It is a Saturday evening in El Salvador, and my Refugees International colleague and I are riding in the back of a car with our heads on our knees. We are on our way to meet with a displaced family who are being hidden in a "safe house." We have been asked to stay undercover for the last five minutes of the approach – a security precaution to protect both ourselves and, more importantly, the family we are about to meet. It makes a profound impression upon us both as to the immediacy of the threat faced by those displaced by violence in this country.
El Salvador is a nation at war. But unlike the civil war that tore the country apart in the 1980s, today's war is one being waged by powerful gangs on the streets of the cities and rural villages. Some observers estimate that nearly 80 percent of this country is effectively under gang control. Last month was the deadliest since the civil war, with 635 people murdered in May alone.
Across the country, entire families are fleeing their homes because of this violence. The family we meet this Saturday is one of them. I can't use their names or mention where they are from, because as long as they remain within reach of the gang that is threatening them, their lives are in danger.
It was in February, and some of the family were on their way to the beach when the call came that changed their lives. Their eldest son had received word that gang members were waiting at the beach to kill them, and they had to leave immediately. Although they didn’t know why they were being targeted, they knew enough about the gang to know that the threat was serious. Three years earlier, the father had been shot and killed by the gang. The family returned to the house, grabbed a change of clothes, and fled. They haven’t been back since.
The family has been living in this safe house for a month. Before arriving here, they moved from place to place to avoid detection by the gangs, who have extensive communication networks throughout the country. We sit with them for four hours, and during that time they tell us story after story of the almost unimaginable violence they lived through growing up in the gang-controlled neighborhood they refer to as “The Devil’s Door.”
The 20-year-old daughter was visiting her boyfriend when gang members killed his brother right in front of the house. Her boyfriend ran out, held his brother in his arms, and said, “Get up gringo (a term of affection on account of his fair skin). Get up! What am I going to tell mom?” He had already lived through the earlier deaths of another brother and a sister, both killed by the gangs.
The 16-year-old daughter was walking her 9-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister to school when they saw a gang member strike a man in the head with a baseball bat with such force, she tells us, that a part of the head exploded. He was killed instantly. The gang member then turned to the children and said calmly, “Go ahead and pass by. You are fine.”
Every day that the 13-year-old son walked to school, gang members would try to convince him to join the gang. “You’ll have clothes, shoes, money,” they would promise him. And every day the son would refuse, because he was determined to stay in school and keep up with his studies – an incredibly brave choice in a community where saying no to a gang member can be a death sentence.
These are just a few of the many horrific stories of violence the family shared with us that night. However, they also shared with us other, happier stories of the lives they left behind. The 20-year-old daughter was a beauty queen and cosmetologist; the 16-year-old daughter was a star soccer player – the best in her school; and the 13-year-old son was at the top of his class in school, receiving perfect marks in all of his subjects. There are five children of school age living in the safe house, and they have all been out of school since February. As the 13-year-old son tells us, “One of the main reasons we want to get out of this country is so we can safely go back to school.”
There is currently no safe option for this family in El Salvador. While the government here focuses its attention on trying to combat the gangs, very little attention is being paid to the gangs’ victims. Families forced from their homes need to have safe shelters out of reach of the gangs, as well as access to health care, education, and psychological and food support. Without that, the only option those displaced by violence have is to leave the country.
The family we meet hasn’t given up on the future, in spite of all that has happened. They just want to be able to live their lives in peace. That shouldn’t have to be such an unrealistic prospect.
Photo: The tag of El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha (of MS-13) – one of the country’s two notorious gangs.