By Cristina Sarnoff
On a hot, humid, summer afternoon four years ago in the village of Apopa in El Salvador, a middle school teacher arrived home after classes to find her teenage daughter’s body draped across her front door with 13 bullet holes. This was the mark of a notorious and deadly gang.
“I never thought this could happen to me,” the schoolteacher said in tears recently. “I’ve witnessed families losing a child to gang crimes before but somehow thought I was immune to it. I’m a schoolteacher and combat nurse. Some of my students even belong to the gangs. God help my children.”
The teacher, referred to here as Señora Hernandez to protect her identity, knew that the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, had murdered her daughter. And she knew that the family eventually might be forced to leave. Four years later here in the U.S., she has begun to tell the story of what happened after the horrific murder.
Hernandez spent the following two years trying to survive and protect her remaining four children.
Her eldest daughter was murdered as a warning, Hernandez said because the family had documents that may have led to the removal of the village’s mayor, Jose Elia Hernandez, who is not related. The documents proved collusion between politicians, including the mayor, and MS-13 gang members.
When Hernandez’s youngest son, Oscar was threatened to be the next corpse on the family’s doorstep in 2016, she decided to leave with him. Taking precautions for such a risky trip, Hernandez found a coyote through a family contact to help her escape El Salvador with Oscar. The plan was for her younger children to come later.
56 Days of Rattlesnakes, Scorpions and Fear
Hernandez, of course, could not foresee all the things that were about to happen to them after that decision. The escape would become a 56 day journey, by foot, that would see them abandoned, kidnapped, threatened, locked up in prison, exploited, and vulnerable to forced labor while waiting for political asylum in the United States. Now the lives of Hernandez and her son are in limbo as Washington contemplates eliminating the Temporary Protected Status. That has protected 195,000 Salvadorans, from deportation.
When she fled in 2016, Hernandez determined that the only way out of her desperate situation in Apopo was employing a “professional trafficker” also known as a coyote. She was put in contact with a Salvadoran woman living in California, who had a cousin named Milton who was a coyote.
Hernandez gave Milton the equivalent of $10,000 to take her and Oscar from El Salvador to the border between Texas and Mexico. This was her entire life’s savings. She suspected that Milton had ties to other gangs across the U.S. but said she was too distraught to ask questions.
She had cause to be frightened. MS-13 is considered to be one of the most violent youth gangs in the Western Hemisphere, according to José Miguel Cruz, director of research in the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University says, several estimates place the numbers above 30,000 MS-13 gang members roaming the streets of what’s known as the “Northern Triangle” of Central America, a region made up of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. There, Mara Salvatrucha, along with its archenemy, the 18th Street gang, contribute significantly to record levels of violence.
On May 11th, 2016, Hernandez, Oscar and Milton began a 56-day trek. They walked across deserts, under the searing sun, slept on buses and outside under the rain. They encountered scorpions, rattlesnakes, and mosquitoes. And along the route, Milton picked up more strangers for the journey north.
While the migrants were constantly hungry and thirsty, Milton never seemed to be in need, and never offered anything to the others.
Hernandez and her son spent the days speaking and dreaming of refuge in the United States. Each waking dawn they asked the Lord for safety and thanked him that they were one day closer to freedom.
Oscar said he tried hard not to cry in order to be strong for his mom. “When I saw my mom sleeping, I let myself cry. I cried because I could not sleep, I was scared something would happen to us, I was thirsty and hungry and wanted to be home in my bed. But in the morning my mom gave me strength and reminded me that God was with us, he never left our side. My mom is very strong and somehow I knew we would be ok.”
Oscar prayed each night. “Oscar is brave,” his mother said. “He saw another young girl, part of our group of travelers weeping and went to her aid. I was proud when I saw my boy pick up a little girl and put her on his back. He walked across the desert lands with her for hours on end, telling her stories, funny jokes, and fairytales so she would not be afraid. I knew then that my boy would survive. His kindness gave me strength and I knew I had to make it to the United States for him, for his freedom.”
Thirty-six days into their journey, Hernandez and Oscar were left on a highway in Reynosa, Mexico. Milton said that his job was done and they would be picked up by someone else to help them cross the border. Hernandez and Oscar never saw Milton again.
Kidnapped and Beaten at Gunpoint
The two waited eagerly on the side of the road for what seemed to be hours until a truck approached commanding them to get inside. Hernandez said they were blindfolded, bound and thrown into the back of the truck. Shortly after, Hernandez, with her arms tied behind her back, stumbled out of the vehicle and her blindfold moved a little allowing her to see a dilapidated house in the middle nowhere. Hernandez and her son were threatened and beaten at gunpoint.
They were taken into the dark house that had no windows and a handful of other kidnapped victims all crouched on the floor in fear. The gang members demanded that she give them her contacts in the U.S. Hernandez said she they appeared to be from a different gang, not MS-13.
The gang wanted the names, numbers, and addresses to extort money. One gang member threatened to shoot Oscar in the head first and then Hernandez if she did not obey him.
Hernandez recalls telling her son: “Stay strong, don’t show fear, do as you’re told and don’t worry, if God got us out of El Salvador he will get us out of here and alive.”
Hernandez had the name and number of one U.S. contact, the Salvadoran woman living in California who had introduced her to Milton, the coyote.
After taking a closer look at the other kidnapped victims, Hernandez understood that the threats were real. The victims ranged in age and all seemed to have been physically abused and others sexually abused. Bloodstains were on the walls and a stench permeated the house. Hernandez feared they would kill her son, so she gave them the woman’s name and number.
Hernandez and Oscar were held captive for 10 days, she said. She was forced to clean, cook and serve food. On the 10th day, they were both released and dropped at the border of Reynosa, Mexico and McAllen, Texas. One of the gang members said, “Lady your God answered your prayers. We got paid, and your freedom awaits. Next time while you pray, include me in your prayers, tell your God I want more money.”
He then crossed his chest with the crucifixion gesture with his right hand and took a wad of cash and kissed it with his left hand.
Hernandez’s trafficking contact, the woman in California, was said to have paid the ransom of $5,000 for both her and her son.
Once released, Hernandez and Oscar walked along the Texas border waiting to flag down U.S. Border Patrol. Hours later, an officer spotted her and signaled for them to walk around a pond to meet him on the other side. Hernandez again did as she was told, quickly informing the officer about her recent abduction.
According to Hernandez, the officer didn’t care much and responded rudely. He told them in a harsh voice with a thick Latino accent that they would be taken to a detention facility called the Icebox, “la hielera”. Hernandez said the officer told her: “Don’t expect anything fancy, not even a toothbrush. You’re not going to a hotel. If you get lucky enough to get out of the Icebox and into my country, you’re going to the Dog Kennel, “la perrera” where people like you belong until we figure out what to do with you. You’re type disgusts me.”
The Dog Kennel is a nickname for the second detention center in McAllen, where unlike the Icebox food is served and bathrooms are more than just holes in the ground.
Hernandez and Oscar spent another 10 days in three different detention centers. On the 10th day, officers gave Hernandez three options but only after she would reach out to her California contact again, since the request was to reach out to a contact in the United States, and she was her only one.
The options were: Pay a fee to the U.S. government and remain here under the watch of her contact and agree to wear a tracking device.
Hernandez opted for the tracking device. Hernandez and Oscar also had to be sent directly to the contact’s residence in California if she would agree to shoulder responsibility for the two.
Once Hernandez and her son arrived in California they were excited for their new beginnings and expected freedom. But the journey wasn’t over. They were tricked and made victims again.
Sleeping on the Porch With Dogs
They were given a blanket and food on arrival but they were forced to sleep on the porch with the dogs. Hernandez was asked again without pay to clean, cook, and serve food, this time to guests of the contact.
As weeks went by Hernandez understood that she was not her contact’s first trafficking victim. Ms. Hernandez found herself captive and under the control of the very same institution she was trying to escape from in the first place.
Hernandez determined that her California contact was in cohorts with the Mexican cartel that had abducted her and Oscar back in Reynosa. It also appeared to Hernandez that the coyote, Milton, was part of a gang that worked closely with the Mexican cartel and other gangs across Central America.
The California contact had a husband, whose name Hernandez never found out, Hernandez said she was suspicious that he was running a drug operation inside the house.
Needing to get away from the gang, Hernandez found through relatives in El Salvador, a cousin who had helped them escape. Hernandez alerted Immigration and Custom Enforcement of her new address. After 180 days in the US and with a court date set for 2019 to review her case, Hernandez’s tracking device was removed.
Hernandez and Oscar are here under the temporary protected status protections. But the Department of Homeland security has confirmed that the Trump administration will eliminate that status to Salvadoran asylum seekers and others who were offered U.S residency provisionally.
An estimated 195,000 Salvadorans have until September 9, 2019 to leave the United States, obtain a green card or be deported, according to Latino USA.
Hernandez has recently relocated to the East Coast to meet the rest of her family who escaped El Salvador too. Oscar is looking to join his fourth high school in the past year.
The Mara Salvatucha gang members have not forgotten about Hernandez or her son. They receive death threats on her cellphone, with images of guns and tattooed gang members throwing up gang signs.
Hernandez’s three other children and several grandchildren managed to scramble enough money together to pay a coyote to escape. They are also in the U.S. MS-13 threatened her entire family in El Salvador and she believes that they will all be killed if they are deported back.
According to the International Crisis Group, the potential cancellation of the rights to residency in the U.S. of 195,000 beneficiaries of the Temporary Protected Status program threatens to overwhelm the El Salvador’s capacity to accommodate returnees. This is similar to what happened in the late 1990s when mass deportations of gang members from the U.S. to El Salvador led to the lightning rise of the MS-13.
Jose Cruz, of Florida International University said President Donald Trump’s allegation of “lax immigration policies” and the elimination of the Temporary Protected Status will exasperate bloodshed and further extend the prowess of MS-13 across Central America.
Feeling Like Victims Again
Like Hernandez hundreds of thousands of undocumented Latinos in the United States have found themselves victimized and face death back home. These victims have had no choice but to seek asylum in a country that is sending them right back into the hands of those who pose the threat in the first place.
Criminal gangs such as MS-13 have no borders, are the most connected organizations in the world and trade flesh amongst each other. Leaving a great majority of trafficked victims prime candidates for modern slaves. Presently an
Jose Cruz states that groups like MS-13 have grown and thrived in El Salvador because the political class protects them. In August of 2016, prosecutors proved that the country’s two main political parties had colluded with MS-13 and other gangs, paying more than $300,000 for help winning the 2014 presidential election.
Hernandez had documents that proved her mayor colluded with the Mara Salvatrucha.
The partnership between politicians and gangs has spread throughout Central America like a virus, said Cruz.
“The same nexus between government and organized crime has been exposed across Central America, where political institutions routinely shield gangs in exchange for economic support and political backing in the barrios they control. Few are ever prosecuted for this crime,” Cruz said.
Back in Apopo, Mayor Jose Elia Hernandez has been arrested for collusion with gang members. Hernandez, the schoolteacher, and her family don’t foresee a time they will ever be able to return.
“What I want is for my family to be free, free to roam the streets without fear of being shot, free to go to school and know that when they come home their siblings will be there waiting for them,” she said.