Estefanía walks with her books close to her chest, at an accelerated pace. She is 10-years-old and lives in the neighborhood of Recreo, on the same street where a child and his mother were murdered the day before. She wears a red hemmed skirt, sneakers and a white T-shirt, which bears the logo of her school.
She cannot attend classes, because her school is on the list of the 34 institutions that Ecuador’s Ministry of Education has temporarily shuttered. In-person classes will not be available at these schools in Durán, a city that has been taken over by organized crime. Amidst the wave of unchecked violence, children have also become the victims of brutal crimes at any time of day.
Estefanía returns home with the day’s assignments, which she got from a friend who lives a few blocks away. There’s no computer in her house; the only cellphone cannot be charged and her mother couldn’t afford to pay the internet bill. It’s 11 a.m. — at this time in school, she would be playing “hot potato” with her friends. “It’s like playing catch,” she smiles, as she explains the dynamics of the game and lists the names of each and every one of her friends. She also mentions her favorite teacher, who often jokes that Estefanía should be the one teaching mathematics, her favorite subject.
Lourdes — her mother — doesn’t agree with classes being virtual, despite the fact that, for several months, other mothers and fathers of students from Durán’s schools have held protests demanding that classes not be held in-person. “It’s true that it’s very scary, something could happen to the children during a shooting, but [the kids] don’t learn properly when they’re not in class, they need to be there with a blackboard and their teacher,” Lourdes sighs.
She’s concerned about her son — Estefanía’s brother — José, who, at nine-years-old, can barely write his name and a couple of sentences. “The authorities should guarantee the safety of the children,” she affirms.
Lourdes teaches her children about how to take care of themselves in the event of a shooting. She tells them that they have to “get on the floor and crawl to the room under the bed, as far away from the windows as possible.” It’s the daily lesson that everyone in Durán has to keep in mind.
The school closures were ordered by the Ministry of Education after a wave of violence in Ecuador. At least 5,320 violent crimes have been recorded so far this year, of which 1,900 have occurred in the cities of Guayaquil and Durán. Educational authorities had long resisted the measure of virtual classes, as they felt that, during the daytime, children would be better-protected at school than in neighborhoods where criminal groups impose their law with bullets and recruit young people. According to the police, about 16% of students in the most dangerous area of Guayaquil — the Nueva Prosperina district — are linked to criminal gangs.
“Those recruited are children between 12 and 17-years-old. This is the ideal age for these criminal groups, because a minor cannot be held responsible [for a crime]... the worst they can get [as a punishment] is a rehabilitative measure,” Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Santamaría explains. He’s the police commander for the district of Nueva Prosperina. Officers have found that certain youths linked to the gangs spend their time extorting teachers and other students inside the schools. “For example, they demand a dollar, in exchange for them not hitting you,” Santamaría notes.
In a distorted scene of what a school should be like, a group of police officers have entered the classrooms of nine schools in the Nueva Prosperina district. They search students’ backpacks, looking for drugs, weapons, or explosives. “There’s micro-trafficking, there are weapons, we have videos of an armed student who shot a gun inside the school,” the police commander sighs.
Protocol prevents students from entering the educational facilities with weapons, but, according to Santamaría, it has been proposed to the Ministry of Education that school police officers be posted to particular institutions where high levels of violence and infiltration by criminal gangs have been detected. “A police officer within the schools gives confidence to the teachers, because they’re the ones who are being extorted,” the district chief affirms. He explains that young members of criminal gangs sometimes ask teachers for huge sums — up to $2,000 — in exchange for letting them work. Near the end of the academic year, they also force teachers to hand out certificates that acknowledge that certain students — members of gangs who never attended classes — have completed the curriculum’s requirements
“Currently, in Durán, we live in fear, it’s like living in a war zone,” says Consuelo, a teacher at a local school. “The worst moment for many of my students is when school dismissal time approaches,” the teacher adds. She’s concerned about the symptoms of anxiety that many of her students have exhibited. This can occur for many reasons: perhaps someone tried to rob them on their way to school, or maybe they heard gunshots. Sometimes, if a balloon pops, the kids panic at the noise.
“One of my students came in one day, her hands were shaking. She was crying, she was short of breath, she couldn’t breathe well. We helped her by doing some exercises, but no one really cares about the children’s mental health,” Consuelo laments. “When we refer the cases to the Ministry of Health, they give them an appointment with a psychologist once every three months. How is that going to help them? Their bodies are asking for help, they’re filled with fear.”
The inhabitants of Durán feel paralyzed by the violence. Their testimonies reflect the failure of outgoing President Guillermo Lasso’s security policy to confront criminal gangs, which focuses on decreeing states of emergency, as in the case of Durán. The president extended the presence of the military in the city for 30 days, without obtaining positive results.
The violence was already terrifying in Durán when, nearly two years ago, the bodies of two men were found hanging from the pedestrian bridge at the entrance to the city. The kidnappings of bus drivers and vendors — along with shootings — have become more common since then. “It’s a shame to see 12 or 14-year-old children with rifles calmly walking through the streets,” Lourdes says, describing what she sees from the window of her house in the Recreo neighborhood.
“Virtual learning isn’t the solution,” Consuelo emphasizes. “Does having kids at home put an end to the hitmen or criminal gangs? The issue here is that the institutions aren’t doing their job. As a teacher, I cannot do the work of the police. I educate kids. The police have to do their thing, which is to provide security. We don’t have that right now.”
Still, certain teachers have assumed this duty, even putting their own lives at risk. When schools are in session, teachers take turns guarding the entrance when the students arrive and when they’re dismissed.
“One day, outside the school, a man appeared with a knife… he threatened two of our boys, he wanted their phones. They didn’t have anything, so they screamed — the teacher who was closest ran to defend them. Luckily, the thief ran away,” Consuelo recalls. She says that children’s right to education is being taken away due to the violence in this small city, which is no longer under the control of the state.
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