February 1, 2016

Political Report # 1109 The Salvadoran Dream Is Now Survival Even if It Means Illegal Migration to the US By Carolina Campos and Andrew Stefan

The sister of Alberto Hernández Escalante mourns over the body of her brother, found in a clandestine grave near Caserio el Chumpe, El Salvador. Killings spiked by nearly 70 percent in the country in 2015. 
(photo: Manu Brabo/AP)

By Carolina Campos and Andrew Stefan,
Reader Supported News 

For many in the United States, the growing number of Central American immigrants crossing into the US is an issue of major concern. Whether we consider Donald Trump's presidential aspirations to implement a national program of mass deportation, ongoing citizen attacks on Latin Americans, or the Obama administration's latest campaign of anti-immigrant raids, the message is clear: people in the US are frightened and lashing out at those who migrate here.
While immigration is a staple topic of the US news media, what's typically missing from the discussion is context - an understanding of the conditions that fuel mass migration to the US from Central America and Mexico. What's rarely reported is that, at present, thousands of Central Americans are being forced to flee from their countries by escalating levels of violence. The gravest example of this phenomenon is currently playing out in El Salvador, where the motivations underlying migration extend beyond the pursuit of personal fulfillment or economic mobility. For many, migration is the only option for survival.
On a hot, sunny day in San Salvador, heading to the home of Carmen López, we arrive at the heart of one of the country's "red zone" neighborhoods - the designation indicates an extremely high level of gang violence.
Some of the houses are made of concrete. Others are constructed from sheets, complete with colored patchwork walls. Despite the ever-looming threat of gang attacks, the people of the community are friendly and greet us with hellos. Children play on the narrow streets and somehow dare to smile. However, the pavement, we notice, is unmistakably stained by blood.

Various gangs have scrawled threatening messages on concrete walls throughout the neighborhood. One of them states: "See, hear, and shut up." It's a warning of death for people in the community, advising them to not report any gang-related crimes or activities. Everyone knows what the phrase means, which is why nobody in the neighborhood will ever see or hear anything. They will not go to the authorities with information regarding the gangs.
We arrive at a corner and see a group of youths from the gang Barrio 18. A few blocks over, on nearby corner, stands another group from a rival gang. The mere act of crossing these blocks has meant death for some. The Barrio 18 youths are armed. Two of them look to be children, maybe between ten and twelve years old.
Eventually, we arrive at our destination, Carmen's home.
El Salvador is the smallest country of Central America. Even with a population of only 6.5 million inhabitants, it remains a home to some of the worst poverty, unemployment, and corruption in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2015, El Salvador captured the interest of the international press, though not for the reasons one would hope. The headlines told stories of rampant violence - murders, disappearances, femicide, and acts of torture. It is a decades-old crisis that has reached unimaginable and intolerable levels.
Violence has become so commonplace and extreme in El Salvador that the country even stood as the world's homicide capital for part of 2015, reaching an average of one murder every hour over the summer. As of early January 2016, it seems the country has reclaimed that grim distinction.
During 2015, 6,600 homicides were reported across the country, according to data released by El Salvador's Institute of Medical Law and the Salvadoran National Civil Police.
Carmen López is 35 years old. Like many women in El Salvador, she gets up every day at 3:00 a.m. to prepare breakfast for her husband before he goes to work. She is the mother of two girls - one is 11 years old and the other, 9 months. She lives with her husband and 82-year-old father, Felipe.
Carmen tells us that roughly a month ago her husband had a close call with one of the local gangs. As he was driving to work, a group of gangsters approached his vehicle at a stop. They beat him and stole his car. Despite the assault and robbery, he felt fortunate that he survived.
After that incident, however, the López family descended into days of dread when gang members began extorting them by phone. Their number, it seems, had been written down on documents in the car. "They called, each time demanding $500," Carmen recalls, crying. "They said they'd kill my daughter and me if we didn't pay."
The frightened family decided to change their phone number to avoid the extortionists, but the gang did not stop.
One day, while picking her daughter up from school, a gang member in a car with tinted windows approached them. The vehicle followed Carmen and her daughter all the way home. "It was the most distressing moment of my life. I was afraid they would shoot my daughter," Carmen said.
Sadly, it didn't stop there. The extortionists upped their threats. By phone again, members of the gang insisted that if anyone from the family made a complaint to the police, they would kill them all. The family is still unsure of how the new phone number was obtained.
At that point, the López family panicked and, after much effort, raised the money demanded by the gang and delivered it. But the group was not satisfied and continued pressing for money. The amount was increased to $1, 500, and the threat of death remained. The López family was unable to raise the new sum of money, so in a state of panic and despair, they decided to leave their home, to flee.
They packed their belongings and took refuge with relatives, even though they knew they would not be safe anywhere in the country.
The gangs, or maras, were not born in El Salvador. They were exported by the United States. Throughout the 1980s, during the Salvadoran Civil War, the Ronald Reagan administration provided roughly $1 million dollars a day to the armed forces of the Salvadoran regime, which became notorious for rampant atrocities and human rights violations.
By its end, the war took over 75,000 lives and left more than 8,000 people missing. Amidst the violence, thousands of Salvadorans fled to take refuge in the US and other countries.
With the end of the war and the signing of peace accords in 1992, the Salvadoran government focused on rebuilding the country. An economic formula of free market "structural adjustment" was implemented amid promises of economic revival. However, these policies left most Salvadorans further marginalized and struggling to subsist.
In 1994, President George H.W. Bush initiated mass deportations of Salvadorans who'd fled to the US to escape the Civil War. Many of them, because of social and economic exclusion, had joined gangs in cities like Los Angeles, California. It was with these deportations that the gangs first arrived in El Salvador.
Over the years, the maras were strengthened and became powerful, organized criminal organizations. This result had been anticipated by many in the US and El Salvador. As Salvadorans reeled from US-backed violence and devastation, the country saw little investment in jobs, education, health care, food, or safety. There was no "Marshall Plan" for the recovery of El Salvador.
Without question, fewer Salvadorans would be crossing the US border today if Washington's policy had been to export resources and programs for redevelopment to El Salvador, rather than violence, guns, and gangs. Even today, rather than spending billions of dollars on increasing border security, immigrant incarceration, raids, and deportations, the US would better mitigate mass migration by helping to rebuild the country - and surrounding region - it helped decimate and destabilize throughout the late 20th century.
Carmen López's family has lost everything. "I feel that I live with a bullet in my head. I am afraid the gang will kill my father or my daughters," she says.
Carmen has applied for asylum at various embassies. She first went to the Canadian embassy in Guatemala. Her application was rejected because it was not properly completed in English. "It is very complicated to fill out forms. The questions are confusing and in another language." Carmen informs us is unable to speak or write in English.
She faced the same situation at the embassies of Spain, Italy, and Costa Rica. While Carmen López continues to seek asylum abroad, her family lives in hiding, making great efforts to avoid leaving the house where they stay. Her daughter has dropped out of school due to safety concerns.
Sadly, no national or international institution has given an encouraging response to the family. It seems that these institutions have no idea of the real danger facing people in El Salvador.
In light of this, we ask Carmen López what might happen to her family. "There is no option. The only thing left is to flee, illegally, to the US, because here you cannot live." We ask her if she knows the risks of migrating illegally. "It's that or death. I couldn't live with myself if something happened to my daughters here."
Thousands - perhaps millions - of Salvadorans are facing the same situation as Carmen López and her family. They are forced to leave their homes and move north in order to avoid certain death. It is important to recognize that these people are not criminals. They are being displaced by violence. They are refugees.
According to the annual report of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), 2014 saw an estimated 288,900 people displaced by violence in El Salvador. Those who flee often abandon their lives overnight. Many leave behind a lifetime of work as they are forced into hiding abroad.
The Salvadoran government has taken little action on this issue, and very few benefit from international protections abroad. Many who make it to the US are deported back to El Salvador, ultimately being exposed to greater risks.
The individuals and institutions driving US immigration and refugee policy are disconnected from reality. The requirements for obtaining refugee status amount to a complex bureaucratic process that does not allow for an effective or efficient response to the needs of people fleeing violence. Moreover, the processes are often incomprehensible for applicants due to language barriers and low levels of formal education.
It is for these reasons that people decide to embark northward, on a long path of dangers and risks.
Some travel hanging onto the top of moving trains. Others traverse mountains and deserts populated by drug cartels and gangs. The journey to the US often results in robbery and extortion at the hands of human transporters known as coyotes. Kidnappings, rape, and even murder are common.
While the governments of Central America shirk their responsibility to address the root causes of widespread violence, the US government toughens its immigration laws. For Central Americans, such policies are a vice grip, ever tightening.
People will continue to flee, though. A great many more mothers and fathers will watch over their children on a desperate and dangerous journey north.
For them, it is the only hope of survival.
Carolina Campos is a graduate of international relations from the National University of El Salvador in San Salvador. She writes about poverty, violence, and social justice.
Andrew Stefan is an editor and staff reporter at Reader Supported News. He lives in Washington DC and can be reached via email at andrew@rsnorg.org.

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