SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- For those wondering why minors from Central America are flooding into the United States in unprecedented numbers, the story of Hector Antonio Giron, a husky 46-year-old merchant, provides an answer.
On Sept. 14, 2011, gang members abducted the youngest of his three daughters, who was then 16, as she made deliveries in their rural town. One of them telephoned Giron hours later, sarcasm in his voice.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry, we have your daughter. She’s delicious,’ ” Giron recalled.
A frantic Giron and his wife peppered people in the town, Cuyultitan, which is 15 miles southeast of San Salvador, the capital, about whether they’d seen the abduction. The conversations led them to a pickup owner who acknowledged he’d taken money to drive the gang members and the girl to a ranch near the beach.
Giron and his wife told police they’d located where their daughter was held. Police agreed to go. The Girons discussed what to do next.
“I said to my wife, ‘How can we stay here when they have our daughter?’ ” Giron said, so they went to the ranch, only to discover that the police hadn’t come. Giron called 911. “They said they were covering another ‘event.’ ”
Giron, who’d taken a 9 mm pistol with him, decided to confront the abductors, members of the feared Barrio 18, one of two powerful gangs with a presence in every corner of El Salvador. Both gangs got their starts on the streets of cities in California in the 1980s, then spread across El Salvador as members were deported after committing crimes. Samuel Diaz Morataya, a deportee in his early 20s whose nickname was “Gorila,” _ gorilla in English _ led the branch in Cuyultitan.
Upon entering the compound, Giron felt a rush of shock and anger. His daughter was wailing.
“It was the very moment they were raping her,” Giron said, sobbing at the recollection.
The six or so gang members encircled the enraged father, who pulled out his pistol and began to fire. When the exchange of gunshots ended, Diaz Morataya lay dead and the other gang members had fled. Giron was uninjured.
Giron and his wife headed back home with their daughter. On the way, police stopped the bus they were on and arrested Giron, charging him with murdering “Gorila.”
The next day, the gang retaliated. At 11:45 a.m., several youths approached the barred sidewalk window to the dry-goods store the Giron family owned and asked to buy cigarettes. When Giron’s wife, Guadalupe Flores de Giron, brought the loose cigarettes, one of the young men flashed a handgun and shot her in the abdomen and head, killing her instantly. A 2-year-old granddaughter looked on in terror.
The plight of the Giron family is far from unusual in modern-day El Salvador. A family suffers brutal aggression by gang members and finds the state unable to pursue justice or offer sufficient protection, forcing family members to flee the country, either individually or as a group.
Gang violence appears to be a major factor in the surge in unaccompanied minors and mothers with children flooding across the border into Texas. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children, the vast majority from Central America, have arrived in the United States in the past nine months, prompting Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry to travel to Central America in the last two weeks for meetings on the crisis.
“The United States wants to work very, very closely with our Central American partners in order to try to address this issue,” Kerry said Tuesday in Panama City before meeting with the presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala. “It’s not a question of assigning blame.”
A lack of rigorous research has meant the role of gang violence in spurring migration remains largely anecdotal.
“There is a great vacuum of information,” said Jeannette Aguilar, the head of the University Institute of Public Opinion, which conducts surveys in El Salvador.
Yet as the Obama administration amps up warnings in Spanish-language media about the dangers of crossing Mexico to get to the United States illegally, the warnings fall on deaf ears among some Central Americans.
“I’ve heard women say, ‘What are they going to do to me in Mexico? They’ll rape me? They do that to me here, ’ ” said Jaime Rivas Castillo, a sociologist at the Central American University, a Jesuit-run institution.
“The violent situation here has reached such levels that no measures will stop them from emigrating, no matter the dangers they face,” Aguilar added.
The plight of the Giron family only grew more acute after the killing of the patriarch’s wife. While he languished in jail, his three daughters fled their hometown, unable to attend the wake and funeral of their mother.
Giron was freed a week later. A judge, Karla Maria Murcia, scorned prosecutors who argued for his continued detention.
“In my opinion as a citizen, the police played a deplorable role given that they knew the location of the people who had abducted this minor,” Murcia said, according to an account in the national newspaper El Diario de Hoy. She freed Giron after exonerating him of all charges.
Barely a week after the kidnapping of his youngest daughter, Giron’s life as a relatively prosperous small-town merchant had derailed into tragedy. The family owned three modest houses, a small store and a pickup. Total value: about $100,000. But now there was a new tally: one raped daughter, one dead gang leader, a wife who’d died in a hail of bullets and a family on the run. Their properties have been abandoned, marred by gang graffiti warning away buyers.
The daughters knew the identities of some of the gang members who’d killed their mother. They had nicknames like Chando, Timba and Enano.
“When we were young, I remember that we played together,” said Wendy del Carmen Giron, the oldest daughter, who’s now 22.
Authorities agreed to put the surviving family members in a safe house, but only for the duration of the trial of a few gang members picked up by police.
After about six months in the safe house, the family went on the run, living at the homes of empathetic friends and relatives. Fear has been a constant. Word on the street is that Barrio 18 will seek more vengeance.
“They are offering $35,000 for my head,” Giron said. “They say they’ll kill us one by one.”
Giron told his oldest daughter to flee with her child to the United States. She took Allison, who’s 5 now, and headed north in February. In Mexico, immigration agents caught them and forced their return to El Salvador.
The strength of street gangs in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – has grown to the point that they present a direct challenge to governments.
Marvin Gonzalez, a 30-year-old former member of the nation’s largest gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, said that gang and the rival Barrio 18 were present throughout the country.
“In El Salvador, there is not a single square kilometer without gang members,” Gonzalez said. “Media reports say that between the two gangs, there are a total of 60,000 members. The police only have 25,000 officers.”
Police officers, most of whom live in areas with heavy gang activity and fear reprisals themselves, sometimes collaborate with local gang leaders.
“There are police who capture members of one gang and then leave them in the territory of the rival gang so that they will be killed,” said Rivas, the sociologist.
Gang members not only are in most middle- and working-class neighborhoods, but they also flaunt their power.
“They like how everyone is afraid of them,” said Ines Belloso, a housewife and mother of two boys who was watching one at a soccer practice in Ilopango, a suburb of the capital.
Parents are particularly distraught over the gangs’ power to recruit adolescent boys and to co-opt girls, often forcibly, into becoming partners of gang bosses, sometimes simply kidnapping them.
Minors from El Salvador compose 21 percent of the more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors who’ve crossed into the United States since Oct. 1, according to Department of Homeland Security figures.
For those like Giron who’ve suffered acute trauma at the hands of the gangs, the only hope is in finding nations willing to give their families asylum. Giron’s family has appealed to several European countries and the United States. So far, they haven’t gotten a positive response.
Karla Lissette Salas, a lawyer who’s helping the family seek asylum abroad, said few countries were willing to take asylum cases from El Salvador. So far this year, lawyers have placed six families with a total of 31 members, she said.
Fighting back tears unsuccessfully, Giron spoke of his desire to obtain haven in some safe country. He said his family was racing against time, noting that one of those jailed in the killing of his wife will soon leave prison.