This story is part of a Special Report called “Far From Home," a collaboration between the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, The GroundTruth Project, and Fusion.
As seven-year-old Alex Sanchez played barefoot outside his house in El Salvador, his mind drifted to his parents.
Their image appeared blurry in his mind although he knew they were in Los Angeles, a place he had never been but knew existed. “They must have abandoned me,” he thought. “Or maybe they sold me to the neighbors.”
The next day, a strange man came to pick Sanchez up. It was time to leave, the man told him. Sanchez did not understand where he was going or why, but he said good-bye to the neighbors that raised him.
Sanchez and his 5-year-old brother then began the days-long journey by train to Los Angeles that his parents had paid for. Scared and confused, Sanchez looked out the window as he traveled through Mexico. Nervous and overwhelmed by his abrupt departure, he was unable to control his bowel movements and ended up sitting in his own feces during much of the journey.
Many young Central American immigrants have made similar journeys to the United States. More than 50,000 unaccompanied minors from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala crossed the U.S.-Mexico border from October 2013 through September 2014. Many are fleeing violence, forced gang recruitment, and extortion.
However, Sanchez was not part of this number. Sanchez made his journey in 1979 to flee El Salvador’s Civil War and the bloody fighting that took more than 75,000 lives. Sanchez then became part of a cycle of violence that continues to affect Central America today.
While migrants from El Salvador in the 1980s fled fighting from the Civil War, recent migrants flee a new type of violence where contested gang territory is the bloodiest battlefield.
“Fifty percent of the kids listed a fear of gang threats, violence and insecurity,” said Elizabeth Kennedy, a former Fulbright scholar who studied root causes of child migration in El Salvador. “This was by and far the most common reason they were migrating.”
In her research, Kennedy spoke to young migrants afraid to cross the streets or even leave the house because of gang violence. The territorial lines drawn by gangs are imaginary and can change on a day-to-day basis. For young people in El Salvador, one wrong step can have deadly consequences.
But the roots of much of today’s gang violence in Central America lay in the streets of 1980s Los Angeles. One of these gangs, Mara Salvatrucha-13, began in Pico-Union where Sanchez grew up. It was founded by the children of immigrants who had fled the civil wars in their countries.
Sanchez, now 43 years old, had left one environment of violence in El Salvador—one where he saw decapitated bodies on his walk to school—only to encounter another.
“I didn't feel like that environment that I was exposed to while I was in El Salvador affected me while I was here,” Sanchez said, although he admits it could have affected him subconsciously. “I felt that having a violent experience at home was how I ended up reacting differently to things.”
Sanchez’s reunification with his parents in Los Angeles was confusing and uncomfortable. His parents were strangers to him. He did not remember them and refused to call them mom and dad. Sanchez also had new siblings he had never met before. Sanchez’s dad, a heavy drinker, would hit his mom after a binge. To make matters worse, the whole family lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Koreatown.
Sanchez felt trapped inside this new home. So he found identity in the streets and the playgrounds, with other children of the men and women who had fled the state-sponsored violence 2,800 miles to the south. In his first fight in fourth grade, Sanchez beat a classmate nearly unconscious and was suspended from school. He became more isolated and often responded violently to protect himself. If anyone approached him, he assumed they were trying to mess with him. “Since fourth grade, it was about standing on my own and defending myself through violence,” Sanchez said.
When he was 14, Sanchez started hanging out with a new group of friends that would affect his life path. “I met these guys and girls who were not afraid to be who they are,” Sanchez said. “They spoke with the Salvadoran accent," unlike the vast majority of LA Latinos who spoke Mexican Spanish, “and they weren’t afraid. As a matter of fact they became challenging, saying if you mess with us, this is who we are. For me that was really attractive.”
These young Salvadoran immigrants were some of the first members of Mara Salvatrucha-13, a Central American gang born on the streets of Los Angeles. They became Sanchez’s friends. At that time, the group called themselves MSS, or Mara Salvatrucha Stoners. Before MS-13 made a name for itself by threatening enemies with machetes, it was a group of stoners who liked to listen to heavy metal music.
Sanchez began hanging out with this new crowd. While he enjoyed smoking pot and going to heavy metal concerts, he also craved the sense of belonging that he felt with his friends. He didn’t have to hide his accent or his culture, and he didn’t have to fight for his survival all by himself. He had friends who had his back.
Eventually, as Sanchez was enlisted to “fight the enemy,” he took part in fistfights, shootings, and beatings with chains against rival gangs to “protect the neighborhood."
By the time Sanchez was 16, he was arrested for assault and battery and sent to juvenile hall for the first time, starting a cycle of street violence and incarceration.
By 1992, when Sanchez was 20 years old, the Civil War in El Salvador had ended. At the same time, law enforcement implemented harsher policies to combat gang activity, such as gang injunctions and the three strikes law.
With the Civil War over, the US started a harsher deportation policy towards undocumented Salvadoran-born gang members, many like Sanchez who had criminal records.
After 15 years in Los Angeles, Sanchez was deported to his home country of El Salvador in 1994 along with many other Salvadoran immigrants. They brought their gang habits and connections to the streets of San Salvador.
“All of a sudden you have hundreds of people being deported to a country that they haven’t been in for over ten years,” Sanchez said. “A country that was not ready with the infrastructure to receive these people with jobs or housing or even a transition plan.”
Instead of transitioning to a new life in El Salvador, Sanchez fell back into his old routine, as did many other deportees. He was in a different country but with the same attitude.
“We ended up going and living in the streets, and some of us adopted the same skills we had learned here to survive,” Sanchez said. “Recruit other kids that were going through the same issues you were going through, and it was not difficult to find these youngsters.”
Today, MS-13 has spread to Guatemala and Honduras. It’s one of the largest and most feared gangs in the Northern Triangle, with more than 20,000 members across these three countries, according to a recent report by the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. The gang is responsible for thousands of murders, abductions, rapes and other assaults and has become increasingly involved in the drug trade.
“To this day, the warfare has been sent down to Central America, and no one really understands the main issue,” Sanchez said. “People don’t even know why they are enemies.”
Although the Civil War was over, the gang violence took on a life of its own. A death squad called La Sombra Negra—or the Black Shadow—arose in response to the repatriation of the Salvadoran American gang members. La Sombra Negra was trained to kill criminals, which usually meant those deported from the United States like Sanchez. Back at his childhood home in El Salvador, Sanchez awoke after a night sleeping with a gun under his pillow to find a body hanging in his neighborhood. He knew it was a warning from La Sombra Negra.
A flier posted on the doors throughout the neighborhood by La Sombra Negra listed the names of known gang members. The message was clear: Leave your gang in five days, or risk being killed by the death squads.
Sanchez’s name was on one of these lists. Thanks to a tip from a neighbor, Sanchez knew when they would be coming. He abandoned his home and fled to another part of El Salvador.
With no home, family, or hope for a life in El Salvador, Sanchez began planning his return to the U.S. His life—as well as his infant son—was back in Los Angeles. He was certain he would die at the hands of La Sombra Negra if he stayed in El Salvador.
He was determined to reach the United States to reunite with his girlfriend and infant son. For three months, he planned and saved money, made two failed attempts and finally illegally crossed the U.S. border into Brownsville, Texas.
Back in LA, Sanchez was determined to stay away from the gang he once called family. He was a father now. Yet with a criminal record, Sanchez lacked access to job opportunities. But he did know about gang life, why people join and how to leave.
Sanchez remembered Magdaleno Rose Avila, the founder of a San Salvador-based gang prevention program called Homies Unidos, who he had met while back in his home country. In 1998, Sanchez brought the organization’s message of nonviolence and social change to the streets of Los Angeles as a founding member of the LA branch of Homies Unidos. Since then, he has ushered young men through the gang disassociation process by arranging for tattoo removals, mediating gang disputes and helping former gang members find jobs.
In 2002, Sanchez was granted political asylum to remain in the United States on the grounds that deportation to El Salvador could lead to his death. In 2006, he became Executive Director of Homies Unidos.
In a rundown office on Beverly Boulevard a few blocks from MacArthur Park, Sanchez sits at his desk at the Homies Unidos office. Sanchez can’t see outside from the windowless room, but as soon as he steps outside, he is in the heart of LA’s Central American community. A new flood of unaccompanied minors have arrived in Los Angeles, just like Sanchez decades ago. Many flee the violence Sanchez himself was part of.
With the lack of stability in Central America after the civil wars ended and the overloaded prison system in the US, Sanchez’s deportation and that of many others intensified the role of gangs in Central America.
“We were a kind of training school for these gangs. They had to survive in places such as LA and in order to survive in these neighborhoods they had to band together,” said Bruce Bagley, professor of International Relations at University of Miami and whose research focuses on security issues in Latin America. “Over the 1990s, the vacuum that was created was the perfect situation for consolidation of these gangs. It was because their economies were failing, their institutions didn’t work, and their security forces were corrupt.”
Sanchez’s phone rings and he answers in Spanish. He begins to discuss grant writing with a coworker, weaving back and forth between English and Spanish as certain words or phrases come to him more quickly.
“Mandame el draft ahorita,” he says in a voice that has been compared to a Latino Barry White. “Send me the draft now.”
He hangs up the phone and strokes his graying beard as he talks about his life growing up in Los Angeles. Just blocks from where it all happened, the past is never far from his mind. It comes up every time a young man steps into his office.
“Understand that you need to be proud of the other part of you,” Sanchez advises young Central Americans going through the same identity crisis he experienced growing up in Los Angeles. “Then you won’t look for your identity in the streets. You won’t need to search for a gang to give you an identity.”