“Maybe one day you can get to the other side.”
Originally from Jucuarán, El Salvador, Rosa is a 35 year old woman fleeing gang-related violence with her twelve year old daughter, Alejandra, and other family members. This interview from July 2016 was conducted by Voice of Witness in a migrant shelter in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where Rosa and her family were staying. She wanted to be interviewed because she wanted her family’s story heard. We have not had contact with Rosa since she was interviewed.
We left El Salvador on May 22, 2016. There are a lot of gangs there. They said that they were going to kill us. They wanted to kill my brother, and because of this we all left. In El Salvador there is a gangster’s code that minors and women who have communications with anyone are killed. For example, if they saw me, a woman, here chatting with you, they would kill us just out of jealousy.
The government also secretly sends around vigilante squads, like La Sombra Negra, to “clean up” all areas. They go around killing young people, families. This is recent. It hasn’t even been a year since it started. They dress like military police in green and black. They have a list of all the people they want to kill. They killed my friend. They killed seven people nearby.
My brother is twenty-one. Some men came looking for him like a week before we left, and then they came again the night before we left. I think they were La Sombra Negra, and they seemed to think my brother was a gangster. He was sleeping in the jungle. They went to look for him but didn’t find him. I told him that we should leave. He didn’t want to go, but I said that I was going to go. I already knew the way to the Guatemalan border because I had traveled there before. My dad suggested that my brother go. He was the youngest son. Our father didn’t want him to get killed. If they have someone they’re looking for, they kill everyone in the family, even if you aren’t in a gang.
We left at dawn. We were a group of five: my brother, my sister and her daughter, and me and my daughter. My dad had already taken out a $500 loan from the bank so that we could flee. Approaching Guatemala, we climbed over a hill. It was raining. We walked almost all day to get to the border. Because my daughter is a minor, she doesn’t have a passport, and I didn’t have a parental permission form because I didn’t have the chance to get one. Because we didn’t have the permit, we couldn’t cross the border legally, and we had to go all the way around the checkpoint. We walked around lost in the mountains. We had to endure hunger, worrying that maybe La Migra would catch us, or that a pandillero would rape or kill us.
On the other side of the border, the Mexican Migra kept following us from block to block. We walked for days, through the jungle, risking our lives, not meeting anyone. We would take a van for a while, walk for a while. When there were immigration checkpoints, we went around, sometimes walking all day without eating.
It was raining again. It was pitch black. Under a bridge there was a big lagoon. La Migra were going around in patrol cars. When we saw that they were turning around with their colored lights—blue, red, and yellow—we left the road and threw ourselves into the lagoon. We got all wet and ran to a hill. When we got to the other side of the hill, I realized my sister was still stuck on the other side of the water. The immigration police were so close. Everyone was running, and I got stuck in a chain-link fence. It seemed like there was no way to get unstuck and everyone was running. All my clothes tore apart on the fence. La Migra was so close to catching me!
I lost track of Alejandra, as well as the others, when thieves assaulted us. They stole everything. It was June 18, 2016, my sister’s birthday. They gave her the gift of not killing her. I ran one way and my daughter ran the other way. Then I was lost in the jungle. I ran from the thieves and went to a gas station. The owner gave me a mattress so I could sleep there. There were people coming in, and I was scared that immigration would come, that they’d see me sleeping there.
At dawn the next day I wanted to pay for a cab to get away, but my heart wouldn’t let me go because I had a feeling that my daughter was in danger. I was scared for her and went to the hotel in Chahuites, because before we got separated, we had all said a prayer and planned to meet there. I paid a guy on a motorcycle to take me under the bridge past La Migra.
I found my daughter at the hotel, all beaten up. She couldn’t even stand up. And after a half hour, the rest of the group arrived as well. They smelled awful, with nothing, naked, as if they were monkeys. I was crying because I thought that they’d killed my sister. I found my daughter, sister, niece, and brother there. My sister told me that, after we’d all been separated, she had found her daughter and they’d met a man who took them into his home. For an entire day my sister and her daughter had stayed in that man’s house, where they could take a shower and sleep, waiting for us to walk down that road. But we never did. We stayed at the hotel for twenty-five days because my sister couldn’t walk. The hotel owners gave her pills for the pain. The night of the assault was the most tragic night of my life.
It turned out the thieves had assaulted both families that night. In the jungle, they’d grabbed my niece by the hair and tried to rape her, and ended up stealing 3,800 pesos. They were all dressed in black and were carrying machetes, guns, and a flashlight that was the same color as the flashlights of the immigration police. There were ten of them, and they formed a circle. My niece was held inside the men’s circle. They were telling her to give them the money. “Where are you carrying la lana? Take it out,” they were saying. They lifted my sister high up above their heads in the air and then she fell front first. She landed very hard and cried out. My sister thought they were La Migra but asked herself, How is it that La Migra is going around at this hour at night? It’s scary to go into the jungle at night. The hotel owner later told us that La Migra doesn’t go there because they’re scared that people will kill them there in the jungle. I asked a woman at the hotel who those men were. She told me, “They’re not La Migra. They are a pandilla, a gang. They assault and rape women and kill men.”
Was it worth it? When you leave home, you never know that you’re going to suffer so much. You think the road is going to be easy, but it’s not. I think it’s worth it to look for a better life because in El Salvador there’s so much poverty. There are days you don’t even eat because there’s no work. There’s no money. You always look for the best for your family, thinking maybe one day you can get to the other side and work.
I want to keep going until I get to the United States. I have a friend in Virginia from our hometown who’s going to help us. She lived six houses down from where we lived in San Miguel. She’s a citizen there. We want to apply for asylum. When I get to the United States, I want to work. I’ll do whatever work I can do in order to care for my daughter. She was going to fourth grade, but before we left I took her out of school. She’s twelve now. I want to put her in school in America, far from the dangers in El Salvador.”
This was the only time Rosa was interviewed, and her current location is unknown. The full version of this interview is in Solito, Solita by Voice of Witness.
Rosa and her family fled El Salvador in early 2016 to escape the widespread violence and crime perpetrated by gangs and extrajudicial “death squads.” El Salvador became inundated with gang violence shortly after the end of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992, when the U.S. deported tens of thousands of Central American immigrants. Some of these immigrants were members of Los Angeles-based gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18, and they quickly spread these gangs throughout the region.
The violent government responses to these gangs, as well as brutal killings made by extra-judicial vigilante groups, made daily violence and risk of death a reality for many Salvadorans like Rosa. In 2012, a gang truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 led to a significant drop in the country’s homicide rate, but a change of government in 2013 led to a breakdown of the truce. The government’s new militarized policy of mano duro, or “iron fist,” and the dissolution of the gang truce created a resurgence in violence and crime.