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The Deadly, Invisible Borders Inside El Salvador

When the threats come, there is only one direction for families to run

Meridith Kohut/The New York Times/Redux

Last April, in the town of Izalco in the western state of Sonsonate, El Salvador, a group of families decided to dismantle the makeshift houses of wood and tin where they had been living for up to 26 years. The scene unfolded on a rural stretch of land known as the San Luis Ranch, where the families had built up a shantytown. The Mara Salvatrucha gang, which is blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department, had targeted one of the residents, and that meant all the families felt they had no choice but to move.

In the United States, you are having a debate over immigration. But many of the Central Americans now coming into the United States never wanted to leave their country. For them, the proper verb is not migrar, but huir—to flee. The breaking point for the residents of San Luis Ranch came when members of the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, kidnapped Gerardo, a 22-year-old man from the settlement. That same night, Gerardo’s father, a 45-year-old farm laborer, went to the nearest police post to file a missing-person report. The police told him they couldn’t help him because they were using the area’s only patrol car to transport a sick woman. The next morning, Gerardo’s father and a few neighbors and rural police officers set off to look for him. They combed the foothills of the Izalco Volcano until they came to a hamlet called Cangrejera where a storm of gunshots stopped them cold. None of the shooters, the police would later estimate, were older than 15. Gerardo’s father and some of the other farm laborers thought they had caught a glimpse of a tied-up Gerardo being dragged away by the gang members who were shooting at them. Gerardo’s father chased after the child-thugs until a bullet caught him in the head.

But why was Gerardo abducted in the first place? According to the police, the young MS-13 members were provoked by Gerardo’s visits to his grandfather, who lived in a nearby subdivision ruled by the rival 18th Street Gang. No gang likes it when people living on their turf cross over to another’s. They fear that their enemy will take advantage by buying out their subjects and using them to attack from within. A visit to a relative becomes treason. In such ways does the violence in Central America reach people of all ages, not just the minors who fill news reports about the immigration crisis.

The packing up of the settlement on San Luis Ranch was speedy and grim. A police squad stood by to protect neighbors from attacks while they dismantled their homes. That was the police’s only role: to watch over the escape.

Having problems with MS-13 or the 18th Street Gang means having problems with a criminal army. According to the Salvadoran Ministry of Public Security and Justice, there are some 60,000 active gang members in a country that has little more than 6.1 million inhabitants and barely spans 8,100 square miles. There are cliques of the main gangs in all 14 of El Salvador’s states. The state of Morazán has the fewest cliques with eight; San Salvador has the most with 216. The cliques—with names like Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha or Southern Tiny Locos—can be made up of adolescents armed with .38 caliber revolvers like the group of kids who killed Gerardo’s father, or they can be like the Fulton Locos Salvatrucha. When the police raided a Fulton Locos stronghouse, they found an arsenal, seizing more than ten AK-47s and M-16 rifles, as well as a dozen M-67 grenades.

Reuters/Daniel LeClair

The aftermath of an attack on a public bus in Guatemala City. 

On top of such firepower, the gangs have developed effective systems of surveillance and security, and they like to use these to humiliate the authorities. This past May, for example, the Salvadoran director of forensic medicine announced that a number of his technicians were extorted after entering gang territory to retrieve bodies.

You probably have read that El Salvador and Honduras have had the highest homicide rates in the world over the past ten years. But to put the numbers in proper perspective: In Mexico, when the violence caused by warring murderous organized crime groups like Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel peaked in 2011, the country ranked only fourteenth for per capita killings, with an average of 22.8 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations. Honduras, now ranked first, has 90 for every 100,000 people. El Salvador is right behind it. In 2013 alone, the gang violence of this frightened corner of the world claimed 15,328 lives.

Both of Central America’s major gangs were founded decades ago in California, by Latin American migrants who banded together in order to defend themselves from gangs already ruling there. By the mid-’90s, the U.S. government had decided it was a good idea to deport thousands of gang members each year, many of whom had committed small crimes. The gangs grew quickly and are still spreading. The United States seemed to have forgotten the golden rule of migration. Forgotten that migration works like a boomerang. There are cliques of MS-13, such the Sailors Locos Salvatrucha, that formed in El Salvador but whose members are now migrating to Washington, D.C.

Joining a gang isn’t something you can take back. Once you’re in, there are only two ways to get out: by dying or running. And merely joining is a nightmare: To become a member, you need to murder. In the last three years, the gangs have required aspiring members to kill somebody before they can join the ranks.

They kill to join because the legitimate occupations available to them can feel like a different kind of death. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have devastating levels of inequality. The United Nations has flagged the countries as among the most unequal in the Americas. Many have very little; very few have way too much. In El Salvador, the minimum wage requires that a farm worker be paid just $113.70 a month for his or her brutal twelve-hour days of labor. Other paths—like joining a gang—can seem, at least at a glance, more appealing. Children buckle under the enormous recruiting pressure. Who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps when his father is an exploited laborer? Each clique sends most of its earnings to its top bosses, most of whom are in jail. But the leftovers are enough to share among the foot soldiers. The money and the opportunity to go to war are stronger attractions for many young men than the misery of waking up at four in the morning for a long day of work under the sun, then returning to their clapboard homes at night to eat beans and tortillas and, for all of their toil, receiving nothing but an insulting wage at the end of the month.

When a family keeps its children out of the gangs, the gangs have a way of still getting to the family. The case of the former residents of San Luis Ranch repeats itself ceaselessly. Every month, you see a newspaper headline announcing a new group abandoning their homes. The families are threatened for all sorts of reasons: because their sons didn’t want to join a gang, because a family member filed a police report, because they won’t let a gang member rape their daughter. Or simply because they visited their grandfather in enemy territory.

Pushed out of their neighborhoods, the families are recast as wanderers, bouncing from house to house until they can find a new community, which will likely be controlled by the same gang that forced them to flee in the first place. Or it will be controlled by the rival, which is just as bad: The 18th Street Gang would never accept an MS-13 family moving into their neighborhood, and vice-versa. The families scatter with the threat chasing closely after. Any day, the clique that runs their new neighborhood will figure out why they left their old one and then, most likely, kill them. Many of these people will never find the safety they sought when they gave up their homes.

It’s only natural that someone who can’t find a corner in which to hide in his own country would consider migrating to the United States to join relatives already there. And now, decades after the civil wars that led to the last great exodus, Central America is facing another war: a war prompted by the gangs’ takeover of our weak and corrupt states. It’s a war in which the United States has its share of responsibility, just as it had its share of responsibility when the U.S. government supported the military dictators in the ’80s and ’90s. Last year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Obama administration deported an average of 59 Salvadorans a day, a number much higher than the rate under George W. Bush. The deportations are meant as a deterrent, but the fleeing continues. The Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador estimated that every day between 200 and 300 Salvadorans leave their country en route to the United States as undocumented immigrants. And of course this is not counting the daily departures from Honduras and Guatemala.

There is an alternative to fleeing. And that is to stay and become a living ghost. For the past two years, I’ve been in touch with a 31-year-old ex-member of the Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha who testified against members of his own clique. The Public Prosecutor’s Office used him for three years to build cases against 42 gang members accused of nine murders and multiple extortions. Then the authorities abandoned him. In order to survive, he lives like a nomad in the western mountains of El Salvador. He knows firsthand that the gangs are everywhere, that they are out there, hunting.