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El Salvador’s Young People Are Killing, Dying, and Running

No single group has been more tragically impacted by El Salvador's gang war than the young. Preyed on at school and in their barrios, many families seek to send them to the United States but this is getting more difficult and dangerous to do.
Foto di Salvador Melendez/AP

Luisa is scared of being alone, scared of going out without her mom, scared for her father and brother. The 15-year-old says she is afraid to speak to anyone on the street.

"You have to be very careful when you speak, even when you address someone, because you could be mistaken for someone you're not," she says. "They monitor every move and action."

"They" are the murderous gangs that have turned El Salvador into one of the most dangerous places to live in the world, and in which an incautious word or action in turf claimed by the gangs can prove to be a death sentence.


And in this terrible reality spun out of the core war between the two main gangs — the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13— no single group has been more tragically impacted than the young. The nation's youth is dying, and the young are doing the killing.

Photo via screenshot from Gangs of El Salvador (Part 4)

The gangs recruit heavily among teenagers and children, sometimes even children as young as ten years old. According to the education ministry 88 percent of schools have gang problems. Teachers are extorted by their gang-affiliated students. Students are extorted by fellow pupils.

Luisa explains that the gangs designate certain members to be their orejas, or ears, in the schools. They are always listening. They also look at the way a young person talks or dresses to see if they are susceptible to the allure of the gangs. They're the "posts", or "antennas" who stand on the corners of the neighborhoods, keeping watch.

Talking to them could mean it is assumed you want to join the gang, and then you could have no choice. Alternatively, it could spark rumors that turn you into another gang's enemy. Children get killed that way.

Some students, Luisa says, join the gang willingly, but once you're in, you're in. She had a friend who joined and then regretted it. "He would say to me, 'I don't like it there, I'd like to leave, but I know too much and I can no longer leave because they would kill me."

Even living in a neighborhood controlled by one gang and going to a school in a neighborhood run by a different gang can be very dangerous. That is the root of Luisa's own multiple death threats.


"I'd like to leave, but I know too much and I can no longer leave because they would kill me."

It is, as Luisa's mother puts it, "a life of fear, anxiety and pain" in which to be a parent is to be powerless.

Her family is used to neighborhood shootouts, and the gang members jumping from roof to roof to escape. At the first sound of shots being fired she sends the children to hide in the more solid parts of the house where stray bullets are less likely to pass through.

One time her flimsy ceiling collapsed under the weight of a MS-13 member on the run. He fell into her kitchen and they stared at each other as he picked up his gun and ran. The police tired to get her to press charges, but that would have been a death sentence.

Luisa's mother is clearly traumatized, and breaks down as she runs through the litany of terror that marks her family life.

She remembers when her daughter stopped talking to people in the street and her grades started dropping. For a long time she was unaware that Luisa was being threatened at school because the gangs had made it clear speaking up could mean death. When Luisa's mother finally found out what was going on she moved her daughter to another school. But the gangs at the new school had heard things and the problems started all over again.

That's when Luisa's mother decided it was time to send her daughter north and she started reaching out to people smugglers, or coyotes.


She knows that it is risky to send the 15-year-old on a route through Guatemala and then Mexico where migrants are preyed upon by gangs and cartels, and where murders, rapes, and kidnappings are common. She knows that the price charged by coyotes who promise safe passage is more money than most people in El Salvador make in a year.

But Luisa's mother says she will make her children go, even if they don't want to. She says it is the only option she has as their mother to try and protect them. "I think it's worth it for my children to leave this place because they'll never be safe here," she says.

No End to the Bloodshed: The Gangs of El Salvador (Part 5)

Many mothers in El Salvador have made the same choice. Almost everyone we speak to says they would leave if they could, or send their families.

But, always a difficult and dangerous journey, it is even tougher now.

Last year, President Obama called the sudden spike in unaccompanied Central American minors arriving on the US border an urgent humanitarian situation. US law prohibits the immediate deportation of children so, with the immigration courts flooded, they were crammed into makeshift detention centers or released into the care of relatives already in the country while their cases progressed.

Related: Wave of Unaccompanied Central American Migrant Kids Overwhelms US Holding Facilities

A media whirlwind followed and then, as the numbers arriving at the border sharply dropped this year, the story fell out of the news.


The reality, however, is that the problem has been shifted south.

Under US pressure, Mexico started a crackdown in mid-2014 called the Southern Frontier Plan. The Mexican authorities mounted a massive operation that has shut down traditional migration routes and led to a huge increase in the number of Central Americans detained and deported well before they get to the US border.

A paper released in September by the Migration Policy Institute details how Mexico's apprehension rate is set to have gone up 70% in 2015, while the US's is set to decrease by half.

"Our immigration policy is putting a straightjacket around one of the most violent regions in the world"

The crackdown in Mexico has also increased the risks and expense of the journey.

Few migrants now take the infamous freight train known as La Bestia that used to trundle south to north through Mexico covered with a layer of Central American migrants perched on top or clinging to the sides.

While riding La Bestia was always dangerous — armed robbers and cartel operatives roamed the train and the risk of death or serious injury from falling off was real — at least the migrants could provide each other with some protection by travelling in numbers. Now the need to keep a low profile has meant the migrants are seeking out less visible routes that make them even more vulnerable to abuse by criminal gangs, and corrupt officials.

Noah Bullock, the executive direct of Cristosal, an NGO that works directly with displaced people in El Salvador, says that "out of sight out of mind" is the current US policy towards Salvadorans fleeing violence. They're not coming anymore, so it's over.


"What it means for people, specifically young people trying to flee El Salvador, is that our immigration policy is putting a straightjacket around one of the most violent regions in the world," says Bullock.

Related: Mexico Is Implementing New Measures to Curb Influx of US-Bound Central American Migrants

While the immigration and refugee/migrant debate is heavily focused on Europe and parts of Southeast Asia, Bullock says US immigration policy is trapping children in extremely violent scenarios. But with the violence reaching record levels in El Salvador this year, ever more people are deciding that the terrifying journey north is still worth the risk.

"There's way more minors leaving with their mothers, and many young men under 25," says a coyote based in a town outside of Salvador. "It could be because a brother has been killed, or a son has been killed, or they've been threatened. There's a lot of vulnerable people in our country."

We meet the coyote in a gas station. He arrives in a shiny brand new jeep and, inside the car, shows me a glock handgun he says he's never without. He previously lived in the United States but doesn't say why he came back, or if he was deported.

He, like Bullock, attributes the flow of Salvadorans to the US to the recent surge in violence, and says business has significantly increased in the last 6 months.

People come to him through referrals, he says. They hear that he is trustworthy, and good at getting people north. They tell him about their problems and their concerns about the journey.


"It's very tough, I've seen many tears. It's not easy for anybody to go, leaving behind the place they grew up in just to save their lives." For him, the cause and effect of migration is simple: "I want to say to the U.S. government, No one wants to see their children dead in the hands of the gangs that's why everyone migrates to the US"

Photo by Salvador Melendez/AP A family leave their community after gang threats

The coyote says he moves about 20 families a month. It costs $7,000 for an adult man, $4,000 for a woman or child, but sometimes deals can be arranged.

The price includes three attempts to make it to the US. Travelling through the rest of Central America is easy, he says. Getting through Mexico is harder, but manageable.

"You have to work with someone who pays the mafia and the immigration authority for everything to run smoothly," he says, adding that federal agents will rob the migrants or demand bribes of $300 per person, only to rob them later down the road.

Throughout our conversation, the coyote is insistent that he is one of the good ones. He says the many rapes, murders and kidnappings affect migrants who put their fates in the hands of disreputable smugglers, or attempt the journey on their own and do not have "the codes."

The codes are handed out to the migrants by the coyotes before they leave. He gives examples: jaguar, F1, fox. When people are stopped by the cartels or law enforcement officials they give their code and, if the code is a good one, they can continue on their way. If migrants pass the code on to others who have not paid for it they "get in trouble."


Business may be booming, but even the coyote is now considering sending his own family north.

"It's not that we want to leave, that we want to drag our families there, it's because of all the crime and because of the government we have," he says. "As long as there is poverty, as long as there is violence, migration is not going to stop."

The United States is investing large amounts of money to stop children and teenagers from crossing its border and trying to claim asylum, boxing them into an incredibly dangerous situation.

And it is a situation that the US helped create by funding El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s and then, after peace was signed in 1992, deporting violent members of murderous organized crime groups from the US. The country's weak post-war institutions were never going to be able to cope. The message being sent to Luisa and her mother? Deal with it.

As a university student in San Salvador pointedly addressed the US, "You gave six billion dollars for a war, you can't do more during peacetime?"

Related: Are El Salvador's Murderous Gangs the Voice of the Oppressed? They Think So

Follow Danny Gold on Twitter: @DGisSERIOUS