Editors' note: This article is a companion to the feature "Menaced by gangs, El Salvador's children are running for their lives"
Laura Campos watched in silent terror as her granddaughter got older. Cristina was a pretty child, with gold-flecked eyes and dimples. But around the time she turned 13, she was suddenly all cheekbones and long legs and tawny curls. Ms. Campos could see it, and she knew others could see it, and she knew it was a disaster.
"It would have been better if you had never grown up," she would say to Cristina. "Stop growing. Just stop."
The problems began just the way Ms. Campos had feared they would. At 13, Cristina started coming home with purple bruises from beatings at school. The kids who beat her had a message: One was that Cristina was wanted, to work for the Mara Salvatrucha, the street gang that rules their neighbourhood in a town in northwestern El Salvador. And then, worse: a gang leader had noticed her. And wanted her for his own.
Ms. Campos packed them up in the night and they fled the small house they had been slowly building for years, to another town. Two months later, word came again: Another leader had spotted her.
And so they moved again, near here. But they could not afford to keep running, and anyway, nowhere was going to be safe.
The street gangs now engaged in a vicious war in El Salvador are dominated by men, but they enlist plenty of young women. The girls collect extortion payments and deliver drugs, and smuggle goods and instructions in and out of prisons. And some serve a darker function, chosen by a gang leader to be his "girlfriend," whether she likes it or not, when she is no more than 13 or 14. In a 2014 study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 24 per cent of migrant girls surveyed from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala reported experiencing rape or other sexual violence, or the threat of it, at the hands of gangs.
"You want to keep your child safe, because you can see the government has no control over violence," Ms. Campos says. "Police can't go into our neighbourhood. If we had somewhere else to live, that would be so nice. But we don't." There was no question about the urgency of the risk; three kids in Cristina's school had been murdered in the last year. They had to get Cristina out. (The Globe has changed the names of family members for their security.)
Cristina's mother, Blanca, lives in New York; she left when Cristina was a toddler. (Cristina's father, who was estranged from the family, was murdered by a gang member a few years before.) Blanca called regularly, to Ms. Campos's ancient Nokia cellphone; and now they agreed it was time for her to find a coyote.
"You ask around, 'Who was the person who brought your child? Did he treat them well on the way? Did they behave well with him?' This is how you contact these people," Blanca explains, in a telephone interview. "But you don't know them."
"Believe me," she adds. "I know that I am risking my daughter, leaving her to travel with people who I do not even know."
Blanca has two more children, aged 3 and 4, with a Salvadoran she met in the U.S. He works as a gardener, she works in a nail salon, and together they earn about $1,000 a week, half of which they send back home. Last year, Blanca was diagnosed with uterine cancer; as an undocumented immigrant, she had no access to health insurance. She found a charity that performed surgery for a sharply reduced fee, but still they have a huge debt to pay. And now she needed $7,000 for a smuggler.
Blanca says that she reads news from El Salvador on the Internet and is torn between a desperate desire to travel there herself, to try to bring Cristina across – and fear that if she leaves the U.S., she will never manage to get back in, and never see her younger children again.
Blanca knew what she was sending her daughter into: Her own journey into the U.S. was perilous, with nights in which the migrants ran into the desert in the dark to evade border patrols, and one night she hid in a gully beneath a pile of trash. She counselled Cristina before she left home: Wear long sleeves under your shirt, because the branches can scratch. And wear leggings under your jeans – so it will be more difficult for a would-be rapist to get your clothes off quickly. Cristina wrote her mother's phone number on a dozen tiny pieces of paper and taped them inside different pieces of clothing, so that she would be sure she had it when she turned herself into la migra in Texas.
Cristina set out the first time in April. Then, she was filled with a mix of fear and excitement, she says. "When they told us to get out and walk, I was the first one off the bus." They slept in the backs of trucks, they walked for hours through fields of corn that sliced at her arms and legs, and at one point they had to run through a paddock full of angry cows that terrified her. It didn't go well: She was caught by Mexican migration officials just two days after entering the country. "I couldn't believe it – couldn't believe that I wasn't going to America."
She tried again in late July, and this time most of the trip was by bus. She made it half-way up Mexico before she was caught. At least it was la migra: "What I was afraid of was the Zetas and the other cartels – because I've heard they kidnap people and they ask the family to pay ransom, and if they don't do it or can't, they put you in an acid bath so they never find you. I'll be honest, I'm afraid of them."
On the first part of Cristina's attempts to cross, Blanca was able to speak to her daughter every day on the coyote's phone. Then he stopped answering – after the children were caught, although her mother had no way of knowing if they were in the hands of authorities or the Zetas. "In that moment, you wish to grow wings and fly to where your children are, just to leave everything here and go get them."
Blanca is trying now to save even more money, because she wants Cristina to try again but with a more expensive coyote. "There is a man who charges more, but he always brings children – I even heard how one of them got sick on the way, and he took him to the hospital."
Her daughter stays home with her grandmother, except for trips to church, and waits for news about the next attempt. "I'm very afraid that if I go again I'll repeat all the things I suffered – all that to get to Mexico, just to return to this country. If it's true, if they won't let me go again, I'll die of sadness."
Cristina always earned good grades at school and would like to be a nurse, although she fears that all the interruptions of her education are going to make that more difficult. But she has a backup plan. "In the U.S., if I can't finish school and be a nurse, at least I can get a job – like, be a maid, maybe."
With files from Patricia Carías in San Salvador