Today is the 7th anniversary of the death of William Quijano, a young man of the Community of Sant’Egidio in El Salvador who was killed at the age of 21 in 2009 because of his work in the School of Peace with children in a difficult periphery of San Salvador.
The entire Community of Sant’Egidio unites itself, together with our brothers and sisters in El Salvador who today celebrate a prayer in his memory.
His story is one of someone who surrounded by violence does not lose hope, who in the face of fear conquers it, and overcomes violence with peace.
William, whose friends called him Samy, was born into a very poor family that, after the death of his father, moved to ad Apopa, about 15 miles out of the capital; one of the most violent neighborhoods in Central America. He was a normal kid who loved to play soccer and went well in school; he enrolls in law school, but later has to stop studying in order to work and support his family.
Ad Apopa was marked by daily violence – William wrote in one of his journals that his neighborhood, “had become extremely violent, one death after another; without a social conscience to support people.” In fact, the turn of the century in Latin America was a time of discovery; a time when narcotics were introduced and the youth’s angst expressed itself in the form of violence.
And so were born the maras, a gang that attracts a generation of uprooted, poorly education youth who have no clear prospects for the future. They assert themselves by submission and terror, but give respect to those who follow them and an identity to those who seek it.
The response of other Central-American countries to the phenomena of a growing gang culture was predominantly repressive. Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura were two anti-gang movements that, beyond their strong statements against the maras and several arrests, did very little to end violence. Perhaps what was lacking was not a hard had, but a helping hand – a hand to guide young people before it was too late.
The Community of Sant’Egidio in these year was primarily concerned with teenagers and children at risk. Quickly realizing that the issue at hand was that of lacking something to belong to and a father/ leader figure, the Community quickly opened the School of Peace.
The School of Peace was a free after-school program that supported children and teenagers in their scholastic success while proposing a new future; a healthy and peaceful future. It was a school, but more importantly a school of peace, of coexistence, of respect for the other and for one’s self. For many the symbol of the dove – on a shirt or on a hat – replaced the tattoo that marked affiliation with the mara.
William met the Community in 2005, at the age of 16. The Community, which had started in San Salvador was at the time taking root in Apopa. William transmitted his sympathy and joy to everyone he encountered. His joy and communication was very important for the Community of Salvaor. After her visit to Rome in 2006, William returns to Apopa full of energy, enthusiasm, and matureness. This year marked a great change for William; a deeper development of his dream for the young of Apopa.
William began to speak to everyone about his dream. His dream that Apopa change, that it become like Bambular – where the presence of the School of Peace over many years managed to silence the maras. To William this was the miracle of Sant’Egidio – a miracle that must be replicated elsewhere. This was the “social conscious” that William wrote about – a conscious that he hoped would grow in every child and help them avoid the violence that surrounded them.
William’s work became civil work when the government offers him to be part of the equipo de promodores sportivos – Team of Sport Promoters. A team who in the eyes of the government, was supposed to offer minors a way out of the maras – giving them another path to take.
The children that William touched had hearts saved from the maras and more free and open minds. This obviously became an issue for those who instead wanted to assert mara control over the young of Apopa. Maybe someone put William in the spotlight: it was necessary to teach a lesson to those who had dared to act as a competitor to the dark and violent power. Or maybe the mechanism of evil acts without a purpose; out of boredom, as a bet, or envy.
Regardless on the night of September 28th 2009, William was fatally shot. He died that night shortly after arriving at the hospital.
William’s death is surrounded by mystery. In fact, it was never discovered who shot him on that night, simply that they were two individuals from the areas.
What we do know is that the dream of William, a young son of Sant’Egidio in El Salvador, continues living. His life, even though tragically cut short, pushes us to believe that it is possible to build a different Latin America; an america free of the nightmare of the maras. In the existential periphery – as Pope Francis would love to say – of Apopa, William was a testimony of a different world, a work founded on human and peaceful values.