It is after thousands of Central Americans have fled the region, reporting that they were going to be killed in their own countries, that there is talk of a new wave of those displaced by violence. El Salvador does not recognise the phenomenon officially, but says it is creating programme to help those who migrate for that reason. In the meantime, the state hopes that its citizens help each other to escape the country.
Chapter 1: A Mother and Daughter Flee
On the banks of a calm river, Maribel and Beatriz, a cosmetician, ate and bathed and played with Maribel’s daughter and Beatriz’s grandson. They dried themselves, changed their clothes, and, when the time came to leave, Maribel registered her last memory of El Salvador: Beatriz, the cosmetician, saying goodbye from the other side of the river. “Take care, mamita,” she said. The last memory that Beatriz has of that day is of Maribel’s back, loaded with a rucksack full of food and clothes. Maribel and her daughter, hand in hand, disappearing along a path that would lead them to Guatemala City.
Beatriz, the cosmetician, is a good Samaritan. When Maribel fled for the first time, she gave her refuge in San Salvador. When she escaped a second time, she put her up in an old family house in the city of Santa Ana. When Maribel finally had to leave El Salvador, because it was no longer safe for her or her daughter, she took her to the illegal crossing so that her escape would not be registered at the border. That’s how Beatriz, becoming a coyote, formed a plan that no one would know about, so that the gangs would not find out where Maribel was hiding.
In this part of the world, the northern triangle of Central America, when someone flees it is because they are being chased by gangs, organised crime, or drug trafficking. That is what the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says. Between 2008 and 2013, 58,063 Maribels crossed the borders of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador because they could no longer live in their home country. If, 30 years ago, thousands of people fled the wars in the region, now they run from the violence of gangs, organised crime, and drugs. The UNHCR says these are the new displaced persons.
Most of those displaced seek refuge in the US. There, the State Department reports that in the last five years, of the more than 40,000 asylum requests from citizens of the Central American triangle, almost half (18,873) came from Salvadorans like Maribel. The UNHCR says Salvadorans are pushed into exile mainly by gang violence.
Maribel, 24, grew up with children who later became prominent members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in her community, one of concrete walls and sheet metal roofs on the banks of a dirty river. Those who live in gang territory are subjected to their rules. The unwritten rule than condemned Maribel was the one that no pretty girl in the neighbourhood can turn down the advances of a gang leader. “I gained a husband by force, because that is how it must be,” she says. One of his friends sent someone to look for her, and she knew she could not say no. Without knowing her, anyone could think Maribel was foolish. Often, when the murder of a girl by suspected gang members is reported, social networks in El Salvador are full of users commenting that the victim was somehow to blame. “Who forced her to get involved with the gangs?” ask some. “She deserved it” conclude others. Today, Maribel reflects that she could not have turned to anyone for help. Who would rescue her from the intentions of a Marero, backed by his gang, in a community controlled by them? Not even Beatriz, the cosmetician, could do anything. Maribel feared that if she didn’t visit his friend, his friend would be annoyed, the gang would be annoyed, and her and her brother and grandmother could fall out of favour.
She obediently visited him again and again. At the football pitch, on the corner, in the kiosk, she drank cokes with him, then beers, they smoked cigarettes, then a ‘porrito‘ (joint), and they went into a little shack, and first it was a kiss, then two, then they were naked. After one year together, Maribel gave birth to the daughter of a Marero. She was 16 at the time. The gang member, the father, was 20.
There are other unwritten rules with the gangs – rules for living together in a community. For example, there are gang members who force local residents to come to their children’s birthday parties; those who resent neighbours enough to declare them an enemy for not inviting them to share a cake. For those that get involved in the gang, obeying its plans is another rule. In the case of a young woman, it can become a nightmare. There are gang ‘cliques’ that offer up virgin girls as birthday presents; there are gang leaders in prison that demand young girls from their communities come have sex with them and other inmates, or face violent attacks against their families. There are gang rapes… there are pure tragedies.
When Maribel’s daughter turned two, her gang member father was jailed, accused of murder. And so they came looking for Maribel again. They told her that every week she had to take a bus to the west of the country – a four-hour journey – to the Ciudad Barrios prison, the main prison holding Mara Salvatrucha gang members (more than 2,500 of them), in a mountain town. First she travelled just to have sex with him, but then he started to ask for more things.
“First I started inserting mobile phone chips into my vagina or anus. Then he asked me to insert marijuana. At first I refused, but then…” she says.
But then one night they came looking for her, again. They banged the door, and when she opened it, three young gang members leaped at her, pushed her to the floor, and began kicking her in the stomach, back, legs, thighs, face. They stamped on her, pushing their heels into her cheeks. “You have to go, bitch, or you know what will happen!” they said. “You have to go, or next time we’ll come for them too!” they warned her. From one of the two small rooms in her small house, her brother, grandmother, and baby daughter looked on in horror.
And so Maribel travelled four hours west, and in her vagina travelled a bag with 50g of marijuana. But something happened – perhaps she looked nervous – and they found the drugs during a search at the prison entrance. She spent six months in the women’s jail – six long months that still give her nightmares. “Being there, every night I dreamed that they went back to my house for my daughter,” she says.
When she was released, Maribel returned home and one night they returned. She had to try again, they said. This time not at the same prison, where her husband was, but another one. Unwritten rules. This would be a punishment for failing to deliver the other package. Maribel said yes, but in her mind she was already packing imaginary bags, and later that same night, she went to visit Beatriz, her cosmetician friend. In this first escape, she travelled from her home on the banks of a dirty gully to a middle-class house in the suburbs of San Salvador, near the airport. She carried her daughter, asleep. She remembers that night well: it was a night of fireworks, the ‘Luces Campero’, and the taxi she was in got stuck in a traffic jam. As she watched the sky explode with multi-coloured lights, Maribel cried – she hadn’t been able to say goodbye to anyone.
In Central America’s northern triangle, the most violent region in the world, there are two hegemonic gangs: Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS). The latter is one of the most dangerous according to the FBI, and listed by US authorities as one of the criminal groups whose finances must be attacked. Both gangs came from Los Angeles, created by young migrants from Central America to defend themselves against other gangs.
With nuances in each country, today the gangs control large territories full of working class, marginalised, and impoverished communities. They are estimated to have tens of thousands of members across the region. In El Salvador alone, the government has estimated that there are around 60,000 active gang members. The National Civil Police calculate that there are 610 gang cliques around the country, with a presence in 14 districts. In San Salvador, where Maribel grew up, there are 216.
Weeks after that night of the ‘Luces Campero’, Beatriz the cosmetician sent Maribel far away, to a relative’s house two hours outside the capital. It wasn’t until she arrived there, far from home, that she called her brother. She asked him to tell her grandmother that she was ok, and told them to pretend that she and her daughter no longer existed. She didn’t tell them where she was, or directions, only that she no longer existed. “It’s better that way,” she said. Through tears and clenched teeth, her brother, two years younger than her, accepted. He would never ask for her again, so that they would never see that he was hiding information about where Maribel was staying.
A few months later, one Tuesday afternoon, in a mobile phone agency, Maribel froze. A week earlier she had reported a faulty phone at the agency, and they told her to come back then to get it fixed. Maribel arrived punctually for the second appointment, and that was when she imagined, once again, packing up her bags. “You’re that girl, right? Maribel? Your family is looking for you,” one of the salespeople told her.
Earlier that day, a news programme had aired a photo of Maribel above the word ‘disappeared’ and a phone contact. One of the salespeople at the agency had recognised Maribel – the young lady with a pretty daughter – that had come by a few days earlier. In the agency they took note of Maribel’s case, and she swears today that it was as if they were waiting for the day of her appointment. Maribel ran back to Beatriz’s house – to clear any doubt she called her brother again and confirmed that he had stuck to his promise to not look for her ever again. Everything suggested that a gang member had passed off as a relative, sent the photo to the news programme, and sought help to find her. Maribel feared the worst. In that town, her last refuge and where they almost caught her, there are 40 gang cliques, 26 of which are linked to MS, the gang that was looking for her. Maribel doesn’t know the exact number, but she was clear that moving from one place to another within El Salvador would not guarantee her anything. It would just be a pause – a break in her escape. The day she felt that one of the salespeople had identified her, her worst fears were realised: it was time to leave the country. That night in the darkness, as the rafters on Beatriz’s metal roof creaked, she imagined that they had arrived, that someone had told them where she was, the address she had given when she bought a new phone. She imagined the gang members walking on the roof.
Maribel feared death for two weeks. At every corner she felt as though someone was watching her. She barely slept, and every creak in the house made her jump. During that period, Beatriz searched for other relatives who could help. And after asking everyone she could think of, she managed to take Maribel away from the noise and risk of the creaking house and to a ranch near the mountainous border with Guatemala. A few days later, the two friends said goodbye, perhaps forever, on the banks of a river.
In Guatemala, friends of Beatriz helped Maribel get a job, but neither her nor her daughter had documents, and her daughter had to be able to study. Maribel spoke to lawyers, who advised her to seek asylum or refuge from the Guatemalan authorities. She travelled to the capital and visited immigration officers, who agreed to review her case. She told them her entire story, but they asked for proof, and she didn’t have any.
From Guatemala, the authorities sent written requests to El Salvador to confirm a few things: that the gang member, the child’s father, existed and was in prison. A register of Maribel’s own stint in prison, the case she was convicted for… but none of this proved her story was true, it was just her word and her tears. On 15th March 2014, the Guatemalan government believed a Salvadoran, accepted that the neighbouring country was incapable of protecting two of its citizens, and so offered them asylum.
Chapter 2: A Samaritan During the War, Shocked by Peace
A quarter of a century ago, Fernando Protti dodged jungles and bullets in a region where everyone was killing each other. He treated Salvadoran refugees who ended up at the Nicaraguan border fleeing the war between the army and the FMLN guerilla movement. He also helped indigenous people from Guatemala who were fleeing the genocide and seeking sanctuary at the southern border of Mexico. “More than 50,000!” he says.
Now Protti, with whitened hair and beard, is the representative of the UNHCR office for Mexico, Cuba, and Central America. Working from Panama, he is once again concerned by this region, considered by the UN as the most violent in the world for its murder rates, which in Honduras alone reaches above 90 per 100,000 people. Twenty-two years after the war, Protti and the UNHCR have returned to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They say they are worried: they have alerted the governments and reopened offices in each of the three countries.
“It’s not normal,” says Protti. “The alarming thing now is that we are at peace, at least in theory. And yet, people keep leaving. It is eye-catching to register 17,000 people from Central America fleeing ‘peaceful’ areas. Before, 20,000 would flee El Salvador for Nicaragua, or 50,000 Guatemalans for Mexico, because the army was chasing them. Now they are not leaving en masse, but they are still fleeing.”
From what are the people of Central America fleeing now? “The information we have tells us that they are running away from conflicts with the Maras, organised crime, and drug trafficking.”
Since 2008, the UNHCR has registered an increase in the number of asylum requests that Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans have made in countries all over the world. They count 17,000 Central Americans exiled across the world today, but each year around 8,000 more are telling foreign governments that they fear for their lives in their own countries. There were more than 50,000 requests made in the last five years alone, mostly in the US, though only 4.9% were granted. Only a minority become refugees because people don’t always believe their stories, and they don’t carry proof of their persecution or danger. In 2010, the UN established a norm to guide judges and lawyers all over the world in how to evaluate cases in which the victims were persecuted by gangs or organised crime. This was in answer to the the rise in petitions from people who feared returning to these three Central American countries.
“To reach today’s situation you have to a analyse what began several years ago, when people started arriving in Mexico, mainly, but also the US and Canada,” says Protti. “They said they were escaping the Maras, and the majority were from El Salvador and Honduras.”
Do the governments of these countries recognise that people are fleeing the violence caused by the Maras?
“While Honduras has acknowledged the problem it has, the government in El Salvador, while accepting that there is a problem with people being forcibly displaced by violence, has not reacted in the same way.”
It doesn’t admit it publicly?
“The El Salvador government recognises that there are areas of the capital and around the country where the Maras are present. There is clear evidence of this due to the number of empty houses in different neighbourhoods that have been abandoned by people who were scared or pushed into leaving by the Maras. That is obvious. And in our study of interviews held by the El Salvador government with those who return to the country, it is clear that many say they left because of the violence, even though I can’t give you exact numbers yet.”
The Immigration Office in El Salvador told El Faro that between January 2012 and May 2014, 4,487 citizens that had been deported from Mexico or the US said they had left because of violence.
Of the three countries in the northern triangle, only Honduras has publicly recognised that it has a problem with people being forcibly displaced by violence. At the end of 2013, the Porfirio Lobo administration asked the UNHCR to reopen its office in the country, and in early 2014, the new government led by Juan Orlando Hernández created an Interinstitutional Commission to attend to the displaced. “We need to accept that the situation is overwhelming us,” declared the Honduran Foreign Affairs Minister Mireyra Batres. The commission, however, is still under construction, though the Foreign Affairs and Security Ministries, in collaboration with the UNCHR, have drawn up a route map to proceed along.
The UNHCR has officially reopened its office in Honduras, but also has representatives in Guatemala and El Salvador searching for official data to try and at least draw an outline of the problem in both countries. Neither of these two countries officially recognise the phenomenon of ‘forcibly displaced persons’, even though there are reports of legions of displaced people and ‘ghost towns’ with hundreds of houses abandoned and dismantled after the mass exodus.
Chapter 3: The Children Must Get Away
May 2014, on the outskirts of the capital San Salvador and the suburb of Soyapango. The bus bringing back the Salvadorans deported from Mexico has not yet arrived. In the Migrantes de La Chacra shelter, a group of mothers wait anxiously for the bus to come around the corner. Perhaps they haven’t anticipated it, but this arrival scene is unpleasant: the deported migrants step off the bus tired, scruffy, and shaken.
Much is known about the dangers faced by migrants crossing Mexico. They are raped, kidnapped, killed, and butchered. But the return journey is not entirely safe either. That’s why the migration officers remove their shoelaces and belts. They say that, from time to time, someone is killed on those long return journeys: one gang member murdering another, a coyote who doesn’t want to be given up, a trafficker who doesn’t want to be discovered…
The bus hasn’t arrived, and María’s face betrays her impatience. She composes herself, and while the bus arrives she explains why her son tried to flee to the US.
Not long ago, they almost killed José. He was in seventh grade in his town’s school when a group of classmates, linked to the MS, asked him to join. José refused, “and so they told him they would kill him.”
In José’s school and neighbourhood, located in a town in the Greater San Salvador metropolitan area, his mum says he was “one of the only ones left” when explaining how the majority of his group were on their way to joining the gangs. For a youngster in El Salvador, just living in a neighbourhood ‘owned’ by Barrio 18 and going to a school in MS territory – and vice versa – can mean death. José was harassed as he left home, and as he left school, but he always refused. Always. Until one day the boys grew tired of asking, they surrounded him, took him to a plot near the school, and beat him senseless between eight of them.
“We went looking for him, because it was late,” remembers María. “We found him bleeding heavily, as though he were dead. Who knows what they used to hit him. They had smashed up everything – his mouth, his head, everything. They had left him for dead. They beat him up alright! All smashed in! He was in hospital for two weeks.”
Central America – and particularly the northern triangle – is the region in the world where most youngsters are killed, according to the UN. In El Salvador alone, the age group most at risk of dying is that of 15-29 year-olds, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine. In the last 13 years, 56 out of every 100 people murdered belonged to that age group. In that period, 24,000 youngsters were killed.
After getting out of hospital José left the school. He never left the house, but the gang, who heard he had survived, came back to stalk him. “If we don’t leave, they are going to kill me mum,” he told María. They moved to another area and stayed with some acquaintances, but the gang still caught up with him. They pushed bits of paper under the door of the house he was staying in, saying that they had found him and would soon kill him. In the area he was hiding there were 38 gang cliques, say the police.
María would had never let her son go to the US, but he was so scared that he went behind her back to contact some migrant relatives in the US. They helped him pay the coyote so he could leave without his mother knowing.
José ended up in Tapachula, in southern Mexico, and only then did his mother, who thought he was dead, find out. “He told them his story there, but the authorities said it was a shame, but that they couldn’t help him,” says María.
José finally arrives. His face is tired as he gets off the bus. He has no shoelaces. He looks defeated. He lifts his head to acknowledge his mother from a distance. In a single file they are all led into a room to be given a lunch pack for returning migrants: a stuffed tortilla and a soft drink. The authorities interview him and he tells them he left for fear of his life here. He is moved from one office to another, where he is met by police assigned to the shelter. They don’t ask him why he left, but take his details and fingerprints. “To see if he has a criminal record,” explains the sergeant in charge. Afterwards, he is finally let out to his mother. They hug. He tells her that he has not eaten or slept well. His mother tells him that she has been talking with us.
“I don’t want to tell you any more, beyond what my mother has already said, because I’m afraid,” he says. We ask him what he will do next. “When we get out of here we’ll go to the coyote. He is already waiting for me to try again.”
Continue reading Part II here.
Translated by Marc Rogers
El Faro, Latin America’s first digital newspaper, was founded in May 1998. Published in El Salvador, it is dedicated to cultivating the narrative and reporting of in-depth investigations that tell the realities of Central America. In recent years it has won some of the most prestigious international prizes: World Press Photo 2014, IPYS 2013, Moors Cabot 2011, WOLA 2012, and Ortega y Gasset 2011, among others.