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Rescue Units Give Salvadoran Youths Refuge From Gang Wars

  • Reuters

Members of the rescue unit participate in a practice session at the Comandos de Salvamento (Rescue Corps) base in San Salvador, El Salvador, July 2, 2016.

Members of the rescue unit participate in a practice session at the Comandos de Salvamento (Rescue Corps) base in San Salvador, El Salvador, July 2, 2016.

Voluntary rescue worker Jazmin Hernandez has vivid memories of the day she responded to an emergency call involving a policeman shot dead by gang members in an El Salvadoran slum.

It was the first time the 16-year-old had seen violence up close in her home country, where a turf war between the notorious gangs Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) has pushed murder rates to record levels.

"When we arrived he was still alive, but we couldn't do anything and he died because he had so many bullets in his body," she said.

In 2015, El Salvador registered a record 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world outside a war zone.

Rescuers Maria Martinez, left, and Renato Landaverde help a woman who was hit by a bus in San Salvador, El Salvador, July 17, 2016.

Rescuers Maria Martinez, left, and Renato Landaverde help a woman who was hit by a bus in San Salvador, El Salvador, July 17, 2016.

But for many young people who have few chances to distance themselves from rivalries between so-called maras in their schools and neighborhoods, a civil society organization called the Comandos de Salvamento, or Rescue Corps, has been a refuge.

Jhonny Ramos, a volunteer coordinator who is paid by the group, said that about 2,000 youths now respond to traffic accidents, natural disasters and violent crimes in a country where emergency services personnel have been overwhelmed by crises.

Training in first aid, evacuation

The volunteers, who are trained in first aid, gunshot wound care and evacuation techniques, often spend long shifts sleeping on small cots and responding to emergency calls.

With 32 bases around the country, the organization founded 56 years ago has also helped to take many youth off the country's crime-ridden streets and has offered them opportunities to work as yellow-clad outreach workers.

A rescue worker sleeps after the night shift at the Comandos de Salvamento (Rescue Corps) base in San Salvador, El Salvador, July 2, 2016.

A rescue worker sleeps after the night shift at the Comandos de Salvamento (Rescue Corps) base in San Salvador, El Salvador, July 2, 2016.

But their work is not without risk. In April, suspected gang members stormed a Rescue Corps base in the central city of Quezaltepeque, about 21 kilometers (13 miles) northwest of San Salvador, peppering a 14-year-old volunteer with bullets.

The victim, Erick Beltran, died of his wounds, becoming the first Rescue Corps volunteer to be killed on duty over a long history that saw the organization on the streets during El Salvador's civil war.

"These are things that happen if you save the life of someone who is against a gang or mara," Ramos said.

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