Imagine it is 1984, you are an 11-year-old boy, living in an adobe hut with a dirt floor and thatch roof in some far-flung corner of El Salvador. Civil war erupted four years ago and your older brother was taken by the right wing army. A rifle was thrust into his hands, and he was told to shoot his friends whom the right wing, US-backed military believed to be guerillas. (Americans spent more than four billion dollars funding the 12-year civil war that killed an estimated 75,000 Salvadoreños). He was only 12-years-old when they took him away. You haven’t seen him since. As you are approaching your twelfth birthday it is decision time for your parents. Do they scrape together every penny they can find and send you, alone, to the United States, or do they keep you in El Salvador and face the possibility that you will be conscripted to fight or possibly lined up against a wall and executed in front of your eyes?
This is the very real choice that many Salvadoreños faced during their bloody civil war. Crossing the border from El Salvador into Guatemala I was guided by a man whose parents were faced with just that dilemma. When he was just 10-years-old his parents put him on a bus for the United States. He had no family there, his parents only had dreams of a better life. My friend was one of the lucky ones. He somehow avoided the gangs and was able to return to El Salvador and his family. I should say, the family members that survived. Not all boys were so lucky.
Many people have the mistaken notion that MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and Barrio 18 (Calle 18/18thStreet Gang) originated in El Salvador. These gangs actually originated in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, they were made of the Salvadoreño boys sent unaccompanied to the United States, and they were modeled on the violent street gangs of Los Angeles, such as the Crips and the Bloods. These boys bonded together as a way of protecting themselves, and the new immigrants that arrived daily. At that time, Los Angeles had the largest Salvadoreño population outside of El Salvador. Like other gangs of the era, the Salvadoreño gangs got involved in crime, drugs, prostitution, murder… When arrested the courts decided to deport these criminals back to their native El Salvador, essentially setting them free on foreign soil. Gangs did not exist in El Salvador prior to the deportation of these Los Angeles gang members deportation home to El Salvador.
Don’t get me wrong. I in no way support gangs, and the MS-13 and Barrio 18 have become some of the most violent and despicable criminals in the world. There is a street corner in the Excelsior district of San Francisco, an intersection I drove by every time I went to visit my friends. One evening an MS-13 gang member gunned down a man and his two sons in their car at that intersection. You can read more about the outcome here. Sadly, it was simply a case of mistaken identity in a gang-on-gang retaliation. Never again did I drive that route to my friends’ house.
I can’t say if the courts were right or wrong to deport MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang members en masse. A case can be made for trying and locking them up in the USA. By setting them free in a foreign country, they unleashed the terror of these gangs on El Salvador and other Central American countries. Their power, influence, territory, and membership has grown exponentially. El Salvador has been particularly devastated by rise of the gangs in their country. While the horrors are beyond imagining, once you become aware of those horrors, it is easy to understand why regular people would attempt the perilous journey to the United States, searching for asylum.
Below are a couple links that better explain life in gang-ravaged El Salvador:
- Democracy Now
- NPR Embedded Podcast on San Salvador. This was taped shortly after I left El Salvador.
- The Conversation
For two weeks I stayed in the beautiful town of Suchitoto, on the shores of Lago Suchitlan in northeast El Salvador. I was very curious as to why so many houses had a hummingbird painted on the wall next to the door. I was to learn that domestic abuse is rampant in El Salvador and homes with the hummingbird are safe havens for abused women. This was in 2013. The violence against women has risen dramatically in the interceding years. In San Salvador, and probably other towns close to the capital, the gangs use violence against women as a tool. The gangs threaten violence and rape against the wives and daughters of business owners who refuse to pay their “dues”. They commit violence against the sisters and girlfriends of rival gang members in retaliation. Many gang members “buy” girlfriends, some as young as 12 or 13, by threatening their families with violence, even death, if they don’t “give” them their daughters. When I was in the beach town of Playa San Blas, just south of San Salvador, it was not uncommon to see older, tattooed gang members with very young girls. In 2016, one-third of the unaccompanied minors traveling alone to the US were girls. Once again, you can understand why a girl would want to make that perilous journey.
This is just one example of American policy in Central America has had horrific consequences. The optimist within me wants to believe that a better understanding of why Central Americans are making the journey to America, in search of asylum, they might be more compassionate towards these people.