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

Studying Abroad

Claudette Silva, 23, was born and raised in Guatemala and speaks four languages: Russian, Turkish, English and Spanish. (She hopes to one day learn German and Hebrew as well.) Below is her story, which reveals an unusual childhood and how, as a young adult, violence and a lack of resources affected her experience as a student. 

 When I was born, my father was schizophrenic and was unable to get loose from his detention.  My mother bore me alone at home, and later that day they took us to the hospital. 

For the first three years of my life, though, I lived with both my parents in zone 1 in Guatemala City.  Then my mother separated from my father and left him.  She met my step-father later and had two children with him.  

We were continually moving because my father was perpetually looking for me so he could be with me, but my mother did not want him to have custody. I went to nine different elementary schools in different parts of Guatemala. Just when I made friends I would have to go somewhere else, so it was complicated. We lived in places like San Antonio Suchitepéquez, San Benito in Petén, and in Santa Rosa Oratorio, where my family is from on my mother’s side.  My mother is the daughter of Brazilian immigrants, who migrated there in a big group. There are a lot of Silvas there.

Later we returned to Guatemala City when my father had calmed down and wasn’t looking for me any more.  When I was sixteen, though, I looked for him, and I found him, but it wasn’t a normal situation.  He was constantly changing personalities.  

I believe that I had a happy childhood despite all of that.  Not to have your parents together happens a lot in Guatemala.  The majority of children go through that, so it did not feel out of the ordinary.  In fact, when we lived in Petén, we lived on a farm and I had horses, and everything was great. 

I spent middle school and high school in the capital in a school run by nuns.  Then I went to the University of San Carlos, having managed to enter there to study medicine, and I studied there a year.   

To get around, I had to take a lot of camionetas (a flatbed truck used for transport), and one day in one of them I was assaulted.  A guy, backed by two others, asked everyone for their cell phones.  I hid mine in my shoe and told him “no.”   It makes me angry when I think about it because it’s not like I had a lot of money to buy one.  It cost me a lot.  I did not want to give up my phone so this guy jabbed me with his fist.  He hit me in the chest and they grabbed my backpack, but they did not get my cell phone.

Also, one time, when I was coming back home on a bus from the university through a new route through Villa Nueva, some people started shooting at the bus I was in, just when I was about home. And someone was killed right behind me.  It was horrible.  I think the shooting may have been because some of the cab drivers were upset that a bus was starting to operate in that area in competition with them.  It’s not clear why, but the bus took these gunshots.  

After that I made the decision to find a way to get out of this country. I wanted to leave.  I wanted to find a new way to live, I wanted peace.  I wanted to be able to walk in a country where I did not have to worry about getting robbed.

I went to various embassies and knocked on their doors, trying to figure out how I could get a scholarship abroad to keep studying.  They do have scholarships for Guatemalan students at these embassies, but the scholarships are not easy to get because they are usually given to people with influence, say, to a politician’s son or daughter.  

Russia opened the doors for me.  It was the only country that guided me through the application process and then accepted me. You do have to have good grades and I always had them, but the people at the consul supported me a lot. The process took about a year and I got my scholarship to go to Moscow in 2015.

I think these scholarships represent a way to unite the two countries, to promote good will between the people on both sides.  For example, there are two Russians in Antigua (a town in Guatemala where she currently lives), and I help them in any way I can.  If they want to go the market, I go with them so they feel comfortable here.  I do this because there were many Russians who treated me well, who helped me when I was in Moscow.  

I was in Russia almost two years studying medicine.  For someone who is Latino, it is difficult because of the snow and the extreme cold they have there. I had never experienced snow and those types of temperatures.  I would ask them, “why do you live here? It’s freezing.”  In January, you can’t even leave your house. 

I lived in a very small apartment that was just one room, along with three other women who were from different countries: Albania, the Ivory Coast, and Kazakhstan.  We had bunk beds under which we would put our luggage, and there were four closets and a stand to put dishes on.  There were just two desks and they were almost on top of the beds, because they really didn’t fit. I always grabbed half of a desk to study. It was tough. The woman from the Ivory Coast would make food, these giant soups, for all of her African friends, and they would all come to our place to eat on the weekends, in that little room of ours.  I had to be careful what I wore around the apartment since they would all be there, from Friday to Sunday.  We had to be very tolerant of each other.

Over there it was really important to speak Russian, because if you didn’t, they wouldn’t respect you, and learning it was difficult. You open the books and you begin to read, and you don’t understand anything.  You had to grab a dictionary or an app on your phone to translate it to Spanish. You constantly had to be getting the translation to understand what the book was saying.  All of us foreigners had to study twice as much as everyone else. But these things change you and make you stronger.

In the first six months, they teach you grammar and writing, and the next six months you learn subjects like math, chemistry, and biology.  Although the professors were good, it was hard. I was able to understand and speak Russian within 6 months, but it took me a full year to master it.

I remember that one Russian professor in anatomy would make you feel so bad if you made a mistake, and in that class, there were so many things to memorize.  There are so many cavities in the skull, the bones in the temporal, all the connections, what vein is there and what organ communicates with it, and we had to learn all of it in Russian and Latin.  The professor would arrive, give us a bone and say, “what is this?” If you made one mistake, she would not forgive you, she would just say “well, just come back next week and do the exam all over again.” It was horrible, really.  She made a student cry for one error.  She said, “you are not fit to be a doctor.  Go back to your country. You can’t speak Russian well enough.”

I tried to avoid all of that. I would study and then make drawings of everything I studied, and when the exam arrived, I would put the drawings in front of the professor so she would know that I knew the material.  You had to find a way to win them over. (laughs)

Silva had to stop studying when she was no longer able to cover her expenses.

My parents started to have economic problems, more so than usual, and they began to send me just 250 dollars a month. With this I had to eat, and in a city so expensive like Moscow, I really had to spend money only on food, and it had to be the most basic type of food.  At times, I just didn’t have enough. The scholarship paid for academics, the courses, the labs, but it did not pay for your housing or your food. They may have provided you the books, but not the notebooks or pens. I stopped my studies in the second semester of my second year.

I would have stayed if I had the money.  The scholarship would have taken me through the program to become a doctor, but I couldn’t get the work in Russia that would have allowed me to afford living there.  There were, however, allowances for time off. You could take a year off and still come back and study, so I decided to go to Turkey to earn enough money to return. But if you don’t return within a year, you lose your scholarship.  

I went to Turkey with a guy I got engaged to who was Muslim, and I earned 1,500 dollars a month in tourism. First, though, I went to the Ukraine to study massage, relaxing forms of massage, like Thai, Balinese, shiatsu, styles from India.  I did this so I could go back to Turkey and implement what I had learned.  My fiancé had a business to sell massages to tourists at a hotel, and my job was to explain the types he provided, and to sell customers the massages, I would give a small demonstration and explain how the technique was.  If they liked it, they would buy some and we would assign them a masseuse.  

We had local clients, but 80 percent of them at that hotel were Russians.  Since I could speak their language, I could sell to them.  All the time, I thought I would go back to the university in Moscow.  And while I was there I learned Turkish. It wasn’t hard like Russian. 

When the time came to go back, my husband-to-be told me to stay.  He said, “you are my woman.  Stay with me.” Since I believed that I was gong to make my life with him, I didn’t return to Moscow.  We continued to see each other for another year, but I found out he had been married to another woman and hadn’t told me.  I found pictures of them together in India after he told me he was going there alone on a business trip.  How can I marry someone who already has a wife, and didn’t tell me?  How stupid. He wanted me to be his second woman.  After that I didn’t want to be with him any more, and I returned to my country.  

When you go back, everything is different, the traffic, the people, and the climate, nothing is the same.  But you remember who you are and where you are from, because sometimes you forget, no?  So much time passes when you are abroad and you begin to think in another language, you forget to think in Spanish.  But you also change.  You don’t see things the same, you don’t see things like your culture has taught you.  You open your mind.

People work very hard over there.  In Turkey, you only have three days of rest during an entire month, just three. And that is very tiring.  And in Russia, we studied from Monday to Saturday. We only had Sundays off, and on that day you had to buy things, go to the market, clean the apartment, everything had to be taken care of.  So you can’t do anything else.  It’s not like that here in Guatemala.

If I had the chance, I would return to Russia to study but I would have to have the capital to do it.  I would have to apply for a scholarship all over again, and I would have to have a job over there to sustain me, and that is something I don’t have.  It’s just not possible now.  I can’t have my parents maintain me either, and they haven’t since I was 20. So I’m never going to go back and study there.

I want to be here in Antigua a year, because maybe I will have a future here and could put up a business.   I want to study and understand how everything works and start something. I have to work, I have to eat, and no one is going to rain money down on me.  I have to think about my future.

I feel like Antigua is a very happy place, more so than in Moscow, more so than in Turkey, more so than in Guatemala City.  Here I don’t feel judged, the people are nice and sociable, and I feel supported by my friends. I also like the architecture. 

And it is peaceful here. It’s my country and it isn’t so dangerous in this part of it. 

That’s what I like the most.  

The above story was told in our interview on June 25, 2019, in Antigua, Guatemala. The translation is my own.

Claudette Silva, Antigua, Guatemala, June 25, 2019.

 

Poverty and Racism

“Kike” Yantuche is a 30-year old man who hails from Mixco, Guatemala, a municipality of close to 500,000 people some 10 miles from the country’s capital, Guatemala City.  Its indigenous past is long and rich, as Spanish colonists were only figure heads in nominal government positions.  Today, Mixco is densely populated, absorbed by the capital and residents there face the travails of modernization and contemporary Guatemalan life.  Kike works as a sales executive for Banco Industrial, one of the largest banks in Central America, selling products like credit cards to bank customers.  He spoke to me on May 11, 2019.

My life in Guatemala was a little difficult because I come from a very poor family.  I know a lot of people who grew up in a house with a living room and a kitchen and everything else.  I did not have any of that.  Everyone in my family lived in the exact same space. It was really crazy; we were six persons in one small room: my parents, my brother and two sisters, and myself.  It had nothing, it was just a room with a stove in the middle, and we slept in three beds near it that took up half of the room.  We made one part of it into a kitchen near the stove, and on the other side there was a table.  The bathroom was outside.  The whole room was only 10 by 5 meters.  It was really small. I don’t know why, but this is the first time I have talked about this because there are many things that I don’t like to remember.  It’s really hard for me to talk about it.  Everyone assumes I have had everything, and it’s not true.

Even in such conditions, I did not go hungry. My parents were able to bring us food, but taking a shower was really difficult because we had no water in our place, so all the time we used water from community washing areas (called Tanques).  It was pretty tough from December through February because it could get really cold, and we did not have water heaters.

Luckily, I received money from a nun, like 50 US dollars a month, which was a lot of money for me because I was a student and it was a great help. But I stopped going to school after high school. In Guatemala, you can get a job if you have a high school degree, and if you have a good aptitude you can earn some money, so I was able to get a job at the bank, where I have been working for ten years.

At work my colleagues refer to me as an “Indian,” because my last name  (Yantuche) is probably Mayan.  I don’t really care.  It’s just their ignorance. I consider myself mestizo. I speak only Spanish, no other language. I dress in a western way and I am Catholic.  I don’t carry the religious beliefs of some of the Mayan people. In the beginning it was really hard for me because I don’t have their tradition and I don’t know why my friends and colleagues, my people, called me “Indian.” I just don’t know.  They would call it to me right to my face. It’s like a nickname, you know.  For example, they call me “Tatita,” which is a way for a Mayan person to refer to his or her grandfather.  “Pech,” “Indio,” and they also say “Jacinto,” “Chino,” everything like that. In Guatemala, it’s really offensive, it’s an insult. But it’s part of the culture because everyone here wants to come from families that are European or American; they want to be white.

For example, when you buy something in a store, if you go buy like a beer in a local store, they call the people working there Chinos. “Chino, give me a beer.” Everybody thinks you can call them Chinos.  “Indio” is the most common.  If someone says the beer is good, and I say it’s not, and I keep insisting on my point of view, they say “you are an Indian.”  This is code for someone who is stubborn, who won’t change their mind.

We don’t have national pride.  For example, I went to Peru two years ago and they are very proud because they are Incan.  In the central park of Cuzco, they have dances and music about Incan culture.  Here, there is nothing.  The presidents’ names are from Europe.  The names are Berger, Arzu, names from Germany, Austria, Spain.  We don’t have our own president.

Once I had these friends from Spain who were here in Guatemala doing volunteer work, I met them at a bar because I can talk with the girls, and the other guys don’t have the same ability, you know? I know them because they wanted to speak to a girl, and they couldn’t so I arranged things for them to talk to her and they became my friends. So once I was giving them a ride and they started calling me “Indio,” and it was really offensive. They thought they were better than me, and so they started calling me those names. But after this guy called me an “Indio” I told him to fuck off. I told them all to get out of my car.   I told them to “fucking get out right now” and they said “no way,” and I said “get out.” Everyone has a limit.  They call you those names because of how you appear.  I am small, my skin is dark, I don’t have a lot of hair on my face.  I don’t care.  But they can’t mess with me because of it. and I am pretty good in mathematics, in writing.  I know where I’m good. They can’t tell me they are better because I know it’s not true. I’ve been looking for new job opportunities where I can put my writing skills to use, and I think I am good enough, but the racism works against me. There is an author who has written about racism and how everybody here in Guatemala wants to belong to a rich family from Spain.  It’s really weird, but it’s a part of our culture. I know I can’t change anything.

Kike plans to leave Guatemala to find a better life.  He intends to go to Europe, perhaps France, perhaps Poland, where he has friends, and eventually emigrate to Australia, find work and write a novel.

Right now I live in a town (Mixco) where it’s really dangerous. I live with my parents there and rent a house. Even though my job is boring, I thought that with the money I made at the bank my family could be better off, but it’s not completely true. Some two years ago three men entered my home and robbed me of everything.  So from that time on, I’ve been thinking that it’s just not possible to have anything here.  I bought everything for the house, and right now I have nothing.  But it’s my town, my grandparents and parents grew up there, and they don’t want to leave Mixco.

We have our demons, like violence and indifference. For example, where I live, last weekend, a man was murdered in the central park in my town.  It was really ugly. The most incredible thing is the indifference of the people, because next to the murder there was a party being thrown for the public in the town square, to celebrate the conclusion of some elections.  But just next to the party, one man was killed, he was murdered, and no one cared.  The party kept going until one a.m., and nobody said “stop the music, we have a guy murdered here.”  You know, the indifference, It’s amazing.  You can’t believe it. The deep indifference, it’s incredible.

Five months ago I was sleeping, maybe six in the morning, when I heard “pah pah pah pah” (bullet sounds).  So I said to myself, “shit, that was a shooting.”  But when I got up my mom came into my room and said “stop, don’t go out,” but I needed to go out and see, and I went out and found a woman maybe 20 or 25 years old, she was still alive but she was dying, and her mother was trying to revive her and she was pleading for people to help.

But this is our reality and our government does nothing.  They say that there comes a time here when it becomes too much.  “We can’t take it any more.  When will I be next?”  In any moment, it can be you who is shot.  So you ask yourself, “when will I be taken out?”

I do believe I could learn another language like French.  I  could stay in France for two or three years and then go to Australia.  I have friends in Poland also.  As for the US, I think for Latin people there are better destinations.  In the US there is racism and the only work I would find would be at a farm or in construction.  I’m looking for something else.  My dream really is to go to Australia.  I am going to turn 31 years old and one of my goals is to meet a girl, get married and have children.  I am sure in Guatemala it is not possible to support a family the way I want, but in Australia and other places there are so many more opportunities.

But you never know what is waiting for you.

Juan-Enrique Yantuche at the Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland. June 23, 2019