He told me to use the name Ernesto because he was scared to use his real name. And his mujer—his “woman”—told him that she’d always liked the name. It was hard to imagine this skinny, pimply, smirky kid as having anything like a “mujer,” though, I would soon learn that Ernesto has been wizened by violence, prison, poverty, abandonment, voices in his head, visions of death, a persistent threat of murder, and an uncertain tomorrow—the latter of which is not a manner of speaking, but a very pressing reality: two days after I spoke with him he set out for the US with nothing but fifty dollars in his pocket and a backpack stuffed with a change of clothes.
Ernesto and I met outside of the Metrocentro mall in Sonsonate, the capital of the hot and humid department of the same name in western El Salvador. Inside The Coffee Cup, Ernesto and I sat in a corner away from the other patrons and talked quietly for hours. The coffee was better than I expected—strong and earthy.
When Ernesto was eleven, he told me, he confronted the gangsters who had been calling his sister a whore and threatened them. It sounded like the sort of schoolyard spat any kid might deal with, but he was only eleven, and he wasn’t confronting a bully, but a group of killers. When he was thirteen he shut himself in his room and did nothing, hardly leaving for over a year. He didn’t listen to music, play video games, read, watch TV, or surf the internet. Occasionally, he told me, he heard voices in his head, voices he called demons.
“You have to talk to demons like you talk to gangsters,” he told me. “They’re pretty much the same thing.”
His family, instead of inviting him to eat with them at the dinner table, only offered him the leftovers. His aunt—his legal guardian after his adopted mother migrated to North Carolina—didn’t seem to love him. In 2014, a group of gangsters approached him behind his school. They took him to his house because they needed to talk to him. They wanted him to join the gang. When he refused, they put a pistol to his head and told him he had 24 hours to join up. Otherwise, they would kill him. He stood his ground, but has been on the lam ever since. On the day I met Ernesto, despite sneaking him into our car, driving to a public, slightly bougie coffee shop, and huddling in the corner to talk just barely above a whisper, he was still on edge. At one point in our conversation, he looked out the window and recollected when, a few weeks previously, after the police had finally let him out of jail at four in the morning after two days of trembling in fear that he would be shivved, he walked in boxers and a t-shirt down that very street back to the room he had been renting.
“There is no place safe for me,” he said. “I just want to be free.”
I. The Dos-Letras
ERNESTO: If you don’t join the gangs, they kill you. They gave me 24 hours. I was living with my grandma in San Miguel back then. And they found me and called some other people who told them where I was living. I told them no, I don’t want to join. I don’t like to do the things that you do. They sell drugs. Beat up innocent people. They kill your family members if you don’t do what they want. And they beat the hell out of you. Not good.
They told me, you’re going to join up or we’re going to kill you, you have 24 hours. So that same day I headed toward the Guatemala border. It was September 1st, 2013.
THE BELIEVER: Were they threatening your friends, too?
BLVR: Did any of your friends join?
E: I don’t know. I haven’t talked to them. It was in Sesori. I was behind my school… Five or six in the evening. I was talking to my girlfriend. They [the gangsters] just showed up. They said I had to come with them or I knew what was going to happen to me. I went with them to my house, and my Aunt was worried. I said, “No, no, we’re just talking sports.” Because I don’t like when she worries about me. I don’t want her or my mom to worry about me. I said, “No, I’m good,” even though I knew I could have been killed. She said, “Okay,” and we went in my room. They said, “Do you want to be with the good guys or the bad guys? Your choice.” They had a club and two pistols… They have a boss who sends them to do these kinds of jobs. So I told them, “I want to talk to your boss.” [The gang member left, leaving him with a 24-hour ultimatum.]
My sister was dating this gangster. And this gangster [once] told me I was like his brother [and] that if I ever had any problems, I should call him. So I called him, and you know how they all talk: como tan relax, and he was like, “What’s up?” I told him that I had a little problem.
“I don’t know, could you help me?”
“Yeah man, I got you.”
So I told him that there were some bichos here that were trying to get me to join. “Just talk to this dude,” he told me. “I’ll give you his number,” and he gave me a number. And I called it. Carlos was his name. He answered. I told him that these bichos had been over my house, and I wanted to know if that was what they were supposed to be doing, going around killing people that didn’t want to join up. And he said, “Next time they come to your house, call me.”
They came back later that night, asking if I’d made up my mind. “Yeah,” I said, and I picked up the phone and called him again. And they told me, “We don’t care if you call our boss, you’re going to join.” But he heard, their boss. I saved my life and, at the same time, saved my family. For two years I was having to deal with them, calling me.
BLVR: What gang were they with?
BLVR: What’s that?
E: MS. I don’t have any problems with any gangs. They just saw me as a little cipote, like we say, and they were going to bring me trouble. They were going to control me, so I went to the US. Up there I would work when I wasn’t going to school. I wanted to help my mom out, so I was working with my uncle and they called me. I don’t know how they found my number.
“Where are you?” they said. “We’re looking for you outside of your house.”
“I’m not there,” I said. “I’m in another country.”
And they told me if I came back they were going to kill me. My Aunt, who I was living with, she had to move to another municipio.
BLVR: What’s their objective?
E: They want you to join them. They want you to defend the dos letras, like they say, the MS. That you defend it. That you’re one of them. That you kill people, get high. Sell drugs. They want to control you. They want you to watch out for them. [They want you to say] if the cops come by. [And] what cars are driving through [the neighborhood]. So, the way I look at it, if you’re going to do all that, why don’t you just turn yourself into the cops, because they’re eventually going to get you and put you in prison.
II. “I couldn’t be here anymore.”
The murder rate in El Salvador, as author Óscar Martinez has pointed out, is at epidemic proportions: in 2017, the rate was 60 per every 100,000 inhabitants (a drop from 81.2 the year before), while in some neighborhoods and cities it is much higher. In the US, the murder rate in 2016 was 5.3 per 100,000 people.
“The level of violence in El Salvador remains shockingly high,” according to a late 2017 UN statement written by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The statement also condemned El Salvador’s notoriously overcrowded prisons for keeping people in prolonged and isolated conditions “under truly inhumane conditions.” Anthropologist Juan Martínez D’Aubuisson (the brother of Óscar Martinez) recounted to me stories of inmates in El Salvador stacked on top of each other in small and filthy cells, wearing nothing but boxer shorts, and forced to eat soup without utensils. In 2016, the Salvadoran government implemented “extraordinary measures” to try to prohibit incarcerated gang members from controlling illicit activities outside of the prisons. The UN strongly condemned these measures, which included the prohibition of almost any outside contact, even with journalists, family members, and human rights workers.
The police in El Salvador, too, are a source of terror. They have been known to operate death squads, murder innocent civilians, “arrest everything that looks like a gang member,” tamper with evidence to cover their path of destruction, and even threaten journalists who are reporting on such abuses. When I asked another recent deportee (who also didn’t want his name disclosed) if he could go to the police about threats he had received from gangs, he told me, “No. I’d be a dead man.”
BLVR: Once you were gone, why did the MS keep after you?
E: This other uncle I have, Wilson, back in the day, when he was young, he was involved in all that [the gangs]. He was one of the big shots, one of the mero-meros, you know. But that was his life, and my life is my life, and I’m not going to work for [the MS].
“Why not?” they said. “We’re going to give you a job. We’re going to give you five hundred dollars a month if you sell drugs.”
They knew I needed money. But you know what I told them? “You know what, I don’t care about your filthy money. I care about my life.”
I didn’t want to join their gang. I wanted to be free. And I told them, “If you’re going to kill me, kill me. There’s the pistol. I want to see it.” They stuck the pistol against my head.
“You’re going to do everything we tell you to do,” they told me. Crazy. I don’t have a dad and I don’t have a mom, so I’m not going to be taking orders from a kid. They were only like sixteen, eighteen years old.
BLVR: How old were you?
E: I was fifteen, that’s why they respected me. I wasn’t joking around. They were disrespecting my sister, my cousin, my girlfriend. I didn’t let that fly. I told them “What are they doing to make you bother them?’ They said my sister was a puta. That she was a bitch. So I told them, ‘When did she ever open her vagina for you that you would call her such a thing?’ And that stung them. They were aggressive, really pissed. So they didn’t do anything to me. But my sister told me that they tried to grab her in an alley. That barrio, where we were living, there were alleys all over. I was angry. I didn’t want to mess with them. So I talked to them, I said, “If you do that again, you’re going to be sorry.” Back then I hadn’t accepted God as my savior. I was filled with demons. I was doing what they wanted. I was eleven. Eleven and a half.
[My family] sent me to the US because I couldn’t be here anymore. I only had my girlfriend and my mujer, nobody else. So I said goodbye to my mujer. “What matters is my life,” I said. “And I’m in danger here.” I left El Salvador, what, three years ago for the USA.
I got to the border, and had a bad feeling, like they were going to kill someone in my family. You feel it in your body when something bad happens. And yeah, they killed my brother. I never wanted to know why they did it. It was my older brother. There were five of us. I have to go look for two who are here in El Salvador, but, you know, I can’t stay here. So I’m going to go Guatemala, through Mexico to get allí arriba [up there].
They won’t give me asylum. Because I need to talk [to the judge and show evidence of] “persecution to the death.” But they even showed up at my house at twelve at night [a paramilitary squad showed up after he had been deported.] Because I was renting a little room for a few weeks, where I was living in Santa Katarina. And this group of FGR [possibly the Unidad Táctica Especializada Policia] or something, a squad of killers. I asked them why they were coming to bother me at that time of night.
“Because you’re an ex-gangmember.”
‘I’m not anything,’ I told them. “You can check in the system. I’m not anything.” “But you’re all inked up,” they told me.
And that’s discrimination, no? I do have a lot of tattoos. My legs, my arms. [He points to the backs of his hands, pats his legs, his arms. On the back of his left hand he has skull, underneath which are the words “El Salvador.” On the back of his right hand he has a cartoonish looking, densely inked marijuana leaf above the words Zona Ganjah, a Chilean reggae band.] I did them myself.
BLVR: What other tattoos do you have?
E: I have a devil, here. [He pats his left arm.] I don’t do it for fashion. I do it to tell the story of my life. Up there in the United States, they call it art. Here, the police call it cosas de gangas. I did this one [he taps the skull on his left hand] because here in El Salvador, you’re in danger. Your life is in danger. I put the country below and the skull above it. There’s a lot of danger in El Salvador.
[The police squad] saw my tattoos and said, “You’re a gangster. What kind of record do you have here?” They saw that I didn’t have any record. “But we’re investigating you,” they said, and it could take like three or two months [during which time they’d keep him in jail.]
If they were actually police, they weren’t going to pull me out of my house, but [they did] and they beat me. They hit me in the face. They threw everything around my room, ripped up my bed. They stole my ID, and my phone. They also took a key that I had. They were looking for proof that I’m an ex-gangster. But I have nothing to hide. On my keychain there was a skull, so they said I was a witch.
[The NGO ALSARE, which supports the recently deported] paid for my release [from prison] after about two days. They let me out at four in the morning. Right there. I walked right by here. [Points out window.] I walked all the way down here. Wearing nothing but a t-shirt and my boxers. It was freezing. That was two weeks ago, a little more.
III. “I Can’t Call It Life”
In 2017, the US deported almost 20,000 Salvadorans to a country that, even while the US State Department continually renews its travel warning to El Salvador, it refuses asylum to almost 83 percent of Salvadorans. The numbers of deportees sent back to El Salvador is likely to increase after September, 2019, as the Trump administration cancelled the Temporary Protective Status (TPS) program, which kept nearly 200,000 people free from the immediate threat of deportation.
As our coffee cooled, Ernesto kept talking about growing up surrounded by the gangs. With nowhere for him to turn to, and not wanting to join, he fled.
In March of 2016, the UNHCR published Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum Seekers from El Salvador, in which they recognized that family members of gang members are “reportedly treated with suspicion and have been attacked and killed.” The guidelines argue that contradicting a gang is a political action, in that the gangs have de facto political control of some Salvadoran cities and towns. The report concludes, “Depending on the particular circumstances of the case, UNHCR considers that family members, dependents and other members of the households of gang members may be in need of international refugee protection on the basis of their (imputed) political opinion.” Instead of heeding these guidelines, the US has been slamming the door on people fleeing gang violence in Central America.
BLVR: And about your asylum case?
E: We hired the best lawyers. But they told me that it wasn’t going to work out. They didn’t give the facts that the judge wanted. They just wanted to take my money. And so I told my mom, “I’ve lost hope. I’m going back to El Salvador to see if there’s something they can do for me there.”
I couldn’t stand being locked up anymore. I was locked up a year. A year and a half. I was in Stewart. Stewart Detention Center. [VICE called Stewart—a privately run detention center that locks up 1,700 men, and has the highest deportation rate in the country—“the black hole of America’s Immigration System.”] It was so cold, too cold inside. The cops [guards] harass you too much. They get on your back if you’re taking a shower, if you don’t keep your cell clean, if you don’t want to go to lunch. They make you go to lunch. They gave asylum to a bunch of people because they’re gay. Why do they give asylum just because you’re gay, and when your life is in danger they don’t give it to you?
BLVR: When they denied your asylum, did they deport you right away?
E: Yeah. I like to fly. It’s cool. It was my second flight. From Texas they flew me the first time. We were handcuffed for like seven hours. A few people had to pee. They don’t take your chains off for anything, to go to the bathroom or anything, so what I did was not drink too much water. I saw how hard it was for everybody else. A few friends were with me.
BLVR: So you’re heading north again. Do you know what route you’re taking?
E: Honestly, no.
BLVR: And you’re traveling with your brother?
E: My uncle. My real mother is his sister.
BLVR: Do you know your mother?
E: No. Nothing.
BLVR: Your dad?
BLVR: Other brothers and sisters?
E: I want to look for them. But I don’t know where they are.
BLVR: How was it when you went north the first time?
E: It was intense. A lot of emotions. You know, I was heading to a country that, they say is good. But what happened was… the President [Trump]. The [first] trip wasn’t that bad. It was only fifteen days.
BLVR: Because you hired a coyote?
E: Yeah. We stayed in houses that they have. But this time I’m going alone [without a coyote].
BLVR: How do you start? You wake up on Saturday, and what do you do? What’s the first step?
E: Look, my life here isn’t like my life over there. I can’t sleep. I fall asleep at like eight in the morning, I sleep for two hours and I wake up again. I can’t sleep. In the US I slept eight, nine hours. Here, one, two hours. I’m just thinking of getting killed. It’s like a mental problem. You think that others are after you. That your life is over. I’m still young. I don’t want to die at twenty. [In the detention center] they were giving me sleep medicine, but I don’t know what, or what it’s called. I’m pretty forgetful.
From here, I’ll get a bus to the border. I don’t know which. You’ll see other migrants on the bus. You’ll see there are other ones. They’ll look at you. You’ll look at them. You know that they’re migrants. They’ll know you’re a migrant.
BLVR: How do you know?
E: Their eyes. Or their hair, if they’re from El Salvador. They have hair like iguanas [short, spiked hair]. When I came back, one of the bosses, David [a gang-member] he told me, “You’re not going to have any problems here. I can take care of you, but if you want to get killed, I can’t save you.” I told him I haven’t been here long. I don’t know how it is here. I just stayed in, watching videos. YouTube. Funny videos, whatever. Videos about how God saves gangsters and all that. How some gangsters have done really good things and God’s got their names now. That’s all [the gangsters] said to me. But they told me, you know, if they see me walking wrong, they’ll kill me. You know, wearing my hair like them, buzzed hair, in shorts, in Nikes, Nike Cortez. Here, the Nike Cortez are a sign that you’re a gangster. Flat brimmed hats. Short-sleeved shirts, real loose.
BLVR: So they were threatening you?
E: Yeah. I wasn’t nervous. No, because in the prison up there in the USA, they taught me a saying, “If you are scared of a man, you’re going to be scared of all men. But if you’re not scared of that man, then God is with you, in the good and the bad.” When I see police I do get nervous. The gangs tried to get me before, tried to beat me up. I have a scar here [touches chest] from them because my uncle was with the other gang, a long time ago.
BLVR: Which gang?
E: The 18s. They can’t threaten your family without making you feel bad. I spent years of my life [in early adolescence] locked up in my room. I didn’t want to leave my house. I didn’t want to leave my little room. For a year and a half. I was like thirteen, fourteen. I liked being inside. I hardly left.. Just listening to yourself. Thinking about yourself.
My mother sent money so I could go to a psychologist, and the psychologist said that it was a mental problem because I didn’t have my parents. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I needed love from my mom and dad. But they just gave me leftovers.
I washed my clothes, I ironed my clothes, I made my own food, I ate alone. I liked to be alone better than being with them. I just listened to the voices, to the demons. The demons come knocking for you. They talk to you at night. They talk. I heard voices. They told me to get up, that they didn’t want to see me like that. If I tattooed myself, you know, then I was going to be a bad person, they said, a bad person. You have a demon. They brainwash you to make you kill yourself. To cut yourself. All these things. I tried [to cut myself]. But I knew it was bad.
They took me to a lot of psychologists. When I was fourteen, I tried marijuana. They forced me, the gangsters. They say marijuana is bad, but it helps me with pain. It relaxes my mind. About a week ago I heard a voice. It told me, “You summoned my soul, and I’m watching you. All night. Every hour of the night. I’m watching you. You’re sleeping, and I’m awake.” La Santa Muerte [the voice speaking to him] is a woman, so I tattooed myself twice with her. I’ve seen her, sometimes, at night. I talk to her. When I feel nervous she’s behind me. I think she’s protecting me. The Christians think she’s bad, but if you know how to talk to a demon, it’s like how you talk to a gangster, because it’s the same thing. I like to see La Santa Muerte. The first time I saw her I was twelve.
I’m scared to be locked up here. A life sentence up there [in the US] would be better than staying here. Going to jail here is like being attacked by dogs. They’re filthy. You get fungus all over your feet. They wash you like dogs. And it’s so hot, it’s like you’re in hell. And there, in the USA, you feel nice, the A/C, your PlayStation. They let you use the PlayStation, you can hide a little tattoo gun, I don’t know. There are televisions. You can play poker, cards with your friends. But the worst part of being locked up is not having any contact with women.
I just want people to know what it’s like when they threaten you here. I know it’s dangerous to head north. There are easy routes and more difficult routes. You know, making ten dollars a day, that’s not a life. [My uncle] he sells Cofalpa, that, you know, that stuff when you have a bruise or something and you put it on your muscles, he sells in busses, ten dollars a day. I’m nervous, yeah. Here. I’m always keeping watch. I don’t, right now, feel completely safe. I mean, maybe, I have to be careful. Here, living, this, I can’t call it life.
For me, I’m proud of being Salvadoran. But at the same time, I feel, like, the dream of all of us is to get to the US, to feel free, to be able to do something with your life.
Ernesto and I kept in touch for a couple days via WhatsApp after he had fled the country again. On his second night he messaged me that he had been robbed in Guatemala. His next move was to get to a migrant shelter in southern Mexico and see if he could get papers to transit safely towards the United States. A couple days later, he stopped responding to my texts. I wrote him repeatedly, but have not heard from him.