Running from Gangs

Forty-five year old Silvia Menéndez and her family recently fled their home in El Salvador to escape the country’s gang violence, which has become ubiquitous throughout the country. Now living in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, Menéndez is struggling to find ways to carve out an independent life — to find the means to clothe and feed her family. 

The gang presence is deeply rooted and inescapable for most of El Salvador’s population, and the very poor are especially vulnerable. Bands of marauding youth emerged in El Salvador during the country’s civil war (fought from 1979 to 1992) and have gradually expanded since that time. While their original formation developed in part from groups operating in the United States decades ago, the gangs in El Salvador today reflect a purely home-grown phenomenon. 

Mostly young men and teenagers from the poorest areas of El Salvador dominate these organizations, called pandillas in Spanish, and frequently come from broken homes or abusive families. Most have dropped out before completing middle school and have very limited opportunities in the mainstream economy. 

A sense of excitement has been cited as a reason for their participation, but many factors contribute to their motivation for joining, such as the ability to acquire jobs and resources, find protection, form friendships, improve self-esteem, and avoid family conflict.

Most gang members have faced criminal charges, with murder and extortion being the most common, in that order. In fact, a requirement for membership often involves committing homicide. Assaults, armed robberies, kidnappings, and rapes are other acts often carried out by these criminal bands. Participation in such activity can incur profound personal risk, as police and security forces pursue the pandilleros in response to their criminal behavior.  Most gang members have spent time in prison, and, in fact, a good portion of the leadership actually operates behind prison walls.  

The largest of these organizations is the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13), followed by the 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18), which has become divided into two rival groups: The Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries) and the Sureños (Southerners).  These gangs are enemies of each other and are responsible for much of the violence in El Salvador, as they struggle over territory and control of illicit enterprises. Also operating are smaller groups like the Mirada Loco, Mara Máquina and Mao-Mao.  

The MS-13 is thought to be the largest and most organized, with a well developed hierarchy and chain of command. Over the last two decades, the MS-13 has assumed authority over many of the neighborhoods in El Salvador and, in equal measure, has expanded its control over the lives of its members.  It has done so largely through the threat of murder, or murder itself. 

Menéndez, born and raised in the municipality of Coatepeque, is originally from the western part of El Salvador, just east of Guatemala. She has two sons, ages 25 and 10, and a daughter, age 19. Her story is one of terror, escape and deprivation.

We began escaping threats when I was living in a municipality they call El Congo, within the department of Santa Ana. I was there because I once met a lady who had a business there and needed somebody to work for her, and I told her that I would go with her, but I was only nine-years old when I started. While working, I was able to keep going to a school until I was in eighth grade. The woman who employed me had a restaurant and I helped her cook and clean.  I also took care of her children.

Later I had children of my own and have three.  In that time, the area wasn’t so dangerous. Over the years, about 10 or 11 years ago, it became very bad in El Salvador generally. The gangs started to arm themselves in all parts of the country. To raise adolescents became very difficult. The Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs were fighting over their territories, in all the neighborhoods.  So from the Congo, we left for Ciudad Real (about 15 miles away). But there it was also very dangerous, so we were escaping one place for another and could not find a secure neighborhood where I could protect my children.  There is no safe place in El Salvador.  

When the gangs see teenagers, they try to convince them to join their group.  They surround them in the street and even wait for them at the exits of the schools. They sometimes follow them and assault them if they refuse to join. As a consequence, many teenagers are not able to leave their homes because they find gang members wherever they go.  On every corner there were groups of gang members, so it was very hard for my kids to leave the house.

The father of my first two children died at the age of 26, so I had to be the sole provider, and would have to leave my elder son alone closed up at home when I went to work. To lessen the risk, my mother would take him and the other kids to school, and my two oldest children have managed to get their bachillerato (similar to a high school diploma).  But their lives were nothing more than going to school, going home and staying inside. 

That’s how it had to be because a lot of times when my elder son would go out of the house, the gangs would surround him and beat him up.  Recently, he came to me  and said, “those guys want me to go with them,” and they wanted him to go to places to smoke marijuana, and because he didn’t want to go, they would wait to attack him. He said sometimes the gangs killed people and expected new gang members to do the same, and at other times the police would be chasing them down. He did not want that life.  

My son said that the gangs were going to kill him for sure, and me as well.  In fact, the gangs left a note under our door saying that if we didn’t leave the country, they would kill my son and everyone in his family. They would kill all of us.

Thank God, I had a sister living in Guatemala, and I managed to communicate with her and she told me that if we wanted, we could come to her place. So we went.

We left the country only with some clothes so no one would suspect that we were fleeing the country. We would have to start from zero.

When we left, we took a bus to the border at San Cristóbal (a town along the Pan-American Highway between El Salvador and Guatemala), but I had a problem: I did not have the documentation I needed to take my younger son out of the country since I needed his father’s permission. I did not say anything because he may not have granted permission. I could not leave my son behind and of course we could not stay. That has been the hardest part, that my younger son cannot see his father.

When we arrived at the border and got off the bus, I started talking to a man who by chance was out shopping on market day, and I told him the problem. This man said that if it were discovered, the authorities could take my child away and arrest me, so I asked him if he could help me get my son across the border.  He said that there were people where they exchanged currency who could do it. These people, well, they call them coyotes, and they help in cases like this. I was introduced to one and he said, “pay this much and I’ll get the child across the border so you don’t have problems with immigration.” The coyote told me that that was his job. 

So, I gave him the money (about 50 dollars), but I did not have confidence in just one man with my son.  My daughter said, “Mami, you cross the border and I will go with my brother so he doesn’t go alone,” and that’s how we did it.  

I passed through immigration with my elder son and we waited on the other side of the border. I felt desperate because I did not know this guy.  I was very fearful and had many bad thoughts, and I sat there wondering what I would do if he didn’t come.  I asked God to bring them soon, and thankfully in about an hour this coyote got them over the border, and they were fine.

Afterwards we got on another bus to go to Guatemala City. But even there, the ayudante del bus (the bus assistant who charges the passengers) told me that I might have problems without papers for my son, and to give him a certain amount of money so he could convince the police not to do anything if they stopped the bus.  He told me that further up there was a retén (a place where police randomly pull vehicles aside to check papers like a driver’s license and registration, a common practice in Guatemala). He said there the police might take the child away. 

Others told me not to give him anything, that he was a coyote also and just out for the money. But I paid him to avoid problems, 200 quetzals (about 26 dollars). I was very worried about what could happen.

Thank God we were never stopped and we managed to arrive at the capital.  The guy who charged me never returned my money.  He only said that we were lucky that we weren’t pulled over. When we got to Guatemala City my brother-in-law was there waiting for me with his family, to take us to Ciudad Vieja.

Silvia Menéndez, Antigua, Guatemala, October 23, 2019.

The problem in Guatemala, though, is that it is very difficult for us to find work. No one wants to give you a job if you are not from here.  You are considered undocumented.  You don’t have past working experience here in this country, you don’t have recommendations, you don’t have connections. You knock on doors and the only thing they tell you is that you have to present papers. Thank God for my sister’s help, but the situation is hard because she and her husband are also people of scarce resources.   

About the only thing I can do here is work for myself and open a small business in front of my sister’s house.  I began selling pupasas and beer, but the male customers wanted something more from me and it became abusive, so my older son and I agreed to shut the business down.

Recently I talked to an owner of a clothing store and she said, “Oh, I can get you work here and I’ll pay you so much,” and I was so grateful.  It wasn’t a lot: 1,000 quetzals a month (about 130 dollars), but it was something.  Well, I worked a month for her, but she did not pay me the money she owed me.  So, I ended up working for nothing. She just said her costs were too high to pay me. Obviously, I was working because I needed to earn money, not just because I wanted to be there. (Laughs) 

It is very sad, though, when your children ask you for something to eat and you don’t have anything to give them, and I can only ask God if he can help me find work. When I was at the clothing shop and wasn’t paid, my children understood the situation and accustomed themselves to eating once a day.  It is very difficult.  

Menéndez has recently opened a small clothing shop in front of her home in Ciudad Vieja — in hopes of providing for her children.

This interview was conducted on October 23, 2019, and represents the author’s translation.

My introduction owes much to Kimberly Green of the Latin American and Caribbean Center and Jack D. Gordon of the Institute for Public Policy at Florida international University, whose fine research is presented in “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador,” https://lacc.fiu.edu/research/the-new-face-of-street-gangs_final-report_eng.pdf

Author: storiesfromguatemala

Dr. Stephen O'Brien is a historian who resides in both Guatemala and New Haven, CT collecting oral testimony to gain insight into various historical and cultural forces. He has a PhD from Yale University in History, with a concentration in modern Latin America, and is a Fulbright-Hays scholar. He has taught at Trinity College in Connecticut and at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain. Before that time, he was a reporter and anchorman in local tv news in the United States.

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