The e-mail arrived with the subject line "Pain in the community." It was not good news. Two youth, William and Moises, had been killed by gang members coming from a neighboring district. William and Moises were not gang members; they were only victims. Moises was attending secondary school, partly funded by a scholarship through my church.
The e-mail described the boys funeral:
We passed through the streets of Tonacatepeque, the youth of the community and the fellow students carrying the bodies for burial in the cemetery. It was an afternoon of great pain. The mothers and family members cry bitterly, but the fathers don't cry, they don't speak. Now they think only of showing themselves "passive, strong" -- as they bury their sons.
Moises and William lived in a poor "colonia" or neighborhood to the northeast of San Salvador. It is a place of small cinderblock houses on tiny lots with electricity but no running water. Most households are led by single mothers, and unemployment or underemployment characterizes the situation of most adults.
I knew the families of Moises and William. We have pictures of the boys in our photo albums. I have hugged their mothers and shared meals with these families. Their senseless deaths are just two of the thousands who have died in recent years from the scourge of the gangs in similar communities.
But this was not the first time that gang violence had impacted my friends in this community. The community where these events take place exists in a war zone. El Salvador's two rival gangs each control one of the neighboring districts. A visitor to the community earlier this year told this story:
We first heard about trouble late in the night, when our friend hurried into the house to tell us that his son and son-in-law had not come home. The family had looked for them, and found out that they had been picked up by the police who were investigating a gang-related murder that had taken place on a bus earlier that day, on the road just outside of the community. The family was upset and scared, and before we went to bed, we held hands and prayed that the boys would have a peaceful night.
The next morning, the father had to travel to another city to collect a document which proved that his son was a minor, aged 16. The other boy is 18. The pastor assembled a little rescue team to go and find out what the boys' situation was. As I stepped out of the house, a mom in the community ran up to me and told me that her daughter was having a nervous breakdown in the night. Her daughter, who is 17, was on a bus when the bus driver was shot by a man with a gun. The daughter couldn't sleep all night, and didn't want to take medicine that would badly affect the 5-month old baby she was nursing.
The rescue team was able to get the 2 boys relocated to the police station nearest to the community. The volunteer lawyer said that there was no evidence against the boys, and that they would be released in a day or two. The family was able to take some clothes to the boys.
I found the 17 year-old girl on her way home from school a few hours later. Her mom had wanted her to stay home, but she wanted to continue her studies, and said it helped her not to think about what had happened. She told this story: "I was riding the micro to school. A man with a gun came onto the bus. He looked around and I tried not to look at him. I held my backpack in front of my face so I couldn't see and prayed to God, and prayed to God. I was really scared. The man with the gun shot the man, and they couldn't fix his stomach so he died." She told me that she is scared to be outside of the house, but God will protect her.
A few days later, we found the two boys safely at home. They looked tired, and relieved. They probably won't ever talk much about their experiences. The men in the community don't like to talk about these things.
In my trips to El Salvador I have also gotten to know Luis. Luis has been trying for years to escape the gangs. He is learning carpentry and looking for a way to support himself and his family. He writes beautiful, sensitive letters. But Luis' efforts to try to escape the gangs, have already cost the lives of his aunt and cousin. The maras view your family as a fair target if they feel you have betrayed them.
Today, Luis sits in a border patrol detention facility in the United States. It seems that Luis has given up trying to make a living as an ex-gang member in a country where jobs are few and the danger is high. The lure of "el norte" was too great; however he was apprehended shortly after stepping foot on US soil.
I tell these stories because they make the statistics personal. They are a small glimpse for me behind the phrase "most violent country in Latin America." They influence how I think about the problem of gang violence and what, if anything, can be done about this epidemic.
In the next few days I'll write more about the gangs. There is too much "pain in the community."