Escaping Gang Violence, Growing Number of Teens Cross Border

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Emilio, 18, loves to play soccer on his Nintendo and with his uncle on a field close to his home.

He's lived in the Brentwood area of Long Island for less than a year. But, settling in a new home in the United States, with many of the amenities of a suburban life, has not brought an end to his fears of gang intimidation.  

"I don't feel safe,” Emilio said. “Because wherever you are there are always gangs. Always.”

Emilio’s problems began a year ago in his hometown, San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. He says members of La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, one of the most violent gangs in the world, approached him.

"They told me once to join them,” he said. “I didn’t want to. This was apparently the first attempt.”

Emilio says they came back only a few days later to see if he had made a decision. He again refused, and this time there were consequences. 

"After the beating they gave me my rib was broken,” he said. “I was all bruised. They left my eye really ugly.”

Emilio says gang members told him they’d kill him if he didn’t join them. WNYC could not independently confirm this, but experts and other teenagers from Central America say recruitment and attacks by gangs are common.

"In the past the children described the sort of circumstances where they were being asked to pay taxes to have gangs leave them alone," said Jessica Jones, a fellow at the Women's Refugee Commission. “Now what they’re describing is essentially situations where they’re being told that if they don’t join, they will die.”

In fiscal year 2012, the number of children from Central America who were placed with the Office of Refugee Resettlement as minors, usually after being arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, went up from 5,000 to 12,000.

Jones interviewed 150 children who had entered the U.S. unaccompanied — the vast majority from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. She said they cited violence intensification as their primary reason for leaving.

Word of what had happened to her son in San Salvador traveled and reached Emilio’s mother, Ingrid, who has been living on Long Island since 2005. 

"You feel like you’re in an impossible situation,” Ingrid said. “So I told them [her family in El Salvador] it was better if I bring him here.”

Ingrid asked we don't use the family's last name because she's here illegally. She had left her children with her mother and sister when she came to the U.S. for work. She started seeking out smugglers who could bring Emilio and her teenage daughter, Stephanie, who also says she was approached by gang members.   

"They would always wait for me to get out of the school,” Stephanie said. “I told my aunt that someone was chasing after us always when we got out of school.”

Stephanie said the gang didn't ask her to join them. But different gang members told her they wanted her to become their girlfriend and said things she only describes as “ugly.”

"I didn’t want to have a boyfriend,” she said, crying. “Because I didn’t know anything about that.”

Emilio and Stephanie walked from Guatemala through Mexico with a group of people led by smugglers. They reached the U.S. in February. In Texas, they were immediately arrested and turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have had crime and poverty problems for years. But Héctor Lindo-Fuentes, a professor of history at Fordham University, says he’s not surprised that more children might be coming due to worsening conditions.

"One of the things that helped change the dimensions of the issue is the war against drugs in Mexico that kind of deviated some of the drug traffic through Central America,” Lindo-Fuentes said. “The pre-existent problem with gangs was also combined with the problem of organized crime.”

Emilio and Stephanie, like other minors released to parents or legal guardians after crossing the border, have been placed in removal proceedings. A lawyer has taken on their case to fight their deportation. Meanwhile,  Emilio says that getting to know his new classmates has helped him relax.

"Here you can get to know people who don’t think of joining gangs or harassing you and things like that,” he said.