El Salvador: ‘Never Going Back’

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Student journalists at the Los Angeles Collegian, the student voice of Los Angeles City College since 1929, have been hard at work this summer developing a special package of in-depth reporting with support from Cal Humanities. We are honored to present their work here.

No one in Marie’s family was safe from El Salvador’s gangs, not her daughter Rosa, nor her son-in-law Jaime.

In 2015, neither woman knew the MS-13 gang was extorting money from him. They demanded “loans” and never paid them back, including one for $2,000 in July of 2016.

Jaime never thought the gang would carry out their threats. And he could not pay the money they demanded anyway. He raised animals and sold candy for a living.

After work on July 27, Jaime, Rosa and her teenage daughter Susana headed out to shop for hens. But they were being watched. Three MS-13 members waited to ambush the family in front of the house. Jaime perceived danger, and he sprinted toward Marie’s house. Close behind — Rosa tried to shield him. She placed herself between the shooters and her husband. One of them grabbed Rosa by the arm and shoved her aside.

Jaime scrambled toward Marie’s front door. He never made it. The three gang members shot him 15 times in the back, and he died in front of his family as his wife and daughter screamed hysterically.

The violence continued. One of the shooters grabbed Rosa’s hair and pressed a gun to her temple.

American Justice Inspires Hope, Fear

Six years later, the contrast between the day Jaime was murdered and Marie’s deportation hearing in a California courtroom is stark. Marie has not slept in days worrying about her fourth and final asylum hearing.

She sits alone in a new, nondescript immigration courtroom, in a new, nondescript office park, hard by the 55 Freeway in Santa Ana, California.

A million “what ifs” consume her thoughts: “What if it’s a Trump-appointed judge?” The last one was. Out of the blue, he ordered her to post a $15,000 bond.

The same judge ordered her 18-year-old nephew to post a $50,000 bond in a different case.

She wondered how to prove police and gangs in El Salvador work together or that gang members there want to kill her. Deportation would mean certain death for 52-year-old Marie, a woman with 16 grandchildren.

Only Marie, the judge and an interpreter are inside the courtroom. The silhouettes of her new attorney and the government’s attorney are streamed in on a jumbo flat screen. They look like characters from a dystopian novel.

Two minutes into the hearing, the Department of Justice lawyer levels a serious charge against

“Your honor, the government has found that Ms. Garcia has a prior conviction in El Salvador
for drug possession and trafficking,” the attorney says.

Marie’s mind goes blank. Panic. Silence. More panic.

Judge Wilber Lee speaks softly to Marie.

“Can you please tell the court about this conviction?” he says. “Were you ever convicted of
this offense?”

Marie responds slowly.

“Your honor,” she says as her voice trails off. “Your honor, I transported drugs in my hometown. I was caught. I was convicted, and I spent five years in jail. I paid for my crime. I was promised that my record would be expunged.”

The judge asks for proof and Marie offers to produce a letter.

“Thank you for telling the truth, Ms. Garcia,” Judge Lee says.

Marie’s mind wanders to San Miguel in El Salvador, to a lifetime of struggle and nearly 40 years of pure hell.

Life Brings Escape, Abandonment, Hope

Marie grew up in rural poverty, working in the fields with her parents from the time she was 7 years old. She had eight siblings. She loved school, but her father could only afford to send her through ninth grade.

During the Salvadoran Civil War — which lasted from 1979 to 1992 — her family lived in an area controlled by the guerrillas. One day, as she fetched water from a natural spring, a Salvadoran army battalion arrived. A sergeant took an interest in Marie. He suggested they live together and Marie agreed. She was 14.

Marriage promised a major improvement: escape from constant hunger and war. Their 10-year marriage produced four children. After the birth of their last child in 1989, her husband began to drink, and he left her destitute.

Then, opportunity: A minister gave her $25, and she took a calculated risk with a business idea. She sold carne asada on a shish kabob to bus travelers in San Miguel. It became an instant success. Over time, she hired nine workers. Gang members from MS-13 took notice.

In 2001, MS-13 “requested” that vendors like Marie operating near the bus terminal attend a mandatory meeting.

Pay $200, Go to Jail

The gang members donned white, black or blue brand-name hats — red was prohibited — black and white Nike Cortez shoes and loose-fitting clothing with the pants tied in an “M” at the waist. Local MS-13 members stood on a rock and looked down at the vendors to intimidate them.

“For you to get the protection each of you needs, you have to start paying us $100 every two weeks, and we need the money now,” the leader said.

“Rent” translates to extortion in gang parlance, and Marie’s “rent” increased little by little. MS-13 eventually put the squeeze on her for $200 every two weeks.

By 2016, she had to borrow money to make “rent.” Marie lived in a constant state of anxiety while
gang members murdered fellow vendors.

The fear was real. A Coca-Cola delivery man would call the police every time he saw MS-13 members hanging out in public. He carried a gun with him to make deliveries, but gang members ambushed him at 5 a.m. one morning. A half-hour later, Marie arrived at work and saw him slumped over the steering wheel of his car, covered in blood. Dead.

“It’s like a circle,” she says. “The police are involved in the whole thing. Because the police will let the gang members know if someone has reported on them, and then, the person who called the police will get killed.”

The extortion of working people was not enough. The gang’s business model included the forced transport of contraband and capital. They made Marie carry cash and drugs to stay alive. And she got caught. She served five years.

What unfolded next strains the imagination. The man who owned the drugs was known as “Homeboy,” and he was arrested, too. While they were in jail, he demanded that Marie admit the drugs were hers alone. He went free.

She survived five years in prison, but it was brutal. She says a lesbian inmate demanded sex and assaulted her. On the outside, her daughters, Rosa and Tia were raped. They were 8 and 9 years old, respectively.

After her release from prison, Marie resumed her business. The gang reappeared to extort payments and threaten her life.

“I looked in Rosa’s eyes and it was horrible,” she says. “There was nothing there.”

At that moment, Marie was not afraid of gangs.

Gang Members Begin as Neighborhood Kids

Marie witnessed MS-13’s rise to power from the start. In San Miguel, the gang began as “the Crazy Detour,” and later “Direct Salvatrucho,” which is slang for Salvadorans, and, finally, the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13.

“I knew many of them when they were children,” she says. “At that time, no one thought they would grow up to be so powerful. They were just kids throwing stones at each other.”

A gang member deported from California nicknamed “El Chacal,” the jackal, organized the group. The kids began to steal hats with brand-name logos like Nike to sell. Their enterprise expanded. Next, they began to beg the bus fare collectors for colones — each coin worth roughly 20 cents. Usually, they would say that they were hungry. As they grew stronger financially, they became brazen and violent, delving into the illicit drug trade.

By 1993, the California prison system had deported over 4,000 gang members back to El Salvador. A year earlier, the U.N. mediated the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords, ending the civil war, and thousands of enemy combatants were released from combat duty. They lacked jobs or any means of support, so many ex-soldiers and gang members joined forces, according to Oscar Martinez, author of “The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail,” and “American History Review.”

They became a threat to all Salvadorans, except the very wealthy. Women like Marie made an ideal target.

Never Going Back

“Miraculously,” the gun pressed onto Rosa’s temple was out of bullets and “only” left a scar behind. Marie knew Jaime’s killers but felt powerless.

“I felt impotent, I wanted to be made of iron to protect the people I love,” she says. “If I had a gun, it would have been worse, they would have killed all of us.”

The memory of Rosa moments after Jaime’s murder haunts her, as does the gang’s reason for killing him.

“He was a good man,” she says. “He didn’t do drugs or alcohol; he wasn’t in a gang.”

If there were any doubts about police collusion with MS-13, the “murder investigation” and funeral dispelled them.

Police showed up nine hours after Marie called. The gang told Marie and her family not to
attend Jaime’s funeral—payback for calling the police.

Three thousand miles away, she sits outside the tiny structure she rents in San Bernardino County, and she is emphatic.

“I love my country, but there is no way that I am ever going back to El Salvador. I cannot live

California Humanities awarded $150,000 in fellowship grants to 10 community colleges in California to support projects by emerging student journalists. Projects reflect the perspective of journalists and the “context and inquiry” of the humanities, as students develop media literacy and practice public engagement.

Students also receive support, feedback and advanced training in workshops organized by Cal Humanities. Participants are selected through a competitive process and come from L.A. City College, San Diego City College, San Francisco City College, Fullerton College, San Bernardino and other community colleges across California.

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