She remembers the sight of her friend: he was black and blue with bruises. Now, these two Salvadorans are a couple. They fell in love running away. They’re back in the south of Mexico, on the jungle border with Guatemala in the state of Tabasco, to pick up her nephew, another Salvadoran who ran away.
She says that when she caught up with the man who is now her husband in Guatemala City, she did not recognize him. His face was swollen, misshapen, a bulge sticking out on one side. A violent purple bruise covered the other side and a cut above his eye was still bleeding. The attackers had beat him so brutally they thought he was dead. The fact he looked like a corpse saved his life.
He is a thick-set Salvadoran around 40 years old, with scars all over his face and arms. The first time he had to run away was from the metropolitan municipality of Apopa, in San Salvador, after the Barrio 18 gang kidnapped his two daughters. Then, back in 2005, he had to sell his food store and pay more than $10,000 to gang members who had been charging him $100 a month in protection money. He recovered his girls and moved to Acajutla, on the Salvadoran coast. But the Mara Salvatrucha gang ruled there and the coconut business he opened never prospered.
He was honest with the MS and admitted that he had fled from Barrio 18 territory. But simply being from the region of a rival gang made him a suspect. In the end, after a few months, he received a death threat. They wanted him out.
He fled again, further north. He moved a few miles away to a beach called Monzón, in Sonsonate, where his mother had always lived. He was still in MS territory but because of his family, he and his daughters were afforded some protection. Still, years later, in 2014, he returned home from work and found one of his daughters making out with her new boyfriend, an MS gang member. He could not control himself. He started arguing with the boyfriend and ended up screaming at him. That very evening, four gang members came to the house and beat him. They thought they had killed him so they took him to the nearby beach of Costa Azul and threw him into a dumpster. A woman happened to see his bloodied body move and heard his moans muffled by the trash. She helped him out. Half dead, he fled to Guatemala on a bus the next day.
At that time, they were just friends. She is a pretty 40-something with captivating cat-green eyes. In Guatemala, he told her his sad story. She herself was looking to escape her own nightmare. For years, she had been forced to be the partner of an MS gang member in Sonsonate. But he had been charged with murder and was in jail during the trial. She took advantage of his imprisonment to flee her “life as a slave” and caught up with her friend in Guatemala.
When she saw him, she saw his purple and bloated face. Together they fled to Mexico. And after spending months at this migrant shelter in the southern city of Tenosique, both were given refuge and have become permanent resident s. Mexican officials believed their story, understanding that if they returned to El Salvador, they would be killed. They fell in love and married.
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
A few months later, the imprisoned gang member walked free – and he wanted “his” woman back. He threatened to kill her son. So, the son followed his mother and fled, too. Now he is also a refugee in Mexico.
One nephew remained behind … until the gang member came after him as well.
That nephew is the Salvadoran boy from Acajutla who arrived last night, whom the married couple has come to visit from a city in central Mexico.
They are in the middle of the shelter surrounded by dozens of Central Americans who, like them, did not emigrate. They escaped.
“I arrived just like him. Disoriented, no idea what I was going to do with my life. But here you can live,” the man says. Turning to the boy who will start making his asylum petition today, he adds, “You’ll see.”
They are yet another family to add to the list of escapees reuniting in Mexico.
In one week of reporting I have talked to 29 people who are running away from violence: families with babies, ex-gang members, raped girls, mutilated men. They are running away from gangs, police, drug-traffickers, kidnappers. Underlying it all, they are fleeing from countries where authorities are unable or unwilling to protect them.
This year, an estimated 20,000 people will request asylum in Mexico – almost all migrants from the north of Central America. It’s a request to live. This is a by-product of the daily violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Perhaps the surest way to understand what it means to be from one of the most violent regions in the world is to listen to the refugees arriving in Mexico.
“Do you want to see more people who are on the run?” a small, feisty 21-year-old Salvadoran immigrant asks me. He is a former gang member. He points to a man next to him. “This one is running away because he is a fag.”
“Sure, I am fleeing, but that’s not why,” a man named Bryan responds. He is a 20-year-old gay Honduran, with white skin and green eyes.
They are lounging on an old sofa, surrounded by other young men absorbed in their mobile phones. Bryan shows the ex-gang member a photo of his sister on his device. They joke about whether they will end up brothers-in-law. They laugh.
The gang member is escaping from youngsters like himself from his own gang, who want to kill him back in El Salvador. Bryan is running away from people not different from the young men sitting beside him. Gangs want to kill Bryan because he disobeyed an order.
Both have been refugees in Mexico since last year. Mexican authorities checked out their stories and granted them permanent residence. They are free to move about this vast country but they cannot return home.
The ex-gang member’s question to me was rhetorical. In this shelter, everyone is on the run fleeing death.
The shelter was created by the priest Alejandro Solalinde, who has been one of the most celebrated human rights defenders in Mexico since 2007 and is now a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. He founded and runs a traditional migrant shelter in the south, in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, and has been threatened with death several times.
In 2015, Solalinde’s team felt it necessary to establish a place just for youngsters who plan to stay in Mexico. These young people are not seeking economic prosperity, and they are not hoping to make it to the United States. Instead, they migrated to survive.
The number of people seeking asylum in Mexico had been increasing considerably in recent years, suddenly exploding in 2015, earning front-page attention from international newspapers.
In 2015, asylum applications hit more than 3,000, almost fourfold the number just two years before. The growth rate continued last year: in 2016, 8,781 people asked Mexico to take them in.
The UN Refugee Agency estimates that by the end of 2017, there will be 20,000 applications – enough to fill a decent soccer stadium.
Nine out of 10 people in Mexico claiming to be fleeing death come from three countries: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, in that order.
Anybody threatened with death looks to Mexico for survival. The word ‘refugee’ is now common throughout the routes taken by Central American migrants. A decade ago, nobody spoke of refugee status in shelters. People fleeing death mixed in with the flow of more than a quarter million migrants per year, mainly migrating for economic reasons on the roofs of freight trains crossing Mexico.
Nowadays, many have begun to understand that there is a name for migrants like them who are escaping death. “Are you an immigrant or a refugee?” is a question often heard now in migrant shelters. Refugees have multiplied along the escape routes that are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to navigate alone. The number of Central Americans seeking permanent residence in Mexico is surging across the country: Tapachula, Tenosique, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Toluca, Tijuana.
The “coyotes” who charge for trips out of Central America have raised their prices, taking advantage of the fear unleashed by the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House. Whenever he can, Trump boasts he will build a border wall, pressuring Mexico. In turn, Mexico imitates its northern neighbor, trying to choke the migrant flow from Central America.
In 2016, Mexico returned 143,226 Central Americans, twice as many as it returned just five years earlier.
A comparison of the number of refugees versus those deported from Mexico confirms that Mexico expels many more people than it shelters.
“Time to eat!” a volunteer at the shelter shouts. The men pull themselves away from their screens and run to line up for pasta and grated cheese served from a blackened pot.
Today, on my first day meeting Central American refugees in Mexico, eight youngsters in this house claim that remaining in their home country would have been a death sentence. The youngest is 13.
Seeking asylum in Mexico: a family divided by gang violence
“They want to kill me in El Salvador,” says E, an 18-year-old former member of a southern Salvadoran gang, who agreed to be interviewed if no names are mentioned.
He sits on a chair in the courtyard of the house, away from the others, with the visor of his baseball cap cocked to the side in a way he would never have been able to wear back home.
If E’s words are not enough to prove his determination to leave behind his world of gangs, his tattooed chest is clear evidence. Where there was a “1,” today there is a demon; where the “8” was, an angel. To erase tattoos is, in Salvadoran gang law, to write your own death sentence.
He is ready to leave the house and lose himself in Mexico City, one of the most populated metropolitan areas of the continent. He will blend in with more than 20 million people. He is confident he has chosen the right hiding place.
E is from the Piwainos Locos Sureños, Izalco. On graphics mapping violence, the worst areas are usually shown in red. E comes from a deep red municipality in a deep red country.
The homicide rate in El Salvador in 2016 was 80.9 per 100,000, the highest in the world for a country not at war. That same year, the homicide rate in his municipality was 170.9 – meaning the territory that made up his world had more than double the average violence than in the rest of El Salvador. To a large extent, he and his gang were the ones who painted Izalco deep red.
He was arrested for a homicide when he was just 15. He spent only two years behind bars because the witnesses “disappeared and the case was closed”. But that did not stop him. Prisons in El Salvador don’t do rehabilitation.
“How many homicides have you participated in?” I ask.
“Mmm.” He laughs nervously and plays with his cap. “A lot. But I have also seen a bunch of my friends killed, too”.
“Why did you run away?”
“In 2014, in December, they killed my girlfriend, the same guys from my gang. I made a mistake. They sent me to do a mission and the wrong person got killed. And that’s the way it is. It’s like you get a punishment and get taken down yourself for being an idiot. They checked with the gang leaders in the Izalco prison if I should be killed. Word came back that I myself wasn’t going to die because I had been a loyal soldier. They just said they would punish me, and they turned on my girlfriend. She was shot five times. She died the same age as me: 18. She was killed in Izalco in 2014. She had nothing to do with the gang.”
E had initially been told the murder was carried out by the rival Mara Salvatrucha gang – and he believed it. But two months later, over beers with two guys from his gang, one of them confessed that his girlfriend had been killed as punishment for the wrong person getting killed on his operation. The drinking partner told E the names of the two killers. “That was [what] got me to snap,” E says.
“Where are your girlfriend’s killers?” I ask.
“I eliminated those two idiots in Izalco and all hell broke loose. Those idiots are gone, disappeared. There is no record of them. The gang realized what had happened and gave the green light throughout El Salvador to get me. No matter where you look, there is someone after me. They sent my photo to all the gang groups.”
In E’s world, “disappear” means to bury in a cornfield or throw into the bottom of a canal.
E fled on December 24, 2014. His family – father, mother, sisters, brother – also fled that night. They knew they had to escape the consequences of E’s actions. They live in another department of El Salvador and are thinking about fleeing to another country. His brother already has. He's not a gang member. He is a refugee in northern Mexico.
E shows me photographs on his phone sent from Tapachula, Oaxaca and Mexico City by other gang members who have fled. The word “refugee” is especially novel to a Central American gang member. It is almost unimaginable for them to ask for help from any government. And yet these soldiers of death often have the easiest time making a case. In Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, a gang member who has betrayed his gang has what the lawyers deem “probable cause of persecution,” or in a word, death.
“Why didn’t you go to the police?” I ask.
“Are you crazy?” he says. “They can nail you to a cross or throw you to the wolves. Once we went to party in Nahuizalco (an MS area) without our outfits, at 9 at night. They killed “Slow.” They put him in a patrol vehicle. We were all at a party. The next morning, he turned up in the river, in the colony Tamacha, bound and stabbed to death.”
Since the end of 2014, the Salvadoran police have behaved with more repressive tactics, like those used during years of war.
The human rights ombudsman currently has more than 30 open cases of extrajudicial executions. In two, judgments have already been handed down: they were executions, not confrontations. People had surrendered, they were not shooting.
Official statistics of people fleeing Central American are a fraction of the real number, which is impossible to know.
Many gang members flee, but only a small proportion seek refuge. Throughout my reporting, E is the only one I meet.
“Would you go back to the gang if you could?” I ask.
“Not in a million years,” he says. “For me, I would be happy if someone threw a grenade and killed them all.”
El Salvador has “gone to hell anyway,” the former gang member adds.
He gets up from the chair and calls Bryan. He wants to see photos of Bryan's sister, who also fled from Honduras, but went to Madrid.
Bryan seems to float when walking, his every movement light and stylized. “And you haven’t even seen me dressed as a woman. It's not for nothing that I look very good,” he says. E laughs at him. I ask Bryan to go outside and talk.
Bryan has also been a refugee since 2016. He has no problem with me taking note of his name. He says he has already appeared on a television show.
He tells me he’s 20, and has been in Mexico since September of last year. He is from San Pedro Sula, one of the most dangerous cities in Honduras.
“I got out,” he says. “I had a very nice life there. I was studying for a bachelor's degree in business administration and was a marketing manager for a company called Almacenes El Compadre ... I'm from the Lomas del Carmen area, and there you have the MS. I grew up with them. They are kids my age. They wanted me to work for them.”
Bryan’s relationship to the violence is hard to categorize. He was never a gang member, but he was friends with them. He laughed with them and ended up crying, begging for his life. He was a neighbor. He grew up there. He was part of what is seen in Central America as a so-called “social network” of gangs, and he would do them favors, like pass on a message or alert if the police are coming.
But that all changed when one of the cruelest gang members was promoted to lead the area. He was nicknamed “The Rat.” The Rat was not satisfied with small favors; he wanted money, and he wanted to use Bryan to get it. The Rat demanded Bryan cross-dress, stand on a corner of the central park and sell his body as well as cocaine, crack and marijuana.
The harassment increased gradually. The Rat devised plans. He asked Bryan to serve as a hit man. If Bryan dressed as a woman, it would be easier to carry out the killing, he said. The Rat later said he had drugs and prostitution in mind for Bryan.
Wounds on the journey
“One day, some of the pandilleros dragged me out of my car and took me to the boss. ‘What did you decide?’ he asked me. ‘It's your last chance.’ When I told him that I wasn’t going to work for him, he took out his gun, put it to my head, and said, ‘So it has come to this.’ I made a huge drama. I told him to have a heart, that I had a family. A huge show. ‘Wait, I said, give me two days to think.’ And that same day I went to my family and told them that I was going to a city because of work.”
From there, the story moves quickly: Bryan asked for a ride, tried avoid getting raped by the man who gave him a ride in Guatemala. Bryan fought with the man. Bryan asked for money in a park. Bryan in Tapachula, Mexico. Bryan at the Bethlehem migrant shelter. Bryan starting his refugee process. Bryan, after three months, becoming a refugee.
“Bryan, what if you go back?” I ask.
“They would obviously kill me. I have friends who write to me: they’re pissed at me because I left and betrayed them. They say I’m lucky they don’t know where my family lives because they'd already be dead.”
If one person has to flee from a gang, there are likely others -- friends and family -- who have to flee too. It’s a chain reaction because gangs are territorial control organizations. Moving to another town in the same country is rarely a good option. That would only mean going to another gang neighborhood and having to explain who you are, where you come from and why.
E adjusts the trinkets on the colorful shelves of the store where he works. Today he looks like a gang member again: black cap, straight visor, silver chain, tattoos visible, Nike shoes, loose shirt. Even he is surprised to be able to dress like other young people in a commercial part of the city. “It's weird to be so free,” he says.
E plans to travel in the next few months to the border with Guatemala to bring his new partner into Mexico. He persuaded an 18-year-old Salvadoran girl to visit him at the border while he was there. If a refugee returns to his or her country, he loses refugee status.
At the border, they had sex and she is now five months pregnant. E wants the child to be born in Mexico. He tried to bring his partner into the country three weeks ago, but they stopped her at an immigration checkpoint. He says he will keep trying until he succeeds.
E has come to work to replace the scrawny youngster behind the counter whose shift is ending.
“He's a refugee, too, look,” says E. “He arrived seven months ago from Honduras. They wanted to kill him.”
The young man prefers not to speak and stays focused on the store’s computer.
It’s a warm afternoon in this working-class neighborhood of the big city. Most young people are working or in the park near the shelter. Inside, Heidin talks to an 18-year-old male Honduran refugee. Heidin is 13, pale, with long hair. She laughs easily but sometimes isolates herself in a corner of the house and stays there, staring at the floor.
The Honduran man tells Heidin that he is heading to the United States after fleeing his home country’s violence. He had never heard of a shelter for refugees. So, when he had to escape, his only thought was reaching his family in New Orleans. He was caught entering Mexico City on a bus in December of last year and his refugee process has been going ever since. “I spent Christmas and New Year’s crying in the immigration center," he says. Heidin laughs.
A refugee has two options in Mexico. They can wait in an immigration detention center, which can last for six months. Or they can wait out their process with people granted custody over them, normally at shelters. The first implies not being able to work. The second allows the refugee to look for work and earn some money. Authorities do not extend work permits to applicants, but those in migrant shelters do what they can.
Refugees leave their countries desperately, with death knocking at the door. But later, as the mind starts to organize itself, less urgent issues surface, like their children, who many leave behind with relatives; remittances to maintain family back home; mortgage payments.
Heidin is a special case. There was never a specific person who wanted to kill her. But as a 13-year-old girl in the Rivera Hernández area, Mexican authorities knew she would likely end up dead if she stayed.
This area, which includes dozens of neighborhoods, has the reputation of being the most violent sector of the most violent municipality of the second most violent country in the most violent corner of the world.
Between 2015 and 2016, the murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants dropped from 171 to 111, which was seen as a victory, with headlines celebrating the “pacification of San Pedro Sula.”
In comparison, in 2016, Mexico’s homicide rate hovered around 18 per 100,000 inhabitants.
In Rivera Hernández, the gangs Barrio 18, Mara Salvatrucha, Batos Locos, Tercereños and the criminal band of Los Olanchanos collide. All fight each other and guard their territories.
“I've seen several murders,” Heidin says, “because my house is on the corner, and there, from the window you can see a lot.”
When she speaks, Heidin opens her eyes and moves them, but the rest of her body is still, as if sensing something ominous.
Heidin, who is not allowed to enter the cinema to see a scary movie without the supervision of an adult, and yet, she saw her mother robbed and stabbed in the stomach. She herself was able to escape a kidnapping because her heart-wrenching cries alerted a patrol that was roaming Rivera Hernandez. Her kidnappers are angry at her because they think of her as a snitch for not allowing herself to be kidnapped quietly. Heidin’s life in this district of San Pedro Sula is not fit for any man or woman – let alone a 13-year-old girl.
Heidin is a refugee because the Mexican state knows that living in that part of the world is a risk of death for this girl.
“Oh my, I did not comb my hair today,” Heidin suddenly says. She opens her big black eyes and stares at the floor as she combs her hair.
“Now we call this a refugee camp.” says Franciscan friar Tomás González, the founder of this shelter for migrants that has morphed into a refugee camp in the south of Mexico since 2011.
More than half here are seeking refuge. There were two events that led to the birth of the shelter: the massacre of 72 migrants at the hands of Los Zetas in August 2010 in Tamaulipas, and the killing of three Honduran migrants nearby in the municipality of Macuspana that same month. Five Hondurans were assaulted; two escaped and three were shot to death by five hooded men. One of the victims was a 33-year-old woman. They raped her and then put her head on railroad tracks and bludgeoned her with iron pipes.
At the beginning, the migrant shelter had been a vacant property. Through the tenacity of its founder, six years on it has become a shelter with space for men, women, families, volunteers, a Doctors Without Borders office that offers psychological care, a computer room and a basketball court.
I traveled from the capital of Mexico to this gateway for migrants. Tenosique has been, for years, one of the main stops on the migration routes because of its two train lines that head north. Many seek refuge here to avoid the difficult journey of traveling across the country without the right papers.
Currently, the director of La 72 is Ramón Márquez, a Spaniard who became a volunteer more than two years ago. The shelter usually houses 150 people. Almost all of them are Central Americans, mainly from Honduras and El Salvador. Half of them are seeking to be recognized as refugees and the shelter helps them with the process and gives them legal and psychological support.
“I remember last year, in just one week, we had 110 applicants to be refugees,” Marquez says. “It's the highest number I can remember in any given week.”
The migrant shelter offers simple accommodation. Using firewood, volunteer migrants cook chicken soup, pasta, beans - whatever is at hand. There are schedules for when to wake up and when to go to bed. When there is a full house, people sleep on mattresses crammed together on the floor. Catering to thousands of people each year, the migrant shelter relies on donations. But shelters like this are, above all, spaces where migrants can take a breath. Refugees arrive from their desperate flight and have time to stop and think. And, little by little, they begin to speak, to tell their tales.
So, why has the number of refugees surged? Honduras and El Salvador have competed for the title of the world’s most murderous country since 2009, so why were there not more people seeking refuge in the past?
Marquez explains there has been a networking effect: “The migrant shelters started to help people with their asylum requests. And once something is discovered, it becomes a word-of-mouth thing.”
People have long shared their terrible stories of escaping death in the shelters. But until recently, immigrants were always seen as people passing through. They were given medical attention and food. But they were expected to stay no more than a few days or weeks.
But gradually, more and more arrivals began to say: “I don’t want to travel on. I have no idea where to go. I just wanted to run away. That was my only plan.”
Marquez believes that Mexico’s Southern Border Plan has had an impact on the way people migrate. That’s the name of the so-called plan launched on July 7, 2014, by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, presented as a series of measures aimed at protecting immigrants.
The measures have effectively made it more difficult for migrants to make their journey north: more police, more immigration agents in the south, more anti-immigrant operations on trains. Perhaps the most peculiar measure from a humanitarian perspective was the mandate to accelerate the trains’ speed to discourage immigrants from traveling on the roofs.
Mexico states that 62 percent of the people who requested refugee status in 2016 received it. But neither Marquez nor Gonzalez believe in the official numbers. They are skeptical because that percentage does not count the people who made requests but did not finish the process. Many people became fed up. They needed to move to find work and send remittances back home.
“A third of the people leave the process,” Marquez says. “Often, as a strategy, the government delays the in-person interview by 45 working days. People become desperate thinking about 45 more days, locked up. We know what happens, we live the reality. I no longer speak about numbers. But people who come to our shelter tell us their side of the story.”
The shelter received 370 applicants for refugee status in 2015. In 2016 there were 752.
”In 2014, when the United States talked about the unaccompanied minor crisis, we received 1,276 children,” says Márquez. “In 2016, we received 1,625. Of these, 281 were unaccompanied in 2014 and 861 in 2016.”
Just today at the shelter there are two Honduran girls who traveled alone and are asking for refuge, four babies under four months old and seven children 10 or older, all in the same room. With the migrant shelter roughly divided between immigrants and refugees, its founder predicts worse times ahead.
Marquez thinks Mexicans still don’t know much about what it means to be a refugee. “We have to help them,” he says. There are women who tell him: “I am not a refugee case, but I just could not stand the beatings of my husband. He raped me.” Although they do not say that they were raped, they say they were forced to have sex. Other women tell Marquez.
“I wanted to leave to live with my mother, but he came after me, I wanted to live with my sister, but he came after me.” He tells them, “then you are a woman who should have refugee protection.”
“Look, I said to myself, I'm already old and my life stinks, but my son …”
Those are the words of a 40-year-old Salvadoran man.
(Life can acquire a bad smell…)
The small-town house where this family lives is large and is nestled in the thicket of a jungle area of Tabasco, Mexico on the border with Guatemala. This big house, which is not theirs and was all but abandoned before they found it can be reached by dirt roads from Tenosique. There are old things everywhere: empty shelves from an old pharmacy, dusty quinceañera photographs on the walls. The rooms smell like confinement.
When is time to sleep, the Salvadorian family, a husband, 40, his wife, 30, a daughter, 21 and a son, 16, spread out in hammocks and old mattresses.The children are his. Other daughters remained behind.
Stranded in Mexico
They also live with another man: a 33-year-old friend who ran away with them. The adults entered Mexico illegally on March 3, 2016; the children, two months later. They all escaped their previous lives. A Mexican family lent them this house in exchange for keeping the tilapia fish in the backyard alive.
The gangs began to tell me to hand the boy over to them so he could collect rent. A gang member came up and told me to give him my son or they would kill him. I said ‘I may be old, but if anyone is going to mess with my son, it’s going to take more than one of you. Because, thank god, I always keep my gun under the bed. Thank god.’
The family’s home in El Salvador was terrible for two reasons: for one, it was an apartment where the next-door neighbors where gang members. This wasn’t just a case of annoying, violent neighbors. It was another level.
The man recalls one incident. “We heard them rape a 10-year-old girl. She was screaming at them, crying. And only a wall separated us. That is enough to make you desperate. You hear so many things.”
The second reason is that the family lived and worked in the Center of San Salvador, the heart of the city, which is dominated by five groups of the Mara Salvatrucha and one of the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios. Here, life is hell. In the city center, which swells with 1.2 million people everyday, block after block is controlled by gangs who fight over every inch of turf.
The center is also the deadliest area, of the deadliest city in the deadliest country around. In 2016, the San Salvador homicide rate was 174 for every 100,000 people. There are people here, other people who go out and drink $10 cocktails in nightclubs protected by private guards, but that's not the case downtown. Here, some 40,000 street vendors run market stalls on push carts with baskets on their heads.
Squeezed in among this human avalanche, the husband, the wife and the friend, used to work. The men in a tire shop and her in a diner, serving plates for $1.25. They all lived in one of the barrios on the edge of downtown.
One day in late February, the husband said to his wife, “I can’t stand it anymore! I'm going to send my son back to his mother. I'm going to sell the few things I have and we’ll go.”
After the argument with the gang member over his son, the man had always felt as if the gang was watching him. It was the same for the friend, who had been in a similar argument with a different gang member over his own son. The gang demanded $50 from the friend to leave him alone. But the friend did not have the money. He took a beating and a death threat instead. Threats at home, threats at work. The man, the woman and the friend lived just like thousands of other Salvadorans: in areas dominated by gangs. But there were things that happened directly to them; things they tell as secondary stories, as little details.
The woman, for example, says: “I worked with my husband’s sister. We used to witness kidnappings. Sometimes we would see what happened to merchants from other areas who were transporting their products. Just because they came from the market, which is MS territory, they would be caught and kept until a taxi arrived and then … they killed them. And where my husband worked there were two people killed too. Thank God he is alive.”
While the friend listens quietly, the man adds his own details: “We worked in a tire shop. One day in 2016, I was outside with the secretary. I saw a guy come in, a gang leader, who went up to my boss. I see he has a pistol in his hand. Just shoots my boss in the head.”
“Yes, we picked up his brains,” the woman says. “Everything had poured out of his head.”
The woman says: “Yes, we cleaned up his brains. Everything had poured out of his head.”
And the friend says, “We shut the business. You just could not work in peace.”
“The Police wanted us to be witnesses,” he adds. “But we didn’t want to be part of it. The next day the gang members arrived and asked us not to open our mouths, and they had guns.”
The husband adds, “You see, and you hear; but you keep quiet.”
Small details, like those.
On March 3 2016, the man, the woman and the friend, as well as his own father and two other employees from the tire shop reached Mexico. The refugee experience, as migration itself, is a chain. One link after the other. Some pave the way and then others follow.
The parents left first, then the children, and soon those left behind.
To pave the way, the parents endured hunger until it “hurt in the gut.” They twice begged for money to eat, because sometimes “the gut just cannot stand it anymore.” They slept four days in the forest, on orchard leaves, “full of ticks.” The woman, in a small town called El 20, broke down crying in front of the train, known as the Beast, used by immigrants. “I panicked,” she says. This made the husband change his mind about pushing forth through thousands of miles north to the United States.
The few kilometers they had covered so far where no motivation to carry on. Two members of the group kept going. But the man, the woman and the friend stayed in Tenosique and, with the help of the U.N. refugee agency, obtained their refugee status one month after they arrived. Their case, according to Mexican authorities, was overwhelming.
Written resolutions by the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees (COMAR) are a slap in the face of the Salvadoran authorities.
One of the documents reads: “It can be assumed that if the State is unable or unwilling to protect the individual in one part of the country, it may not be in other areas either.”
“Among the main reasons for the current climate of impunity in the country is the weakness of its judicial institutions, of the prosecutorial system and of the security forces, as well as the corruption that affects the different levels of the Judicial Branch.”
Everything in these documents revolves around one phrase, made up of two words that seal a case for asylum: substantiated fear.
In an interview with Revista Factum published on March 22, Fátima Ortiz, Director of Victim Care at El Salvador’s Ministry of Justice and Security, denied that there are hundreds or thousands of cases of people who had to flee. There are people, she said, who leave because they imagine that something could happen. She considered that “the government is being very prudent not to be carried away by the big figures,” and even assured that “in some cases people are trying to move to a new house and take advantage.”
For the Mexican Government, these Salvadorans are at risk of imminent death because they “oppose gang practices.”
The man’s son, who is 16, has been silent at a corner of the table. I ask him about the gang's harassment. He says it was constant. “They only want the youngsters,” he says. “I had to belong or I was going to be killed.”
I ask him what he thinks of the police and the soldiers. His answer sounds like he is describing gang members. “They were always going to beat you,” he says. “Even if they did not find anything to pin on you, they would tell you that you belonged to a gang. They order you to say where the other members where or they would torture you. I have a friend who had his arm dislocated by a soldier and then he was hit with a rifle butt. They just left him there. And he had nothing to do with the gangs. I can’t stand to see a soldier or a policeman.”
Tomorrow, the man, the woman and the boy will take care of the tilapia fish. The friend will go with the man’s daughter, who is not at home now, to sell fruit from a cart. The friend is still amazed that in this poor town you can push a fruit cart down the street, “get to know the place, shout and that nobody will kill you.”
It is another hot and humid day in this port of entry to Mexico. The migrants are speed out among cement tables in front of the basketball court of the shelter. Waiting. It’s hard to picture how, many of these people, who now seem dazed in their stupor, were very recently the protagonists of a desperate flight from death.
A Guatemalan bricklayer seated next to the laundry is 38-years-old and is seeking refugee status. He says that his neighborhood, near the center of the capital, was controlled by the 18th St gang but was invaded by the MS. “They put a gun to my head to cooperate with the gang.”
A 24-year-old Salvadoran, Victor, who was a bread seller, says he left the town of Apopa because “it is hard to live there.” But he does not want to be a refugee. He managed to make it to the United States and was denied that status there, which would complicate any similar petition in Mexico. Victor says he was assaulted on the border with Guatemala, in El Ceibo, a place where rapes and robberies often occur. For being a crime victim in Mexican territory and having filed a complaint, he obtained a humanitarian visa. “About three months ago,” he says, “the police killed gang members in my neighborhood. One of them fell from the roof of the house where I lived, next to my bed. Pictures of my room came out in the newspapers.”
It is hard to know what the confrontation was about. I did not ask him any details. In the last seven months, at least eight clashes have occurred in Apopa’s neighborhoods. Sixteen alleged gang members were killed, and one policeman.
A woman from the department of Cortes, Honduras, appears anxious; she is crying. She speaks to Victor. She says gang members have beaten up her children for refusing to give up their property back in her country. She gets up. She says she will find a phone to make a call. She cries. She sits down again. She gets up. She goes off.
Darío is 21, from Honduras, with scars under his long fringe. “They are knife cuts,” he explains. He sold drugs for the 18th St gang in a neighborhood of the municipality of Jesus of Otoro, Intibucá.
The Mara Salvatrucha dominated the municipality. He sold drugs for about 85 cents; 60 cents for the gang, 25 for him. But the gang demanded he sell the drugs on enemy territory. Refusing to sell was not a safe option. In an ambush in December 2016, four MS gang members almost killed him with rocks. He was hospitalized for two days. When he got out, he says: "I stabbed one and left him in a rice field.” Then, he took his girlfriend and they went to work for a month in coffee fields in the mountains. They earned about $85 and ran away. On February 14, he began his process to seek refugee status.
A few yards away is a Honduran family. The mother does not talk, she's angry. On her lap, is her one-year-old son. At her side, her husband, 25, a former bus driver from La Ceiba, Atlantida, a city where homicides exceed 100 per 100,000. The reason the family is here? He was in charge of collecting extortion money and handing it over the 18th St gang. The leadership in his area thought highly of him. He was asked to join the gang but he said no. He was asked again and he said no, again. Then he was given 24 hours to join, run away or die. He fled.
It is estimated that this year more than 20,000 people will apply for asylum in Mexico. How many of them would have just become another statistic? 10? 100? 1000? 10,000?
When Gustavo decided to flee with his two children and his wife, his kidnappers had already cut off his finger weeks earlier. He did not flee immediately after the torture. He fled when he understood that, despite having paid, they would take away something much more valuable: his son.
He was in the market of San Benito, in Petén, Guatemala, very close to the border with Mexico, looking for potatoes and tomatoes, when he got the call.
“They told me to give up the complaint,” he says, “that they saw my son and that he was wearing red shorts and a white shirt. I ran to find my son. To my surprise when I got there, a police patrol car stopped in front of me and then left the place. At that precise moment, we grabbed the little money that we had and we came to Mexico.”
Gustavo knows that his kidnappers know that he filed a complaint against them. That's why he insists that hiding his name is useless. He is a man in his fifties, robust. He greets me at the table of his new house, a two-room apartment on the second floor of a building that’s under construction. It is all he can afford right now. He is surrounded by his wife, 42, and his children, 16 and 9.
Gustavo is a prosperous self-made man. He fought his way out of poverty. He entered the United States illegally, lived there seven years, gathered all his money and returned home to invest it. After 15 years as a merchant in his country, Gustavo had opened two stores selling secondhand American clothes, a wholesale grains company and an enterprise for buying and selling cars and property. There just over the border from Mexico, in the department of Petén, he did well. But being wealthy in Central America often means being prey.
On June 6, 2016, he was on the way to the municipality of Poptún to see some land for sale. Ten men intercepted him and took him to a cave in the mountains.
“They wanted about $136,000,” he says. “But my money wasn’t jus lying around. It was invested. They tied my hands behind my back. I didn’t eat for a week. I was given water once a day. They told me that even if I paid, they would kill me. They put a ski-mask on me but I managed to make a hole in the cloth. So when I raised my neck, as if to stretch, I could see them.” As Gustavo speaks both he and his wife are crying.
“In the middle of the week, they cut my finger off, to send it to my family to show that they were serious.”
They took him out of the cave. They tied a stick under his right pinky and cut it off with a machete from the knuckle to the tip. They told him they would cut off his head next.
“If you are going to kill me soon anyway, at least right now give me something to calm this pain," Gustavo told them.
But they gave him nothing and after being released his whole finger had to be amputated because it rotted in that cave.
His family took out loans, asked around for money, sold some things. That was when they received the piece of finger. They called the kidnappers and said they would pay, that they did not have to send any more pieces of Gustavo. They sold everything, asked for more, took out more loans. They paid.
That night, the kidnappers took Gustavo out of the cave. They put his neck on a log, sharpened a machete and told Gustavo that there were some shovels by his side, that his body would be buried outside the cave and his head thrown in a river in the municipality of Cobán. At that moment Gustavo had an epiphany: he believed he would go home and find his children lying on the floor, crying. They would see him and they would cry more, "but out of joy, at last, out of joy.”
Gustavo says that in the mountains, at night, telephone conversations can be overheard even if they are not on speaker-phone. Someone called. The voice on the phone seemed to speak like a boss. He said not to cut off his head, that he would be there in a few minutes. They freed Gustavo's hands. The man apologized, said that someone had incriminated Gustavo, although he did not tell him over what. He told Gustavo that he would be released that the same night, but that he had to remember not to speak if he wanted to go on living. Gustavo believes he was released because he is related to a judge, and the leader of the criminals found out before he was to be beheaded.
Gustavo still had the ski-mask on his face, but he already knew who some of his captors were. It had been days since he had opened a hole by scraping the cloth against the rock. “There were policemen among them, and former policemen," says Gustavo. Central America is frightening even without its gang members.
Beginning in 2014, Guatemalan authorities arrested several kidnappers in Petén and other departments. They said they called themselves the False Shepherds, because in some cases they used the role of evangelical pastors to approach the victims and later demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars from them. Five of the accused escaped from jail in May 2015, including the alleged leader, Marco Baudilio Godoy. The gang continued to operate in 2016. More cattlemen and merchants from Petén were abducted. At least one more had his finger cut off.
Gustavo says some of his torturers were from the False Shepherds.
As best he could and while he asked for refuge in Mexico, Gustavo secretly went to authorities in Guatemala to denounce his capturers. He did so, knowing that the cops would not protect him. He did so because he thought it important.
On July 1, 2016, 18 days after his release from the cave and 22 days after he was mutilated, Gustavo and his family fled their country. They are now permanent residents of Mexico.
“Why didn’t you go to another part of Guatemala?” I ask, as if I were an interviewer for the refugee commission.
Gustavo says, “I answer you with another question: where in Guatemala are there no police?”
“What did you leave behind?” I ask.
“Everything. We had houses, land, everything, everything, everything. We did not have the money for ransom. I still owe money.”
“Have you given up on your country?”
“Guatemala is over for me. I don´t want anything to do with Guatemala anymore.”
In this third-floor house there is a family from Cortés, Honduras. The day ends and the heat subsides on this border. The big mango tree is filled with birds that sing as if crying out for help. Zulma, a 35-year-old mother, points to a small house across the way: "That’s where my two nephews live,” she says. “Twins. They fled before us. They started with them and then they came for us.”
Árnol, 18, was the target in early 2016. Árnol's cousins fled because the gangs–yes, both the MS and the 18–wanted them as members. With gangs, there is only one way to say no, and that is to run away. Because the cousins didn’t join, the gangs wanted Arnol. They followed him. They beat him. They threatened him. They watched his house. They hit him again. The family decided to take photos.
They lay out polaroid shots of Arnol’s bruised arms on the floor because they have no table, only three chairs and two barrels.
They kept living their lives. But then anonymous threats began to arrive. They show me the only one they kept. With letters cut from different magazines and newspapers, the gang members had written: "Well, since you do not think you have to do as you are told, get out alive because we want you out of the house.”
They kept living their lives. They stayed there for about six weeks. The gang members arrived one night, determined to take Árnol. His stepfather, German, 33, resisted. “They beat me," he says, as the birds intensify their chirping.
They kept living their lives. They filed a complaint. They resisted for a few more weeks. They went to live with Zulma's sister in another apartment. They thought that maybe the Honduran justice system would work and they could go home. They wanted to go back because they had set up a small hairdressing salon where Zulma and German earned a little extra money on the weekends. But the gang members set fire to their home and to the salon.
The family shows me photographs they took of a cement shell burned by fire, with no doors or windows. That was what was left of their property. They stopped trying to live in Honduras. On May 29, 2016, they coordinated for some truckers to transport them and they fled: Zulma, German, Árnol and also Vivian, 17, and Harold, 11. They are now refugees in Mexico. They believe that Zulma's sister, the mother of the twins, will also arrive soon. “They already slashed the front door of her house with a machete," Zulma says.
They have it in their mind to go further north across Mexico.
“Many Hondurans come here, some gang members," says German.
They fear that their country will follow them.
N and M are sitting at the tables surrounding the basketball court. I approach them and ask if they are migrants or if they are seeking refugee status. “Refugee," says N. I ask where they are from. “From the municipality of Santa Bárbara, Honduras," says M. I ask them what they are running away from. “Some drug traffickers," says N.
Both are girls. N is 15 years old. M is 16.
Santa Bárbara is among the three departments in Honduras with the highest official complaints of sexual violence, according to a study presented by the National Autonomous University at the end of 2015.
M has sad, greenish eyes. She has a thin, white and fragile body. N has a woman's body, but a childish face. Round and pleasant.
N, just a girl, is the mother of another girl–a 1-year-old. She gave birth at 14. Her little girl, stayed in Honduras. She shows photographs. The father, a well-known drug trafficker in that area, warned N that if she took the child, her whole family would die. He had raped N from the age of 9. He raped her, along with two friends, also both 9, while she returned from getting paid for working in coffee fields. He raped her, again with hie friends, when she was 11, walking near a park. He raped her and made her pregnant at 13, when she had gone shopping at a store. His friends had raped her this time too, but N recalls that “two of them had used protection.”
N says that the drug trafficker tried to take her daughter several times, and that she even denounced him at the police station. But the threats did not stop. “Where I come from, the drug traffickers are in charge,” she says.
She decided to flee last January to try to head to the United States to try to send money to her daughter to try to devise a plan to take her with her. Her daughter, for the moment, is with N’s mother.
N did not run away alone. She ran away with her best friend, M.
I ask M, 16, what her town was like. She says it is pretty. “It sits behind some mountains and has wifi in the park,” she says. I ask why she ran away. She says that one day, at the door of her house, a note appeared with chocolates. The note said that she was a very pretty girl. “Romantic stuff," says M.
The note was anonymous. For three months, gifts continued to arrive: flowers, roses, plush toys. One day, M stayed outside her house to find out who her suitor was. She saw a car and inside she saw a 30-something man. The man left a box with jewels and drove off. She found out who he was, and he turned out to be a well-known drug trafficker and a relative of N’s rapist.
“They say he abuses women first and then sells them to a brothel,” she says.
M went to work as a domestic employee in a house in the capital. Her mother visited her. A little after four years later, on the eve of her birthday in December of 2016, M returned to her town. On the 30th, she got another note. “It said that the gift that he was going to give me a gift on my birthday that I would not be able to forget; that on that day I was going to be his.” M did not leave her house for almost a month. She took about $60 and joined N’s escape on January 29.
They fled rapists but in their journey, they ran into rapists. In Santa Elena, Guatemala, they met three men who said they were immigrants and could help them cross to Mexico. M says that “they looked very calm.” And the men did help them cross. Once in El Ceibo, the men said they would rest somewhere and took them to an abandoned house. It was 10pm. N and M lay together, hugging each other. One of the men pulled out a pistol. “He said we'd better cooperate. I did not say anything. I did not move. My friend got nervous and they slapped her,” says M.
The three men raped the girls. “It was so bad. Three men is very difficult. I fell asleep after,” says M, without crying. When they woke up, the men were no longer there. The girls walked to a farm where a lady gave them food, allowed them to take a bath and called one of the friars of La 72, who came for them. N arrived at the shelter with bite marks on her chest and her legs.
They have begun the process for asylum, but they are not sure if they will finish it. They are not sure of anything right now. The two repeat the same sentence: “I can’t go on just crying.”
A Salvadoran is sitting in the dining room. It's almost 9 at night. Others are getting ready to sleep in the migrant shelter. The newcomer expects to be given a bed. He still has a backpack on his shoulders. His gaze is lost and frightened at the same time. He reacts frantically to every noise around him.
“What’s up brother? Salvadoran?” I ask. His body shudders. He turns around to see me.
“Yes, from Acajutla.”
“Running away,” I repeat out loud.
“Yeah,” he says. “They say here, one can live.”
Produced by: Univision Noticias, El Faro
Narration of audiobook: Melvin Félix
Design: Juanje Gómez, Andrés Góngora
Presentation: Juanje Gómez and Daniel Reyes
Ilustration: Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons
Animation: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons, Ricardo Weibezahn
Video: Almudena Toral, Maye Primera, Nacho Corbella
Photos: Fred Ramos, Almudena Toral
Map: Luis Melgar
Editing: Ricardo Vaquerano, José Fernando López
Social media: Sergio Peralta, María Carolina Hurtado
Digital production: Andrés Barajas, Paola Duque
Digital coding: Juanje Gómez, Andrés Góngora, Fabián Padilla, Cristhian Mora
Translation: Saúl Hudson, Juan Tamayo.
English language editing: David Adams, Jessica Weiss