Victims Of A Gang War Rooted In Los Angeles Now Fleeing To The U.S. In Mass

A masked and armed policeman patrols a gang controlled neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador on April 5, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ALEX PEÑA)

By Beenish Ahmed

Gun battles and murders between feuding gangs were everyday occurrences in Norma’s hometown in El Salvador. In late 2014, the four gang members dragged her to a cemetery where three of them raped her.

“They took their turns,” she told United Nations researchers who gave her a pseudonym to protect her and her family from further violence. “They tied me by the hands. They stuffed my mouth so I would not scream.”

When they were done with her, Norma said, “They threw me in the trash.”

Her husband, a police officer, vowed revenge and filed an official report about the incident. Norma feared for her life — and that of her children. She said she was targeted because of her connection to the country’s beleaguered police force and worried that it would not be able to protect her.

She fled to live with relatives in another part of the country, but the threats continued.

“Gangs don’t forgive,” Norma said. “If they didn’t harm me, they’d harm my children.”

Eventually, she made her way to Mexico with a “coyote”, or human smuggler. She tried to make her way to the United States but was detained by immigration officials.

Threats to police officers and their families have become increasingly common as the death toll from the gang war in El Salvador rises to the same level of violence as its bloody civil war.

In 2015, the country saw more homicides than any country in the world outside of war zones. There were 2,000 killings in the first three months of this year alone — more than the same period last year.

There has been a sharp increase in the number of people who, like Norma, have fled the region amidst the mounting levels of violence.

Nearly 3,500 people from El Salvador and Honduras applied for asylum in Mexico last year — a 65 percent increase over 2014 rates.

The U.N. refugee agency warned late last year that the increased violence in Central America presented a “looming refugee crisis” for the Western hemisphere. The conflict has added to the insecurities that have displaced more people around the world than ever before.

Police in El Salvador are reeling in an attempt to contain the violence. A total of 15 police officers have been killed so far this year.

As ThinkProgress has previously reported, the main gangs that wreak havoc in El Salvador were formed in the United States:

And, in 1996, Congress passed a law that allowed prisoners to be deported if they had a sentence of just one year. Before, only those with violent felonies who had been sentenced to five or more years in prison would be deported. But this effort in the United States meant that thousands of Salvadorans with gang affiliations wound up back in El Salvador — a country that was largely helpless to combat them.
“As you can imagine, coming out of long civil wars, there was no strong institutionality in this country,” Carlos Dada, an investigative reporter in El Salvador, said. “There were a lot of weapons, a lot of people military trained, and very few means to make a living. And there was a lot — a lot of broken families. So when these gang members, mainly from Los Angeles but also from the D.C. area, started to come back … they were very attractive models for these kids on the street and gang members started to develop their own clique in El Salvador.”
Those who are returned now will face much worse conditions than those who were sent back in the 1990s.

With people from Central America again fleeing violence and again facing deportations in large numbers, critics of U.S. immigration policy wonder if the cycle might begin all over again.

“Those who are returned now will face much worse conditions than those who were sent back in the 1990s. There is more violence, more poverty and less opportunity,” said José Guadalupe Ruelas, who directs a youth rehabilitation program in Honduras, in an interview with the Washington Post. “In the past, when we asked deported children what their motive was for fleeing, they would say being poor or wanting to be with their families. Now the great majority say it is because of violence.”