The modern history of El Salvador is a story of intense and deadly struggles.
In 1976, Salvadoran President Arturo Armando Molina and the military outlined a plan to mitigate the severe economic disparity of the country through a modest redistribution of land to the peasant class. The extreme inequality in land ownership was similar to the lopsided distribution of profits in contemporary United States. However, the peasants were stuck at a much, much lower income level than working people in the U.S. A disastrous war with Honduras had also pushed a lot of Salvadorian peasants off Honduras’ land back into extreme poverty and landlessness in El Salvador.
The land initiative was brought to a halt by the moneyed elite, but that did not end the dissatisfaction of the lower class.
The failed attempt showed that some parts of the military and the elite property owners were moving apart. The elite worried that the military was grabbing property and power for themselves under the guise of land reform. The next elections were also fraudulent, and assassinations were carried out against Jesuit priests and politicians who had favored land reform. Some leaders in the military were veering toward an iron-fist policy.
The fractures from the top to the bottom of the country would explode into civil war with the democratically-orientated reformers being overwhelmed by dictators, Communists, and corruption.
The Communists, who thought that Molina didn’t go far enough, turned to Cuba for weapons and advisers. Their aspiration veered toward an idealization of the state ownership of the land under a Communist dictatorship. The Cuban-backed forces launched hard-fought attacks against the government troops who were backed by the United States. The guerrilla troops killed moderate and large property owners indiscriminately. American military observers were also shocked by the brutality of the leading faction within the military. The military launched scorched earth attacks that took no prisoners.
The Catholic Church, the official church of the country, spoke out against the repression. The Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero preached against the oligarchical aims of the government, and writing to United
States President Jimmy Carter, he asked that the U.S. cease aid to El Salvador until its government changed course. But Carter continued the aid in order to use it as a lever with the generals and as a protection of the Salvadorian people from a Communists dictatorship.
On March 24, 1980, following a sermon on sacrifice, the archbishop was shot while holding up the chalice for communion. Romero’s assassination by people connected to the military was one of the triggers for the next 12 years of civil war.
Tens of thousands of revolutionaries and innocent bystanders died. In turn the Salvadorian army suffered about 42,000 casualties, and twenty advisors from the United States were killed. In all perhaps, 75,000 Salvadorians died in the conflict.
Salvadorans began to flee their country. From 1980 until a truce was achieved in 1992, up to an estimated 465,000 El Salvadorans, a quarter of the population, fled the fighting in their country for the United States.
The forces ended up in a stalemate and negotiated a peace.
By 2011, the number of Salvadorians who had fled to New York City had grown to 33,000, making up 1.1% of New York City’s foreign-born population.
An escape from Salvadoran gang warfare
Ironically, Javi Reyes’ pilgrimage to New York City started with a peril that came to El Salvador from Los Angeles.
Many of the young Salvadoran teens in Los Angeles had come with their families to flee the violent civil war in their home country. The war killed parents and sent the children fleeing north to America. In Los Angeles many came to live in broken homes and were searching for family and identity. They also had learned to use weapons in the civil war and used those skills to defend their neighborhood from other ethnic gangs. Along the way, they formed their own gangs or “maras.” The two largest ones that emerged were Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which means “street tough Salvadorans”, and Calle 18. Members gained street cred for dealing out violence. Gang members also hired themselves out as hit men, furthering escalating nefarious reputation.
Fifteen years after the civil war was ended in El Salvador, the United States deported thousands of gang members back to El Salvador. Gang leaders found that economic and cultural instability was wracking their old country. The police and the courts were weak, confused and corrupt. Consequently, the gangs took advantage to carve out their own empires. Each gang took a different neighborhood and set up a system of extortions from local businesses. However, disputes between gangs arose because they often claimed the same territory. This lead to nightly gang fights and a terrorized civilian population. By 2011 murders hit a peak of 4,371.
The next year, with the help of Roman Catholics clerics supported by evangelical pastors, the government pressured a gang truce which halved homicide rate. Peace seemed to be in sight.
Then, in 2013, the truce was ripped apart by a huge increase in violence and murders. Some local leaders suspected that the truce was merely a cover for the gangs to increase their weaponry and to double their forces. In 2014 El Salvador’s President Salvador Sanchez Ceren refused further negotiation with the gangs after their betrayal. In August of 2015 the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled that the groups should be classified as “terrorist” groups. In retaliation, the gangs implemented a city-wide freeze on public transportation. Flexing their muscles, the gangsters told the bus drivers, who refused to go along with the stoppage, to run or be beaten up.
In 2015, El Salvador rose to the top of the list of countries with the highest homicide rates in the world. This time, much of the destruction was caused by battles between the police and gangs. The government reported more than 6,600 homicides in 2015, compared to just under 4,000 the previous year. In August alone, 900 homicides were reported—30 a day. This was the highest homicide rate since the end of El Salvador’s civil war 15 years earlier.
Now, the Salvadoran National Police estimate an army of 25,000 gang members are fighting to rule the country, with another 9,000 in prison. Every month new recruits replace the imprisoned and deserters. Teens as young as 13 years old bond together with twenty-year olds to form quasi-families.
It was not long ago that New York City similarly was wretched. Crime came upon every city resident in the 1970s-1980s. Seeing a body in the street was not unusual. Long-term residents can still point out the corners where the bodies lay. Still, even New York’s peak of 31 deaths for every 100,000 residents doesn’t come close to El Salvador’s of 104 homicides for every 100,000 residents.
For comparison imagine 12,000 bodies dropping in the streets of New York City this year. Or consider that at the Salvadorian rate of violence, a corpse, often of a student or of a professor that had assigned a failing grade to a gang member, would fall every three days on the sidewalks of the Columbia University area, which has about 110,000 people. By the time the first ten students dropped, the Columbia area would be a ghost town. And for every dead student, seven or eight would be carried out on stretchers by the Rescue Command, a volunteer student operated ambulance corps similar to those in El Salvador. They might have to be escorted by a truckload of masked security forces armed with machine guns. The police truck would be sandbagged for protection against the frequent improvised explosive devices and grenades used by the Morningside Heights gangs around the battle zone in Manhattan Valley along Broadway, the road to Presbyterian Hospital. It would be likely that security in this stretch would be maintained by army soldiers encamped on the City College campus. Some Columbia students and professors would be faced with arrest and placement into camps as they try to illegally immigrate to the universities of Europe.
One of the complications in dealing with the gangs is that there is no political ideology or larger social goal behind their creation. The gangs are a self-made identity and membership as its own end. Little money is made or promised to new entrants. Some drug trafficking and extortion of local businesses sustain the hordes of youth but does not provide them luxurious living. Rather, the attraction to gang life is the promise of inclusion and identity, a close-knit family in an untrustworthy world. Gang members say, “Vivo por mi madre, muero por mi barrio”—I live for my mother, I die for my neighborhood.
Churches and NGOs in the country are pressing for a dialogue with an offer to gang members for an alternative family identity rooted in normal social life. Just over half of Salvadorans are Catholic. Protestants have been increasing and now may make up a third of the country.
In New York City Salvadorans have a network of Catholic and Protestant congregations which pass along news about job opportunities. The majority continue in the Catholic tradition. But A Journey through NYC religions has found more than 40 Pentecostal churches with roots in El Salvador.
Forty percent of the men take jobs in construction and transportation, and 45% of the women work in service jobs. The median age of immigrants from El Salvador is 29, skewing it lower than that of most Hispanic immigrants in the United States. This young age is due to the number of minors who leave El Salvador alone to escape coerced initiation into the gangs. In 2014, more than 67,000 unaccompanied minors crossed from Central America into the United State’s southern border, a sharp increase from the previous years which had averaged around 20,000. Of these, 16,404 were from El Salvador.
A flower growing up through the concrete cracks
In the midst of this violence, Francisco Javi Reyes grew up in the city of San Salvador. His parents moved to San Salvador from the suburb of Ilobasco because of his father’s job as a manager for Coca Cola. Jose Alberto Reyes Romero was a hard worker and a strong Christian. After his day job at Coca Cola, Romero concluded his days by preaching at the Catholic Church of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle.
Lizandra Reyes, Javi’s mother, runs a small convenience store out of their house. She sells textiles, clothes, and home-roasted coffee beans that she prepares in their basement.
As a result of family tragedy and criminal violence, sixteen-year-old Reyes made the decision to travel through the borders of El Salvador through Mexico and cross into Texas. He planned to find a way from Texas to an uncle living in New York City. Foremost in his heart was to find a way to support his mother and sister while pursuing his own ambitions of making it through school and perhaps becoming a priest. This is his story.
Next: Javi’s Story Begins