Alberto was shackled with ankle and waist chains last December when he flew in an airplane for the first time of his life. He and a dozen other Central American refugees were being transported from a Border Patrol detention center in Texas, where Alberto had been held for 25 days, to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in York County Prison, Pennsylvania, where he would spend the next nine weeks. When he arrived, his clothes were confiscated and he was handed an orange jumpsuit, three pairs of boxers, two sheets, and a blanket. Then he was brought to a dormitory with 60 bunks and as many detainees. The room was freezing, and it stayed that way. “They would charge us $17 for a good sweater,” he told me. “And there were a lot of guys in there whose families couldn’t send them any money.”
The center’s day room included a TV permanently set to a channel in English, which few of the detainees spoke, so most of the time they played cards and other games left behind by people who had been transferred out or deported. For one hour a day, the detainees were allowed to use an indoor yard with a basketball hoop. Before they were let out to use it, one of the officers would open all of the windows to let in the freezing winter air, for no other reason, as far as Alberto could tell, than to make them miserable.
Alberto, a slender 18-year-old with high cheekbones, was a victim of violence, not a perpetrator. Three months before, Alberto had fled El Salvador to avoid near certain death and had journeyed north with the expectation that in the United States, his human rights would count for something. He sought protection. Instead, he found himself freezing in a prison, surrounded by guards who taunted him with racist insults, alongside dozens of other immigrants from places like Honduras and Eritrea, some of whom had been incarcerated there for longer than a year.
In 2014, 68,000 unaccompanied minors streamed across the border to escape horrific gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Over the last 18 months, however, the Central American refugee crisis has largely receded from headlines. The number of unaccompanied child refugees arriving at the border dropped by almost half between 2014, when the surge peaked, and 2015, but these sanguine figures mask the gritty persistence of an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Most of the decline in the influx has resulted not from a decrease in violence in Central America, but from the Obama administration’s success in subcontracting its unwanted role in the drama to Mexico. The U.S. has provided millions of dollars in equipment and training to Mexican immigration authorities to bolster enforcement of its southern border with Guatemala and Belize. Apprehensions in Mexico have gone up by 71 percent, without an accompanying expansion of screenings for legitimate asylum claims.
As a result, many refugees are being summarily deported back to the countries they fled — countries in which they have been personally targeted for murder, rape, and gang conscription — before ever having a chance to present their claims for asylum before an American immigration judge. Those, like Alberto, who are fortunate enough to evade the Mexican crackdown face long odds of winning asylum when they arrive in the United States. In the meantime, they’re warehoused in prisons and treated by American immigration courts as if they were the violent gangsters they risked their lives to escape. “They make you feel like some big criminal,” Alberto told me, “when the only ‘crime’ you’ve done is cross the border, fleeing.”
On the afternoon of July 1, 2014, three buses full of Central American refugees, mostly children and their mothers, pulled into the small desert town of Murrieta, in Southern California’s Inland Empire, where they were due to be processed at a Border Patrol station. They found their path blocked by several hundred American flag-waving protesters, who surrounded the buses, screaming “Go home!,” “Send them back!” and “USA!” Images of the protests and the counterprotests that followed saturated cable news for weeks, touching off a fiery public debate and inflaming the nativist infection in American political culture.
Fred Morris, an octogenarian Methodist pastor with a thinning head of ginger hair and a weathered face, watched the footage on the news from his Los Angeles home 100 miles away. As a young missionary in Brazil in the 1970s, Morris had been kidnapped and tortured by that country’s military dictatorship for his associations with a Catholic archbishop who had denounced the human rights abuses of right-wing juntas throughout Latin America. In the 1980s, he lived in Costa Rica, where he published a newsletter called Mesoamerica that criticized the Reagan administration’s military and diplomatic interventions in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. As he watched events unfold in Murrieta, Morris was appalled by the malice Americans were showing to children and mothers fleeing the devastation wrought, in part, by the wars of that era.
To counter the message of hatred radiating through the airwaves, Morris and his colleagues established a Refugee Welcome Center in North Hills, a neighborhood in the middle of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, a vast, sun-soaked concrete plain of strip malls and single-family homes, taco trucks, and pupuserias. Church leaders wanted to show the world at large and the refugees in particular that the spasm of chauvinism in Murrieta did not represent all Americans. The church’s staff drove around the area, a heavily immigrant community, plastering the neighborhood with flyers, inviting refugees looking for help to come to the center. “We kind of trashed the Valley with these flyers,” Morris told me. “And people began to trickle in.”
Alberto’s mother, Jacinta, was one of the refugees who found her way there. The Refugee Welcome Center is situated within the United Methodist Church Center, a small complex of plain-looking, single-story white stucco buildings that form a horseshoe around an outdoor courtyard with a small lawn. Jacinta, 38 years old, is a round woman with a friendly face. She asked me not to use her last name, and to use her sons’ middle names, to protect them from retaliation. She sat with me and my wife, who was translating, at a picnic table in the courtyard, next to a dozen refugee children and teenagers playing soccer on the lawn. She recounted the horrors of her history to us in a matter-of-fact tone, as if she were making small talk about her job.
When she fled El Salvador three years ago, she told us, she had never heard of asylum. The last thing on her mind, as she rushed to a friend’s house to hide her two sons from the gang members who might murder them, or as she paid $4,000 to a relative who worked as a coyote and slipped away with him in the night, was the U.S. government’s legal obligations to people fleeing persecution. She wasn’t thinking about the U.N. treaty on refugees that the United States has been party to for 65 years, an agreement she knew nothing about. She wasn’t thinking of anything beyond what she needed to do in the next few hours to stay alive.
It wasn’t the first time Jacinta had run from the gangs.
It wasn’t the first time Jacinta had run from the gangs. Several years before, she and her sons had absconded from Apopa, about 10 miles north of San Salvador, to escape the children’s father, an evangelical minister who was also a gang leader — a fact she says she was unaware of at first. “He would dress really decently, with a long-sleeve shirt,” she recalls of when she first met him. “I thought he was a decent man, but it turns out he wasn’t.” He beat and raped Jacinta and savagely abused their children. On one occasion, he accused Jacinta of having an affair with the doctor of their younger son, Isaac. On his instructions, gang members murdered the doctor in the hospital parking lot. He told Jacinta he would do the same to her father if she didn’t stay in the house.
As in many parts of the country, in Jacinta’s old neighborhood in Apopa, sovereignty resided not in the state, but in the gang. If residents wanted to leave the area after 6 p.m., even to go to the hospital, they had to get permission from the gang first. If they had friends or relatives dropping in from outside, residents had to give their names to the gang three days in advance. When the visitors arrived, they had to check in with gang sentries, who assigned them an escort. If someone showed up unannounced, they were either turned away or killed.
Jacinta escaped Apopa only to end up in Aguilares, a city controlled by members of the 18th Street Gang (or “Barrio 18”), one of the two most notorious gangs in Central America, who extorted her and the little restaurant she had opened up there for $500 a month in “rent.” Three years ago, she left the country altogether after 18th Street members — “pandilleros” — threatened to murder her for being $100 short on her rent after Isaac experienced an expensive medical emergency. In her absence, the pandilleros, seeking back rent, turned their threats on her family, particularly her two sons. Last year, Alberto and Isaac crossed the Texas border together and turned themselves in to U.S. custody to plea for asylum.
In the time since they fled, 18th Street gangsters murdered Jacinta’s friend who harbored the brothers after their mother left. They tracked down Jacinta’s sister and drove over her leg repeatedly, until her skin detached from the muscle. They threatened Jacinta’s brother and his niece, so they fled, too, and are now hiding in the United States. There’s little doubt what they would do to Jacinta were she sent back into their grasp.
Jacinta’s story is not exceptional. Morris and his colleagues are working with scores of refugees — including 48 children — with histories so similar the atrocities they describe begin to sound almost monotonous. One of those refugees, who asked me not to mention her name out of fear for her safety, is a mother in her 30s who looks a decade younger. She works as a strawberry picker in a coastal agricultural town about three hours north of Los Angeles.
In El Salvador, she ran an internet café out of her garage. Like Jacinta and countless other Salvadorans, the local gang extorted her. When the gang raised the rent, she had trouble coming up with the money. So the pandilleros kidnapped her 10-year-old son and told her they would send him back to her in pieces if she didn’t pay them $500 in the next three hours.
They each took turns playing video games with her daughter while the other three raped her in the next room.
She went to a loan shark to obtain the money, and after a few hours that felt like days, managed to get her son back safely. Then she reported the crime to the police. She requested that the police meet her in a discreet place. Instead, three plainclothes police officers showed up at her door to take a report, in plain view of her neighbors and any gang members who might happen to be nearby. She panicked and refused to talk with them. Soon after, she heard from one of the gang’s leaders. “He told me I had gotten myself into problems, and that I would not have any peace, and that they were going to teach me a lesson.”
The police opened an investigation, which went nowhere for weeks. One of the officers called the victim and told her she was making a mistake by pursuing it. Then, a few months later, one of the police officers showed up again at her home, this time accompanied by three gang members. They forced their way in. They each took turns playing video games with her daughter while the other three raped her in the next room.
El Salvador might be called a semi-failed state. It has the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the highest in the world. Last August saw the most homicides in one month since the end of the civil war in 1992, and the homicide rate has only continued to rise. In many parts of the country, provision of basic government services, particularly law and order, barely existed even before the arrival of the gangs. Now, with Barrio 18 and its archrival, La Mara Salvatrucha (or “MS-13”), in control of rural villages and urban neighborhoods throughout the country, parts of El Salvador are virtually impenetrable by the state. Last summer, Barrio 18 temporarily took over the entire country’s public transportation system by threatening to kill any bus driver who refused to comply with the gang’s “strike.” Over the last few months, El Salvador has been inundated by the Zika virus. The epidemic’s spread has been hastened by gang members routinely turning away government health inspectors and fumigators when they try to enter gang territory, and in some cases threatening, assaulting, or killing them. In much of El Salvador, the government simply doesn’t rule. The gangs do.
“Having to watch kids who are there,” the refugee who works as a strawberry picker told me, “you watch them grow up and then you see them going around killing, you see them in the news in body bags, dismembered, and it becomes so — normal. So natural for many.”
MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang were born not in El Salvador, but in Los Angeles, where they continue to operate with membership in the tens of thousands. The “18th Street” from which the 18th Street Gang derives its name is in L.A.’s Rampart district, a poor neighborhood a mile or so west of downtown, where initially the gang was composed largely of Mexican immigrants. In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua fled civil wars fueled by American funds, arms, and military training. Barrio 18 began recruiting from L.A.’s growing Central American refugee population, which included young men with combat experience. The gang offered the newcomers protection in their poor, violent neighborhoods.
La Mara Salvatrucha got its start in the neighborhood of Pico-Union. In the 1970s, it was known as “La Mara Salvatrucha Stoners,” or MSS. Gang members were teenage Salvadoran headbangers who wore their hair long, listened to heavy metal music, smoked weed, dropped acid, and drank. Some among them claimed to be Satan worshippers, and like headbangers in suburbs all over America, would throw up their hands in a Hang Ten sign representing the horns of the devil. The gesture remains La Mara’s gang sign to this day.
As MSS expanded, it adapted to L.A.’s street gang culture. Eventually, MSS dropped the “stoners” appellation. Later came the “13,” after MS was compelled to affiliate with the Mexican Mafia, the most powerful Latino gang in America, which claims the number in honor of the 13th letter of the alphabet, “La Eme.”
Like all of L.A.’s gangs, La Mara and Barrio 18 really achieved takeoff with the rise of the crack trade. As the competition over the lucrative new drug turned vast swaths of L.A. into intermittent war zones, the federal government developed new and often shortsighted strategies for containing the disorder. During the tough-on-crime early 1990s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service started a gang task force, and began emptying L.A.’s jails and prisons of MS-13 and 18th Street Gang members and deporting thousands of them each year to Central America.
Many of the young men swept up by the INS had arrived in the United States with their parents as small children. By the time they were sent back to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, some of them barely spoke Spanish. With no family and no community to rely on, they found one another and coalesced around their respective Los Angeles street turfs, now 3,000 miles away. Groups like the Western Clique, the Berendo Clique, the Normandie Clique, and the Hollywood Clique of La Mara Salvatrucha were resurrected in the streets of San Salvador, Guatemala City, and San Pedro Sula, and then in small towns in the surrounding countryside.
With their American swagger and exotic gang culture, the L.A. transplants were instant celebrities in their new countries. Their growth was instant and exponential. Soon, Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan kids who had never left their native countries were killing and dying for the names of streets in an American city they had never seen and knew next to nothing about. Over the next two decades, the gangs spread like a plague, filling the vacuum of authority left by absent or ineffectual government in the poor villages and neighborhoods of Central America, bringing further chaos and disorder to nations still reeling from civil war, and sending hundreds of thousands of victims running for their lives, seeking refuge in the very country that had incubated the malignancy they were escaping.
When Alberto first told me his story, we were sitting in the front pew of a small church in the North Hills Methodist center, the late afternoon sunlight dimmed and dappled by stained glass. A pipe organ, two stories high, dominated the wall in front of us. Alberto had just arrived in Los Angeles a few days before. His affect had none of the detachment his mother had shown; his trauma was in the immediate past, and his emotions were still on the surface. He stared into the middle distance as he recounted what had happened to him, his expression alternating between pain and exhaustion. Some things he couldn’t bring himself to discuss at all.
About a year after his mother fled for the United States, five 18th Street members came after Alberto. They found him outside his grandmother’s home, where he was staying, and ordered him to join the gang. He told them no. They told him to let them inside the house, so they could requisition it for the gang. “They said either give us the house, or we’ll kill the whole family,” Alberto said. He refused.
The pandilleros took him at gunpoint to a cane field, where they pounced on him, beating and kicking him for three or four minutes. Then they brought him to a gang flophouse and threatened to kill him if he moved. By that time, however, his grandmother had discovered that he was missing, and the whole neighborhood was out searching for him. The gangsters let Alberto go, telling him he’d be dead if he called the police.
Before long, the gang came back for him. They kidnapped Alberto and his brother, Isaac, who was 12 at the time, when they were at church. The two brothers were kept locked in a dark room with no windows, so Alberto doesn’t know how long they were there; he guesses five or six days. The pandilleros beat the two boys regularly.
The gang wanted ransom money for the brothers, on top of “back rent” for the months since their mother had left. Alberto has a wife and baby daughter; they threatened to kill them both. They sent his family a picture of a baby they had scalded all over with boiling water and said they’d do the same to his daughter. From Los Angeles, Jacinta came up with the money and sent it to her father, who secured their release, took them directly to a coyote, and sent them on the long miserable journey to the Texas border.
In February, Alberto went before an immigration judge with an attorney provided by the Church World Service, an ecumenical relief organization, and requested that his case be transferred to Los Angeles, so he could be reunited with his family. Isaac was still a minor when he surrendered himself to ICE custody. He had been sent to L.A. to be with his mother. Alberto was 17 when he left El Salvador, and had turned 18 while on the migrant trail. As an adult, Alberto was refused the small mercy shown to his brother and was sent instead to the York County Prison.
The judge agreed to Alberto’s request, pending payment of a $6,500 bond. Pastor Morris helped raise the bail money, and Alberto was released from detention in Pennsylvania and put on a Greyhound bus to California. The brutal winter that was enveloping most of the country at that time had covered the landscape with the first snow he had ever seen in his life. Alberto was let out into the cold in a T-shirt and jeans, the same clothes he had crossed the desert in. When we spoke, he had a terrible cold.
Today, Jacinta and her sons live in a garage a few miles from the Welcome Center. When I met with him, Alberto was eager to work. Isaac was thriving in his new environment. Ismael Lopez, a Mexican-born undocumented college student who crossed the border with his brother as a child, is a volunteer mentor at the Welcome Center. He sees in Isaac a huge motivation to achieve, as if he were making up for lost time. Before they fled Apopa, Isaac’s father wouldn’t allow him to go to school. In Aguilares, Isaac enrolled but was put in a class with a teacher who forced him to fight other students.
Ismael sometimes tries to get Isaac to talk about what he’s been through. He knows from his own experience how therapeutic it can be. But Isaac has been unwilling to revisit the nightmares of his past.
Jacinta was recently rejected for asylum. She is appealing the decision, but if it stands, she will be deported back to a country where pandilleros who have already murdered one of her friends and threatened and maimed her relatives are actively searching for her. Alberto and Isaac still have a chance of being granted the legal right to stay in the United States. Their asylum claims, if proven, plainly meet the standard. But then so do the claims of many other refugees who have been deported. Jacinta and her family have bet their lives on American compassion, because they have no other choice.