The story always starts the same way: unaccompanied kids, and sometimes whole families, fleeing terrible violence in Central America.
It must be terrible indeed, because the journey north is a perilous one. Yet parents and kids continue to make that dangerous trip. So these stories leave me wondering, what drives them to do it? What could possibly inspire that much fear and desperation?
Despite the considerable news coverage of the humanitarian crisis playing out along the U.S.-Mexico border, we are still missing this key piece of the puzzle.
This type of violence is not new in El Salvador. The parents and grandparents of the children fleeing El Salvador today experienced a civil war that began in the late 1970s and raged for almost a decade. The United States supported the military regime throughout that conflict, despite their use of terror through death squads, recruitment of child soldiers, thousands of assassinations, and rampant human rights violations.
I asked Elizabeth Kennedy, who has been in El Salvador since November 2013, what day-to-day life is like there now. Elizabeth is a Fulbright fellow working with returned child and youth migrants from Mexico and the United States in El Salvador.
The conversation that follows has been lightly edited for length.
Is it as violent as people say in Central America?
Yes. On average, 12 to 13 people a day are dying in this small nation of 6.2 million people. Only Honduras and Syria have definitively higher homicide rates.
A lot of this violence is directed at young people or their family members. Pockets with little violence exist – for example, in the wealthiest neighborhoods – but in most places, people are off the streets from sun down to sun up. News reports commonly indicate that the community heard the shots at 2:00 or 3:00 AM, but no one went out to see what happened until sunrise.
When I walk down the street in a nice neighborhood, I pass an armed guard at nearly every home, and these homes often have electrified fences. In other neighborhoods, military or police patrol on foot in groups with several guns. In the worst neighborhoods, no police or military are present, but gang members can walk in the street, sometimes with their weapons showing.
What is life like for children in El Salvador?
First and foremost, extreme violence is a regular part of many children's lives from an early age. They lose friends and family members. They hear gunshots. They see beatings, rapes, and murders. Fourteen of the 322 children I interviewed between January and May had at least one parent who had been murdered. Plus, they are forcibly recruited into gangs, or they are targeted by police and military for being young.
Then, there are the disappearances. 142 children have been reported as disappeared in the past year, though the true total may be higher. Only 13 of these children were eventually located and returned to their parents or guardians. Some were kidnapped from their school, home, shopping center, or even church. Additionally, between 2005 and 2011, 5,300 children were murdered in El Salvador.
Finally, schools are often not safe places. 130 of 322 children I interviewed between January and May attend a school with a gang presence nearby, and 100 attend a school with a gang presence inside. Seventy have quit studying because of the fear they have to be at their schools. The long-term consequences of not completing one's formal schooling are many for the children and the nation.
Is there a particular child or experience that stands out to you?
I really admire this youth who spoke out – at great personal risk – about what happened to him and his family, because he believes transparency is necessary for justice. He lived in the United States for over seven years, when his mom received a removal order. They elected to voluntarily depart, and within months of their return, they were extorted. They attempted to flee to the United States but were detained and deported from Mexico. His dad was murdered within days, and the youth is now working to support his family. I have met a handful of others in his position.
There's also the 12-year-old boy who came to us with no shoes. He had been beaten and robbed at a detention center in Tapachula. The aunt with whom he traveled left him to sit alone. I sat next to him and talked with him, and we eventually discussed whether he would try to migrate again. He told me: "Both my parents are in the U.S. I have a sibling I have never met. No one loves me here. What would you do?"
Why don't people just go to another part of their country? Aren't there any places where people can feel safe?
El Salvador is a small country, and arguably, there is no safe part of the country unless you have a large amount of economic resources, which most Salvadorans do not.
In my interviews with over 100 Salvadorans who were trying to flee the country after being victims of crime, less than 15 reported the crime. Instead, they fled the neighborhood, often more than once, and then decided to flee the country after criminal elements still found them. Remarkably, two of these victims were police and still had no confidence in the police's ability to protect them. They both told me: "If they [the gang] want you, you can stay and die. Or you can flee. Nothing else will do."
Importantly, gangs in El Salvador are transnational criminal organizations capable of acting throughout the country and region. They are internationally networked and have operating revenues of millions of dollars and large weapons stockpiles. In this regard, their security apparatus is arguably stronger than the nation's military and police.
Do you think people in the United States would feel the same way they do now about those fleeing Central America if they could see what you see?
I think if U.S. citizens came here and had to live in the neighborhoods where many of these kids and adults live, they would feel very differently. They would understand the fear and desperation, and they would likely respond with much more empathy and compassion. People in the United States need to ask themselves: What would I do if someone put a gun to my head and said I could leave or die? What would I do if someone did that to my child? What would I do if I thought that threat could happen any day?
These are the impossible choices many Central Americans face.