You have grown accustomed to the typical routine of a Richmond student — waking up, going to class, eating lunch, working long hours in the library and talking to your friends. It’s a beautiful day outside, so you take a stroll around campus and see a group of people in the distance. From what you can tell, they are all clustered closely together, and their shirts are covered in letters. You remember the countless stories you’ve heard about this group, stories about the cumbersome tasks members have to endure in order to join, and stories of the highly organized dynamic that holds them together. All of these thoughts flash through your head as you decide whether or not to change your route. Suddenly, every member of the group makes a hand gesture, and you walk towards them, relieved that you found a group of your sorority sisters.
You are now walking along the streets of El Salvador, Central America. You’re accustomed to the routine of student life — waking up at the crack of dawn, trekking several miles along a beaten-up dirt road to go to a crumbling school, eating a meager lunch and working long hours in the fields to support your family. As you’re coming back from a long day of work, you see a group of people in the distance. From what you can tell, their bodies are covered in ink, and with a terrifying jolt, you remember all the stories you’ve heard about these people, stories about the horrifying tasks they’ve had to perform in order to join the group, and stories of the highly organized dynamic that holds them together. Suddenly, every member of the group makes a hand gesture, and you bolt. Avoiding the street gangs is not a choice — it is a survival instinct.
Being in a sorority and growing up in El Salvador, I am familiar with both of these situations. Granted, I have never personally had the second situation happen to me. I was fortunate enough to grow up in one of the “safe” areas of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. These were areas where situations like these didn’t occur, areas where gang signs were an excuse to flaunt your street knowledge and the impressive flexibility of your hand. Ironically, the first time I ever took a hand gesture seriously was on Bid Day, where I took several pictures “throwing what I know.” Unfortunately, not all Salvadorans can say the same thing.
El Salvador is plagued by two main gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Mara 18 (18th Street Gang or M18), both of which were started by Latin American immigrants, primarily Salvadorans, living in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Once El Salvador’s civil war finished in 1992, the majority of the gang leaders were deported from the U.S. to various countries throughout Central America, and these gangs have been growing on the fringes of Salvadoran society since then. The gangs are responsible for El Salvador’s recent surge in violence. More than 2,000 people have been murdered in the span of the last three months and thousands more within the last couple of years. For reasons unbeknownst to me, as well as to the rest of the Salvadoran population, the violence has escalated dramatically in the last year. Several newspapers have attributed the surge in violence to a retribution for the new government’s anti-gang stance, where gang members are beaten up, imprisoned in harsh conditions or instantly killed. Now each gang thinks it is fighting a war on two fronts: the rival gang and the government. As part of the war effort, the MS-13 and M18 have been targeting family members, friends, neighbors and acquaintances of their enemies, leading to thousands of innocent lives being lost. Consequently, the majority of the Salvadoran population has learned to adapt to living in a situation where nothing they own actually belongs to them. Houses, land and businesses aren’t insured to a company. Through extortion, everything belongs to the gangs. The price of a late quota is their lives.
In contrast, the first thing I did when I arrived at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, for spring break was beg my friend to take a picture of me throwing a Delta against the skyline. She rolled her eyes at me and scoffed, but nevertheless took the picture. After posting it on my Facebook, I promptly forgot about it. As I was going through the pictures of my trip afterwards, I realized how similar the San Juan beach looked to my favorite beach in El Salvador. A sickening thought crept into my mind: “If I had done this at home, would I have been in danger?” My sorority sign looks very different to the hand gestures used by MS13 and M18 members, but the idea of the similarity became unshakeable. Rival gang members have been shot for less—throwing up their gang’s sign in rival territory is a major felony.
Far beyond killing for the fun of it, the gangs rival the Mafia in terms of organized crime. In El Salvador there are approximately 30,000 to 70,000 members affiliated with a gang, which constitutes 0.95 percent of the 6.34 million population. How, then, does such a small portion of the population inflict such terror upon the remaining 99 percent? Financially, the extortion of El Salvador’s businesses — including universities, private schools, major production plants and public transportation systems — provides the gangs with an excess of funds needed to buy weapons and maintain a grip on their marked territory. Once territory is obtained, it serves as a base from which to engage in illegal activities, including human and drug trafficking, which is their ultimate goal. Each sector of the gang’s territory is assigned to 10-60 members that respond to the national and regional leaders, who more often than not, communicate their orders from their headquarters in the Salvadoran prisons. The most vulnerable areas targeted by the gangs are the poor, rural areas around the country, but as gangs consolidate more power, they start to migrate to the urban. By this time, every sector of society has now become hyper-vigilant, even those in areas deemed as “safe.”
Most parents, upon dropping their children off at college for the first time, are worried. They worry about their kids’ social lives, their ability to adapt to college, to uphold the workload, and to pay tuition. They worry about the safety of the campus and the surrounding area: Is this a campus that will protect my child from harm? My parents had most of the same concerns when they dropped me off at college. As we toured the campus, my father said to me: “I like this place. You’ll be safer here than back home.” My father is not the first Central American to think this, and he will certainly not be the last.
Central American migration to the U.S. has become one of the most debated topics in the coming presidential elections. Every aspiring candidate seems to have a stance towards migrants, but unlike many voters and even the candidates themselves, I have direct experience with both sides of the argument. As of 2015, more than 900 Salvadorans leave the country per day, hoping to immigrate to the U.S., Mexico or surrounding Central American countries, where they hope to find a refuge from the constant danger by which they are threatened. Safety comes at the price of the place they call home, but for many, leaving the threatening handsigns in the past is worth the trade.