, and now he feels that he is part of something. That’s very satisfying.”

Building Jhonnatan’s self-esteem and allowing him to see a future are among the positive outcomes from the program.

“His accomplishments are a win for me as his mother,” she says. “The guitar literally changed his life. I am so thankful for the project and thankful that it brought my son so much happiness.”

“The guitar literally changed his life. I am so thankful for the project and thankful that it brought my son so much happiness.” Julia Irma Marroquín, mother of 11-year-old guitarist Jhonnatan

Jhonnatan has been able to find a passion for music and he’s already thinking about his future.

“I’m getting real good grades, and one day I want to be the director of a big company, one of those companies that make computers, televisions and television cameras.”

Ten-year-old Armando José Guevara Guerra is also in the philharmonic school and cannot stop gushing about it.

“My aunt told my mother about it and we came, and I really liked it,” he says. “I’m learning to play the guitar, to play songs. My new favorite song is called Tema de Amor (Love Theme).”

Armando is so enthusiastic about participating in the project that he also plays music in church and says he wants to be a music teacher when he grows up.

“I want to be a teacher right here (in the philharmonic school). In church I play the song ‘Singing the Joy of Living’,” Armando says.

Though the program’s goal is not to turn out professional musicians, Alvarez of the Mayor’s Office says a handful have gone on to make a living as professional performers.

Alvarez says the philharmonic orchestras transform how communities see themselves.

“In this country, having a local philharmonic is something completely new. You’d see that in Europe, in other places, but not here,” says Alvarez. “But now, what we have accomplished in such a short time, well, that makes me real happy. El Salvador is not just about violence. There are good things, and positive things.”

Reported from El Salvador by Michael J. Zamba and Rene Urrutia.