When Maria Martinez comes to work, she has no idea whether she’ll survive the night. The 18-year-old is a shift leader at Comandos de Salvamento, or Rescue Commandos, a volunteer-run ambulance service in San Salvador – the murder capital of the world. When the alarm rings on a Saturday night, it could be for a shooting, murder, car accident, or even a fire. Martinez knows how to deal with all of them. “I’m scared sometimes,” she said. “But I like the adventure and the adrenaline. I love it.” She starts her weekly shift around 4pm, rushing the long commute from home to the Comandos de Salvamento headquarters to make sure she arrives well before the sun goes down. The base is in downtown San Salvador (the country's capital), in a rough neighbourhood which is known to be controlled by gangs and is unsafe to move around in after dark. But once a week, when Martinez puts on her green and yellow uniform, she knows it is her duty to go back out on the streets – whatever the risk may be.
El Salvador is, as of last year, the world’s most violent country outside a war zone. The tiny Central American nation has a homicide rate of one in 1000 – one of the highest in the world. There are an estimated 30,000 gang members at large in El Salvador, according to the Ministry of Security in El Salvador, and almost half a million (470,264) associated with gangs through family members, friends or neighbours as of 2013 (the population is just 6.3 million). Two rival gangs, MS13 and Barrio 18, fight to recruit members as young as 12 years old. The Comandos are trying to offer an alternative to the life of violence they see every night on shift. This group of volunteers – many, like Martinez, teenagers with little medical training – are the only thing that stands between life and death for many residents of San Salvador. At the headquarters, Martinez prepares for her weekly shift by cleaning out the threadbare ambulances and checking that equipment is ready to go. Many of the volunteers come from rough neighbourhoods and find the base safer than home. The Comandos target these young people to work at the centre, teaching them life-saving skills so they can give back to their community and to give them a sense of pride. She rounds up the volunteers around 8pm. The volunteers, drivers and paramedics line up, saluting Martinez and reciting the Comandos de Salvamento’s pledge.
Martinez was promoted to head of her unit earlier this year after her predecessor quit because the job was too dangerous. As shift leader, Martinez hands out assignments to the volunteers in a strict yet motherly tone. She asks the volunteers to take out the rubbish and ensures that the paramedic organises the medicine supplies and grills the driver about how much fuel is in each of the ambulances. She then divides the 12 Comandos into two crews, each with a driver, medic and group of volunteers. They say the Comandos pledge and quickly go about their duties. “It’s difficult to lead this group of men,” she says astutely. “We are only two girls in this group. At first they didn’t listen to me.” Now, nine months after Martinez’s promotion, the group obey her every word. The Comandos were formed in 1960 with the idea to form a country-wide public ambulance and rescue group that would serve all citizens regardless of race or religion. The NGO, which has 33 local groups across El Salvador, is partly funded by the state but the majority of its financial support comes from overseas. The Norwegian People’s Aid, an NGO based in Norway, organises first aid training for the volunteers and finances new equipment for the medics, though the Comandos have been known to launch crowdfunding sites to repair ambulances. A third of the corps are minors –over 3,500 that serve throughout the country of El Salvador. Each night the Comandos split calls between the two crews. They wait in the ambulance bay for the alarms, which come in on a CB radio. To kill time they watch TV, do homework and tell jokes. The older volunteers tease the younger ones, many of whom started working with the Comandos when they were 14.
One group practices rappelling and rope skills for the upcoming Independence Day parade, where they will showcase their disaster preparation skills. Martinez rations out coffee and sugar for each shift and the volunteers settle down for the night, watching dubbed movies on television and eating sandwiches from a nearby petrol station. Just as the lull sets in, the radio crackles and everyone jumps into motion. The address is checked on a map and the quickest route is determined. The first crew jumps in the ambulance, closing the bay doors as the Comandos tear away down the street on their first call of many. Maria is in the passenger seat and acts as the navigator for the driver. She relays information through a two-way radio which connects to the base, urging him onto a main road and then down a side street. She carefully checks the right side of intersections, shouting “claro” before the ambulance blazes through. A ride across the city which usually takes 45 minutes is reached by the Comandos in 10. Once at the scene, the Comandos check and secure the perimeter for suspicious activity or obvious gang members. After decades of assisting the San Salvador area they generally have a neutral position with the gangs, as they assist anyone who requires it. But the risks are still deadly. Earlier this year, Erick Beltrán, a 14-year-old volunteer, was murdered by a gang member while on duty.
Martinez leads the team to the victim, who has been hit by a car on the side of the highway. They stabilise the woman, who has heavy internal bleeding, and transport her to the nearest hospital, then return to the base for the next call. Often the team is diverted to another accident while on their way back to base. “It’s satisfying knowing you saved a life by bringing them to the hospital,” Martinez explained and the radio dispatcher next to her agreed. Without the Comandos de Salvamento, many critical victims would die. State services are either slow or non-existent. Martinez started coming to the Comandos in secondary school. “At the beginning I didn’t like it,” she said, mentioning the male dominated crews and long hours. “Then I started to learn new ways to save people and I really began to enjoy it here.” While she and her crew aren’t technically Emergency Medical Technicians they receive lessons in first aid. The majority of the youths leave the Comandos to find full time jobs, but return to volunteer when they can. Some initial volunteers go on to receive full paramedic training and return to the Comandos as paid medics. By day, Maria, who graduated high-school earlier in the year, is a music teacher – but her time with the Comandos has made her think about a different career. “I’m hoping to go back to school for nursing”, she says. “I’m hoping to learn more about healthcare and use it to save lives.” Not all of her family is supportive. Her father encourages her volunteer work but her mother feels like she is wasting her time with the corps. “It’s very difficult because my mother doesn't agree with me being here, she thinks I’m not going to get anything out of this,” said Martinez, looking at the map of the city, where dangerous areas are marked. “But I think it’s just the opposite, dealing with life and death is everything here.” As the sun comes up, some of the members wake up and shuffle to collect a cup of the watered down coffee available. It’s 8am and the new crew arrives. Older members encourage younger volunteers to go to church, but most end up being driven home in a beat up four-wheel drive to their neighbourhoods. Back at the base, Maria goes into one of the tiny dorm rooms crammed with bunk-beds. This is where she’ll sleep until the next call, and her next chance to save a life.
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Monique Jaques’s reporting from El Salvador.