The rehabilitation of former gang members, projects to restore drinking water sources and efforts to support mining workers are among the main programs of Catholic Relief Services in Latin American countries.Additionally, CRS is highly involved in the defense of workers’ human rights in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Mexico, according to Rick Jones, CRS deputy director of peace building and global solidarity for Latin America.For several years the agency — whose Latin American headquarters are in Guatemala City — has been focused on peace building in Salvadorean communities with high percentages of at-risk youth through the program Jóvenes Constructores (Young Builders) in partnership with the United Nations, local nonprofits, and organizations and institutions in California.The agency has a collaborative agreement with the Universities of San Francisco and Santa Clara for its programs in El Salvador rural and mining areas, where agriculture (the country’s main source of revenues) is threatened by the increasingly contaminated water sources.“The topic of water is very critical in El Salvador,” Jones said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “Ninety percent of the rivers are contaminated to the point that water can’t be used as drinking water for human beings.”CRS has been supporting El Salvador’s miners, he added, who have suffered the consequences of continued deforestation in their environment due to gold exploitation by foreign companies, to which the government recently put a halt after realizing the devastation it was causing to the land and the little profit it received in the transaction. “The government would only keep four percent in profits and royalties, and the other 90 percent left the country,” said Jones. “So the 11 local bishops signed a letter to the government based on the principle that we should take care of creation, which is the home of all mankind.” They opposed the “unjust” deal and the “high level of environmental vulnerability.”Jones noted that El Salvador is the most deforested country in Latin America (after Haiti), which is why finding clean sources to generate potable water has become a critical issue for the government and for CRS.In the last 10 years, he said, the agency has been developing reforestation projects as well as basin management. Together with the local Catholic Church and other organizations, it is advocating for a law that declares water a fundamental human right.CRS’ goal is to organize people in rural areas who own cattle or grow vegetables, help them understand their situation, then work with them to develop solutions for fair and sustainable water distribution. CRS offers management courses, and on occasion helps build potable water systems.“With a staff of 500, CRS still works in re-building efforts in Haiti, but the post-earthquake programs are ending.”Rick Jones, CRS Latin AmericaThe agency is also promoting a process that could evolve into a law that generates governability by one agency over water sources. Currently, five government agencies make decisions over these sources, and they rarely communicate with each other, adding to the chaos, said Jones.Similar rural programs are being developed in Nicaragua, where CRS has an office from where they provide support to the Catholic Church in neighboring Costa Rica.Gangs: Multi-faceted approachCRS has worked closely with Los Angeles-based GRYD (Gang Reduction and Youth Development), to help in the process of rehabilitation of former gang members by offering an alternative way of life based on education and employment.“But before getting to that point we need to help them (former gang members) realize they have to take responsibility for their actions,” said Jones, “and then find their own dignity as human beings because many get lost on the way.” Thus, the agency offers them a psycho-social therapeutic treatment. “They have to change their relationships,” said Jones, because it’s hard to change the person “if all your surroundings remain the same.”The agency works with family environments, including extended family. Part of the problem, according to Jones, is that El Salvador’s civil war (late 1970s to early 1990s), together with migration, “destroyed part of the social weaving.“In the last 10 years, El Salvador has gone from 28 percent of homes led by single mothers to nearly 40 percent,” Jones reported.But the children, he said, end up being raised on the streets because their mothers, or extended family members who are supposedly raising them, have to work 14 hours daily to provide for their families.CRS works on strengthening the families and helping generate alternative sources of income, such as micro-businesses, so they can work differently to raise their children in a healthy environment. The government recently received a $10 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to generate microbusinesses.With the support of GRYD, CRS has worked on the identification of 9- to 12-year-old kids vulnerable of being recruited by gangs and then works with them and their families. The agency has also started mapping communities and generating and promoting non-violent conversations to address domestic violence that could affect mother-child relationships or relationships with neighbors.More than 800,000 Salvadoreans reside in Los Angeles, the third largest “Salvadorean” city in the world. Many Salvadorean gang members were deported from L.A. in the 1990s, and are considered among the most cruel and violent in the region.In March 2012, the local government signed a truce with jailed gang leaders. The deal has lasted longer than the public expected, said Jones, and although homicides have diminished, violence still continues.“Violence is a social problem,” said Jones. “It’s not just about negotiating at the higher levels, and the truce is not responding to the conditions that generate violence.”With a staff of 500, CRS still works in re-building efforts in Haiti, but the post-earthquake programs are ending, said Jones.From offices in the Dominican Republic, the agency covers Jamaica, Cuba and Guyana, supporting agricultural programs and responding to emergencies.In South America, where an estimated 2 million people live under “slave” conditions, CRS has funded programs to generate dignifying work conditions in rural areas. Together with the local church, it is advocating the passing of a law to eliminate slavery in Brazil. Monthly donations of $50 helps take care of several of CRS programs in Latin America. For more information about Catholic Relief Services, visit and click on the Catholics Confront Global Poverty blog. For CRS El Salvador, call Rick Jones, (503) 22-07-6900.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0201/crs/{/gallery}