Dozens of women, men and their children, many fleeing poverty and violence in Honduras, Guatamala and El Salvador, arrive at a bus station following release from Customs and Border Protection on June 23, 2018 in McAllen, Texas.

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In Gang-Ravaged El Salvador, Survivors Cling To Hope

Worry About Impact Of Cuts In US Aid

Doug Sovern
April 23, 2019 - 12:15 am

On the streets of El Salvador, the cumbia music is loud and cheerful, the murals on the walls burst with color, and the vendors' fruit baskets overflow with ripe mangoes and plantains. But danger can lurk around any corner. Venture down the wrong side street, and the joyful dance music gives way to gangster rap, Salvadorena-style. Here, that means rap music literally created by gangsters, either from the MS-13 or Barrio 18 gang, depending on whose turf you've stumbled across.

In San Salvador, Luis, 21, warns that one misstep can cost your life.

"You're coming from another place? You're not allowed to come here," he says. "They'll kill you. Of course, that will happen."

"They" are those notorious gangs, La Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, and its bitter rival, Barrio 18, also known as the 18th Street Gang. They fight turf wars so bloody that just wandering into their territory is enough to mean death, even for someone unaffiliated with either gang, like 18-year-old Byron Melgar.

"There is so much violence in the place where I live," Melgar says. "I never leave my house, because of safety reasons. I never go out."

He says he's been pressured for years to join a gang, or face death. It got so bad he fled the country and entered the United States illegally, but he has since returned to help his mother raise his younger siblings.

Longtime former gang leader Will Gomez says poor kids left unsupervised by often absent parents are easy pickings.

"People struggle to survive, so over here, kids are attracted to the gangs because they receive some type of help," Gomez says. "For a pair of sneakers, you catch someone's attention over here."

While President Trump repeatedly characterizes MS-13 as an invasion force, referring in this year's State of the Union address to "MS-13 and other criminal gangs" who "break into our country," the reality is that MS-13 and its rivals were born in East Los Angeles. They were founded there in the early 1980s by refugees fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War. Gomez was one of them, coming legally as a child to California, where he joined a gang at age fourteen. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration cracked down, deporting Gomez and thousands of his compatriots back to El Salvador. There, they unleashed their fury on their homeland, turning their small East LA gangs into transnational criminal organizations. Gomez tells KCBS Radio it wasn't hard to attract new recruits.

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"They get the attention, the help, that they're not getting anywhere else," he says. Gomez was locked up in Los Angeles, deported, then jailed again in El Salvador, After more than twenty years in the gang life and in prisons, he got out the only way MS-13 or 18th Street will let a member out alive: by becoming an evangelical Christian in prison. Now in his 40s, he preaches non-violence and gang intervention through his ministry.

So does Rosa Anaya of Catholic Relief Services in San Salvador. As a child, she witnessed her father's murder. A human rights advocate, he was gunned down in front of Anaya and her siblings. She was just ten. Her mother fled the country, bringing the family to the Bay Area, where they were taken in by a church in Marin County as part of the original sanctuary movement. Eventually, Anaya returned to her native country to raise a family of her own. But when her own daughter was ten, tragedy repeated itself. Gang leaders assassinated her husband in front of Anaya and her children. Now she is a forceful advocate for redemption and peace, working hard within the prison system to turn gang members to the church.

"There is dark things going on," she tells KCBS Radio. "But hope is the thing that we cling to in the darkest moments."

Now she fears a darker future, since President Trump wants to cut all U.S. aid to El Salvador, including programs that save kids from the gangs.

"I want people to know that there is hope, and that it is our choice to continue the cycle of violence," she says. "Or say stop."

The White House has not responded to our request for comment on this story. 

This is Part Two of Doug's five-part series,"A Desperate Frontier: Death And Dreams in El Salvador," which is airing all this week on KCBS Radio.