William Quijano

William Quijano – Samy to his friends – was a young man who, in a difficult and violent context, did not lose his hope, did not allow fear stop him, but did invest in non- violence and peace education instead.

William was born on 7 July 1988 in San Salvador. He lost his father when he was 14 and moved along with his mother to Apopa a suburb 20 kilometres from the capital. He was a boy like so many others. He was just taller and more effusive. Like many others he dreamt a better future for himself and his family. Therefore he kept on studying, got a diploma at the Instituto Nacional de Apopa, and enrolled for a law degree, but he failed to pay his way through university. So, when he had the chance to get a post as promotor deportivo (sports promoter) at Apopa Council, he opted for the job.

Just like the other youth of the suburb, William had to put up with an environment which – he wrote on a notebook where he used to jot his reflections down – “has become extremely violent. One death after another. There isn’t any social awareness which can sustain the people”.  
At the beginning of third millennium Latin America was on the lookout for new landmarks and political balance. New wounds were adding to the old, never solved, social issues: such as the penetration of drug mafia and the explosion of youth unease, poisoned by the appeal of violence.
That’s the way the Maras were born: gangs capable to attract new generations, poorly educated, with no roots nor clear prospects for their future. They establish themselves by the means of terror and submission. They grant respect to those who join them and give identity to those who didn’t have one.

The political and ideological armed conflicts of the sixties, seventies, and eighties have been replaced by war between rival gangs, murder as gamble, widespread violence. El Salvador, a country with about seven millions of inhabitants, still reports thousands homicides every year – 3341 in 2018, 9 victims per day.

The Maras draw their recruits from young people, even very young. They flourish as a bitter fruit of the violence which has been sown for decades. They are the substitute of longed-of success and wealth. The Central America Governments’ reaction to such a phenomenon has been merely repressive. Even the names of the two anti-gangs package of measures adopted in El Salvador, Mano Dura (Strong Hand) and Super Mano Dura, are quite eloquent. As a matter of fact, despite the number of arrests, and the muscular announces, the end of violence looks far away. Maybe what is lacking it’s not a strong hand but a friendly one to be held out towards young people and teenagers before it’s too late.

The Community of Sant’Egidio has been taking care of those at-risk young people for decades. It has realised that the challenge to be faced is a matter of social fabric, paternity, and authority.  The Schools of Peace are the main tool to fulfil such a commitment to empathic closeness and alternative education. After-schools free of charge centres support the children and teenagers’ inclusion and success at school; they offer a sound and peaceful educational itinerary. They are schools, just like the state schools, but schools of peace as well. Schools of coexistence. Of self-respect and respect for the others. At the School of Peace, the dove and the rainbow on the t-shirts replace the dreadful tattoos on the skin, marks of the affiliation to the Mara.

William met the Community of Sant’Egidio in 2005, when he was 16. At that time the Community, born in San Salvador, was just rooting in Apopa. The boy was tall, majestic, but he stake rather on communicativeness and empathy than on physicality. In a country of conflicts he cultivated the art of meeting, candidly, enthusiastically, fearlessly. His friend K. says: “I remember him always smiling: I can’t picture him sad. He was cheerful, playful. He lived an intense joy”.

His joyful and communicative allegiance was important for the Community of El Salvador. He was among those who in 2006 spent some weeks in Rome at Sant’Egidio training and enjoying fraternity. He got back full of enthusiasm for what he had seen and heard.
Indeed 2006 was a very important year to William, crucial for the formation of a more mature self and of a bold dream about the young people of Apopa. That was not only because of the trip to Italy. M. remembers: “It had to be the year he went to Rome. He told me about the feud that had broken out between his pasaje (alley) and a close one. Everything had begun because of a boy from William’s area. That boy was drunk and annoyed another one who lived in a different area. He had taken his cachucha (cap). It was a silly argument. But the other boy was really mad! Such tragic consequences! The two pasajes declared war on one another. Threats of death, clashes, homicides. William told me: ‘The other day six people have been killed. And there will be a retaliation!’ He was really sad, overwhelmed by the extent of what was happening. Young people he knew had been killed. And everything for a cachucha! On that very moment he realised that there was need of a different way of living in Apopa. He got convinced that he had to do something. He received strength by the prayer. He saw the way to a new dignity in the School of Peace. In Apopa and anywhere else”.

On Sundays William used to go to San Salvador. At the beginning he played as a libero: once he went to the School of Peace of San José, another time to Bambular, then to Chanmico, and so on. “He was entregado (dedicated) to the School of Peace”, says F.
William wrote: “The world is full of violence. Therefore we need to work for peace. We must have the courage to be teachers, for a country which has neither schools nor teachers is a hopeless and a futureless country. The Schools of Peace are shrines through which we can check violence and poverty”.

William used to talk to everyone about his dream: the dream of a changed Apopa. Like Bambular. There, the presence of the Community prevented the Maras from taking root. It was a sort of miracle of Sant’Egidio. It could be repeated somewhere else. That was the “social awareness” which was developing in him. William hoped that awareness would succeed in becoming the new generation's culture and practice.
Such a commitment to the transformation of Apopa also became a job for William. Between the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 he received the offer to be part of the promotores deportivos team that, according to the Council’s programme, should set the youth free from the Maras’ hold offering them something different. William willingly accepted. In the last months of his life he went around Apopa, along with F. and the other colleagues, to make contact with sport associations, to facilitate the participation of young people, to give them a larger view.

S. tells about William’s paternity towards those young people. “Sometimes they called him ‘Papà Samy’. It was a joke but really the young people felt that William loved and protected them. They felt secure with him. They turned to him for any advice”. Potentially they were hearts taken away from Maras. Which inevitably annoyed those who wanted to keep control over Apopa and its young inhabitants.
Perhaps, that’s the reason why William became a target: a lesson had to be taught to those who dared resisting to such violent and obscure power. Perhaps, evil acts without a real end, out of boredom or jealousy. Even as a dare bets.

Anyway, on 28 September 2009 at night William is hit by bullets in the pasaje, very close to his home. His mother hears the gunshots and runs to the alley. But there is nothing to do. The wounds era too serious. The young promotor of Apopa Council, the “gentle giant” of the School of Peace of Sant’Egidio, dies just after the arrival at the hospital.

William Quijano’s death remains shrouded in mystery. It was never known who were the two who shot him in the pasaje taking his life away. But it’s known that William’s dream didn’t stop speaking up. He was a young child of Sant’Egidio in El Salvador: his story, although mournful, drives to believe that Latin America can change and be free from the power of the Maras. In the ‘existential periphery’ (they’re Pope Francis’ words) of Apopa William has witnessed his hope in a better world, founded on peaceful and humane values.

Francesco De Palma

The memory of William Quijano in the words of Andrea Riccardi
28 September 2020