From La Prensa Gráfica: The Kids Still Want to Flee

This is a translation of an article by Séptimo Sentido of La Prensa Gráfica, published October 28, 2018.

After one of Sara’s children received death threats, the entire family fled from the Department of San Salvador to a small town. There they have tried to rebuild their lives, start a business, and live peacefully. However, things don’t seem so different, and they are starting to feel watched again. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office has registered 85 cases of displacement nationally in just this year. Despite the fact that hundreds of victims have declared that they had to flee their homes, the Government continues not to officially recognize the phenomenon.

Sara speaks in a low voice since the problem started. Sometimes she forms the words, but no sound comes out of her mouth. This happens when she mentions the gang that threatened her son, and when she admits that, yes, even though it happened a year ago, she still feels scared. Her real name isn’t Sara, but the condition she gave for telling her story was that her real name and location not be revealed. The problem, as she calls it, was an ultimatum given to her youngest son, Carlos. Because of it, she lost her job and the house she was preparing to buy. Now, she has returned to the town she left years ago in search of a better life. She tries to earn a living as a seamstress, but there are also gang members in this area, and her 19 year-old son has decided to migrate to a country he doesn’t know, where someone - who he also doesn’t personally know - has offered him a place to stay.

This family’s case is one of many that haven’t been reported to the National Civil Police (PCN in Spanish), for fear that the Police can’t be trusted with this type of information. Sara only reported her situation to the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH), which in the first six months of this year has received 85 complaints of forced displacement. In those cases, a total of 263 people fled from their homes.

This figure, however, does not represent the magnitude of the problem well. For example, the Global Internal Displacement Report from the Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that 296,000 Salvadorans were displaced by social conflict last year. The phenomenon is documented in data and figures, but the Government still won’t admit it exists. The PDDH cites one study from two years ago that maintains that 4.9% of Salvadoran families changed their place of residence “as a result of violence and public insecurity.” The ombudsman for Migrants and Citizen Security of the aforementioned institution, Beatriz Campos, summarizes this in few words: “For the Government, recognizing displacement by gangs is like saying, ‘well, we aren’t able to control the territory, we can’t even manage that.’”

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THE START OF THE PROBLEM

Carlos was 17 years old, in high school, and had a girlfriend. He lived in a municipality controlled by gangs, but, up to that point, he hadn’t had any issues with the gang members who were around his age.

“My other son told me that Carlos had a girlfriend. ‘That’s good, I said, he’s at the age where he should have a girlfriend,’” Sara, his mom, recounts. Until last year, she worked in sales at a business in San Salvador. Usually, she left her house early and came back past 7 pm. She made $500 a month at her job, she assured us.

Due to the insecurity of the area where she lived, the rent for her house was $40, and the mother had begun talks with the owner to buy the house for $11,000. Both of her sons were in high school and had Sundays off, and, despite the gangs in the neighborhood, the three of them had a good quality of life. “We had a relatively calm life,” she managed to say before her tears cut her off.

Then, one night in April of last year, four young men the same age as her sons knocked on the door of her house and demanded to be let in. She knew they were gang members. They entered the living room, and didn’t leave for half an hour.

They said that, “my son was dating the girlfriend of a gang member...she didn’t see it like that, like she belonged to them. But perhaps she hung around them too much. They wanted to take my son. I humbled myself before them. I negotiated with them. We reached a compromise, thank God, and they said we had to leave or they would kill us,” said Sara.

The next morning it rained, recalled Sara. She got ready as if she were going to work, grabbed her wallet, and left at 5 am. Her youngest son, Carlos, was by her side. They were fleeing, but they weren’t carrying any suitcases. They wanted to pretend everything was normal. Sara put her son on a bus and instructed him to get off at the end of the route. At that point, his aunt would be waiting for Carlos, and would take him to the town they were relocating to.

Sara went to work to tell them she had to leave, and then went back home. She got a truck, and filled it with their beds, clothes, the refrigerator, kitchen items, some chairs, and some decorations and plastic plants. When she left her house in San Salvador, she says, there were seven members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang standing guard: “They even asked the driver where we were going. He told them ‘I’m going to some of the roads uphill,’ it was a lie. Some tables and a bed that didn’t fit were left in the house, oh well.”

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Sara got in the truck and resolved to never go back to that place. “We left on a side street that leads to the main road. They pay attention to everything that is happening in the neighborhood. I felt like they were following us.”

When they got to the town, Sara felt a moment of calm. But during the first month, her son shut himself in the house and refused to leave. The illusion of finding peace did not last. After a year, Carlos wants to flee again.

ORGANIZATIONS RESPOND BEFORE AN ABSENT STATE

“The ideal would be if State institutions acted, but no. The Red Cross, Cáritas and Cristosal help us. They evaluate where they [victims] can get immediate shelter. As the Ombudsman’s Office, we shouldn’t have to rely so much on these organizations, but in practice it’s hard to avoid. The organizations are well positioned, and are the ones who sometimes give us more of a response than the State” acknowledged the ombudsman for Migrants and Citizen Security.

According to data from the PDDH, from January to June 2018, the institutions registered 283 victims of forced internal displacement. Of that group, the population that was most often displaced were adult women from 19 to 41 years of age. The received most of the complaints from the department of San Salvador, accounting for 60% of the total cases.

Sara reported her case to the PDDH, and they referred her to Cristosal. The organization has a pilot program to support the businesses of people who are forcibly displaced. The idea is to help displaced people develop a way to sustain themselves so they can integrate into their new communities in a productive manner.

Eloisa Lara, the coordinator of this program, explained that Cristosal provides seed funding: “We don’t have a defined period during which we support someone. Measuring long-term solutions isn’t something we’re going to achieve overnight under the conditions of violence seen in El Salvador. Long-term solutions are a complicated and long process during which we accompany the family for at least a year.”

Sara received a sewing machine, and, since she already knew how to use it, she showed her son how to make cushions to increase her earnings. At the moment, the business model is not enough to sustain itself. For example, right now she has an order for 50 cushions, for which she will earn $100. Her and her son have been working on the order for a month.

Sara and her son fled from San Salvador a year ago, but they have not escaped delinquency. Besides their uprooting, the cost of their flight has been high. “I go sell our product in the surrounding towns, and recently they robbed me of $150 worth of products on the bus,” she said. And, while last year they paid $40 in rent, the rent for the small one-room house she lives in with her sons now is $110 a month.

Figures show that for every 100 people that are working at the time when they are displaced, 42 are obligated to “leave the job or small business they had. That’s to say that, along with their house, they have to abandon their livelihood and, as a result, their economic condition worsened.”

Furthermore, their displacement meant that her sons dropped out of high school. The 2017 Observatory of the Ministry of Education reported that, at least 683 schools registered cases of students who dropped out due to the presence of gangs in the areas where their school was located.

CHANGING LOCATION IS NOT ENOUGH

There aren’t any issues with gangs here? Sara is asked one rainy day. It’s the same here. Carlos only started to leave the house recently. For a month he stayed in the house, until he started to look for work because you have to push onward. There are gangs near here. A little while ago, Carlos was coming home around 8 pm and they were smoking up there. They stopped him and asked him why they had never seen him before, and he told them he worked for the mayor’s office and they told him they were going to look into it.

Carlos told them that because he managed to be accepted as an apprentice in a workshop of the mayor’s office in the town. They didn’t threaten the young man, but it was enough for the family to feel vulnerable again.

“Now my son is telling me he wants to leave. He says he doesn’t want to be here anymore. I have a friend whose sister is abroad. She’s going to receive him. What I want the most is for them to be okay. I want to get them out of here, so that they have the freedom to say ‘I’m going here’ or ‘I’m going there,’ without thinking something is going to happen to them,” Sara said bitterly.

“Long-term solutions for displaced people are achieved through their integration into a community,” affirmed Mauricio Quijano, the Director of Community Development at Cristosal. Providing “long-term solutions is the State’s responsibility. This responsibility is manifested through the territorial presence of the State institutions that provide access to services. Restoring the rights of displaced people in their host communities requires promoting favorable environments for them to exercise said rights.” An environment that neither Sara nor her sons have found.

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THE RELOCATION THAT FAILED

In July of this year, the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court recognized that the internal forced displacement problem exists, and ordered the Executive branch to do the same and take measures to protect the victims. The court gave its resolution through an amparo, in which 33 members of a family said they had been the victims of an endless cycle of violence in El Salvador.

A man, identified by the moniker Claimant 2, declared before the court that the members of his family lived in an area of Ciudad Delgado dominated by gangs. “In 2016, things heated up,” you can hear the man say in a video. “They extorted all the business owners, they killed the person who sold tortillas in the community. They killed the son of the woman who sold gas and they shot his dad. They shot the woman who owned a small shop. After that, they killed my cousin’s nephew.”

Then, the violence affected him directly. Two of his relatives are part of the armed forces, and one of his sisters, along with her 12 year old daughter, was raped. The gang members, according to a declaration they made, threatened to kill them if they did not hand over his military brothers.

With this in mind, Claimant 2 decided to organize his family’s move to Berlín, Usulután. “A month and a half later, we had already built an aluminum house,” you can hear him say. But the place that they were displaced to became another stop marked by violence.

In the video, the man explains that the community organized a party in front of their newly built, albeit informal house in December. “We set up lights, speakers, the whole show in front of the house, and people were happy. Everything was lovely. At 10:30 the lights and sound shut off. Pum. And then the chaos and shouting started.”

Claimant 2 states that the police arrived and carried out an operation to look for gang members. Then, his mother came out of the house to see what was happening.

“As my mom was walking out, you could hear the gunshots. My mom shouted and I told her, ‘no, calm down mom, I didn’t get shot.’ ‘No, son, they shot me,’ she said to me. I shined a light on her and saw that her white pants were drenched in blood. My brother grabbed her. My dad gave her mouth-to-mouth. ‘What have they done?,’ I said to her. On the dance floor I asked who fired the shot. ‘The police did,’ the community said.”

This case illustrates the violence in El Salvador, and served to make the Supreme Court become the second institution to recognize the phenomenon just four months ago. “There’s no reason to doubt the Claimant, as there has been no evidence that casts a doubt on his credibility or the reliability of the information he has provided,” reasoned the Court.

The sentence indicates that, “the members of his family group have been the victims of forced displacement; first as a consequence of assault and serious crimes against their person by members of the Barrio 18 gang, and second by an uninvestigated and unresolved act of violence involving police agents who provoked the death of the claimant’s mother.”

The people who identified themselves as victims and were claimants in the amparo have managed to flee El Salvador. Their attempt to relocate within their own country resulted in a homicide, which is still unresolved.

The Court established that the Legislative Assembly had failed to modify the framework for attention to victims, and it also signaled a failure in the fiscal and police systems. Additionally, it ordered that urgent measures be taken to protect families fleeing from violence.

In practice, the Court’s orders are only words on paper. The ombudsman, Beatriz Campos, recognized it as such: “NGOs are begging for change, because it shouldn’t be like this. But that’s where our goal gets derailed, because we want the State to assume responsibility, but it doesn’t have a way too, despite all of the recommendations we make and the sentence.”

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A PROBLEM WITHOUT CLEAR DATA

“There are some people who clearly state that they don’t want to file a complaint with the Police or the Attorney General, but we register the case,” Campos said. Also, other organizations have their own data. From January to September, Cristosal has registered 115 cases of forced displacement. On average of 12 a month. In 68% of the cases, the victims have decided not to file a complaint with the State.

“There exist various factors that make it impossible to calculate the number of displacements at this moment with a high level of precision. Among them, the invisible character of displacement stands out. Visibility could mean being detected and being revictimized by violence,” reads a report from the Ombudsman’s Office last year.

If there are no formal complaints, how do you know the cases are real? When Beatriz Campos gets asked this, she responds that people arrive at the ombudsman’s office at their wits end and, on occasion, in a fit of nerves. She remembers that family groups that include children, nieces, or nephews predominate. “When people come, I don’t think they are faking it or making some kind of histrionic display. They come with their things, with their families.”

Out of 138 cases of displacement that were studied by the Ombudsman’s Office, the main causes of displacement were death threats or attempted homicides. Despite the fact that these constitute crimes that could be reported to the proper authorities, the people interviewed by the institution revealed that their main motives for not reporting were: fear of retaliation and a distrust of State institutions.

Their distrust isn’t unfounded. “The majority of these cases were provoked by gangs, but there are 5 cases this year in which displacement was provoked by police agents, in other words, institutional violence,” signaled Campos from her third floor office in San Salvador.

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THE CONCLUSION

In October, thousands of people fled together from Honduras to the US. The media named this group of people advancing on foot Migrant Caravans. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 7,000 people joined to form part of this massive exodus from the Central American country. One Facebook page called El Salvador Migrates for a Better Future, has called together Salvadorans to leave en masse to the US on Sunday morning.

 A migrant caravan prepares to leave from Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador on October 31.

A migrant caravan prepares to leave from Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador on October 31.

Going far away from El Salvador is also the dream of some of the people that have been forced out of their homes. Cristosal analyzed 226 cases of forced displacement that occurred between 2016 and March of this year. The conclusion of this study is shocking: “89% of families that include a child or adolescent member intend to migrate.”

Among State institutions this is no secret. There are not adequate protective measures for the victims of this problem and some of them feel obligated to make radical decisions, such as migrating illegally. The Ombudsman for the Defense of Human rights affirmed last year that, “the State maintains a (marginal), dismissive, and passive role with regards to the issue of internal displacement, despite the fact that attention to victims is primarily the responsibility of the State.”

“Let’s go, mom, let’s build a life in another place,” Sara says one of her sons told her. The small family has planned for Carlos to be the first one to go, alone.


On November 6, 2018, Cristosal published a report on forced internal displacement and its effects on children, adolescents, and young adults. As is exemplified in this case, there is a strong connection between forced internal displacement and school desertion, and forced internal displacement and external migration. You can read the Executive Summary of the report here.