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The Surreal Reasons Girls Are Disappearing In El Salvador: #15Girls

Oct 5, 2015
Originally published on October 7, 2015 2:12 pm

In many countries, the decisions teens make at 15 can determine the rest of their lives. But, often, girls don't have much say — parents, culture and tradition decide for them. In a new series, #15Girls, NPR explores the lives of 15-year-old girls who are seeking to take control and change their fate. Warning: Some of the depictions and images in this story are graphic.

It's our first morning in El Salvador's capital. We're eating breakfast and we get a call from a local reporter we know.

There's a crime scene, he says. A girl. You should come. We take a taxi to what looks like a major intersection in San Salvador. When we get there, we look around. And then we see her, slumped on a street corner.

The girl is dead. She's 15 years old and her name is Marcela. Witnesses tell us she was executed by a gang member.

We can't see her face. All we can see is her plaid pants and gray T-shirt. Her family is across the street in a pickup truck. We can't tell you their names because it would put them in danger.

Marcela's mother is too upset to talk. So, we talk to her grandmother. She says Marcela left the house that morning with her sister. The two worked in downtown San Salvador, the capitol of El Salvador, making tortillas.

The grandmother tells us that Marcela's boyfriend was a bus driver in a gang-controlled neighborhood. First, he got threats. "Help the gang or we'll kill you." Then he disappeared.

Then Marcela started getting threats. And now this: Marcela's body, lying on the ground, while people drive to work.

If you were standing at the U.S.-Mexico border two summers ago during the so-called "surge" of unaccompanied minors trying to come to the U.S., you would have seen thousands of young girls from El Salvador.

If you had asked them why they came, they would have told you the answer is simple: gangs. Back in the 1980s, during El Salvador's civil war, many people migrated from El Salvador to the U.S. On the streets of cities like Los Angeles, they formed gangs.

Then, many of them were deported back to El Salvador. And they brought the gangs with them. Now, El Salvador's two main gangs — Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 — control much of the country. There is so much violence in El Salvador that someone dies there, on average, every hour.

Much of the killing is over turf or revenge. And sometimes people are just caught in the middle. Many times, those caught in the middle are girls.

We went to El Salvador to talk to these girls, to understand why they would want to make the perilous journey to the U.S., why they would ever want to leave home.

This is the story of four of those girls. In most cases, we're not using last names; to bring any attention to them would make them a target of the gangs.

Marcela

We find the police investigator on the case. He says Marcela was attacked from behind and shot twice in the head. He says Marcela's sister witnessed the killing. She's now in police protection.

We ask him why a gang member would kill a 15-year-old girl. He speculates that it's because she didn't want to be someone's girlfriend or didn't want to do something for that gang.

Is this normal, we ask? Does it happen to young women a lot?

It happens every day, he says.

The police later release Marcela's sister from their protection, even though local reporters tell us the gangs will probably go after her now.

The family tells us their only option is to leave the country, ideally for the U.S. But they've got about $200 to their name. It's not nearly enough to pay a smuggler.

All this happened on our first full day in El Salvador. If this is how bad it is, how do girls live?

To answer that question, we go to a school and start interviewing 15-year-old-girls.

Aby

One girl stands out. Her name is Aby Salas and she wants to study law. She says her favorite thing is to sit down with some hot chocolate and a book. That and go to church.

It was at church that Aby met her best friend, Jessica. Aby and Jessica used to go to school together.

Then another girl at school started threatening Jessica.

"At first it was like a little game," Aby says. "If you don't give me this, you'll be in trouble."

Give me that blouse, the girl would say to Jessica. Give me those jeans.

"And it got to the point when she wanted help cheating on tests," Aby says. "And the threat was always like, 'We're going to be waiting for you outside of class, to beat you up.'"

It might sound like pretty typical bullying. But this bully's brothers were in a gang. One day the girl asked Jessica for a pencil. Jessica only had one pencil, so she said no.

A few days later, Jessica went to the store.

"Her mom says she left at 3:30 in the afternoon, and then it was 4, and then it was 5, and this was a store that was right on the corner," Aby says. "And we haven't heard from her since."

And now, ever since her best friend Jessica disappeared, Aby spends all her time at home.

A few days after we meet her at the school, she shows us her room. It's about 8 feet by 8 feet, painted pink with cinder block walls. If she's not in school or helping with dinner, she's here.

And it's her choice, she says. It's basically a self-imposed lockdown. After what happened, Aby's too afraid to go out. And her parents are cool with that.

But her parents won't talk about what happened. They don't want to scare Aby's little brother and sister.

"It's too dangerous to talk about that," she says. "If somebody hears you talk about it, something bad could happen to you."

The family of Aby's best friend, Jessica, has moved away. They're hiding from the gang. They're planning to come to the U.S.

"Then I'll have nothing left of my friend, Aby says. "She'll just be in my head."

After we meet Aby, we start asking people in El Salvador, "Is it normal for girls to shut themselves in the house all day?"

Yes, they tell us. It's the only way to stay safe from the gangs.

In other words, El Salvador is a country of girls with two main choices: Hide from gangs or give in to them.

Mimi

We do find an exception to that rule.

Her name is Stephanie Noemi. Her friends call her Mimi. She's 15 years old. And instead of staying home on a Friday night, she puts on bright yellow coveralls, chants a prayer and starts the overnight shift as a volunteer ambulance worker with a group called the Comandos de Salvamento.

Mimi joined the squad when she was 10. A relative suggested she try it. Now, she says, it's the only way to get out of the house but stay out of trouble. Her neighborhood is completely controlled by gangs.

As a paramedic, she likes being able to help people who are victims of the gangs.

"It feels good to be somebody else's shield," she says.

We spend the night shift with Mimi. We watch as she and her colleagues help a girl with special needs, who has spiked a fever, get to a hospital. We watch as they respond to a man who has been hit by a car and is now unconscious.

And, toward the end of the shift, we watch as they confront El Salvador's gang violence up close.

A woman stumbles into the Comandos headquarters, which is basically a garage for a handful of ambulances. One side of the woman's face is covered in blood and the men with her say she has been thrown from a bus by gang members. Her little boy's shirt is bloody, too.

The Comandos bandage the woman and Mimi cleans the boy. Then she puts them both into an ambulance that will take them to the hospital.

Mimi tells us she wants to stay in El Salvador. She says if she helps people like this, maybe someday someone will help her, too.

The Deported

One reason we're not seeing a "surge" in unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. from Central America is that Mexico is catching them before they even reach the U.S.

If you're from El Salvador and you get caught, you end up in the deportation center in San Salvador. It's one of the last places we go in the capital city. And it's where we meet a girl who we're not even sure will make it to 15.

We can't tell you her name, because to do that would put her in a lot of danger.

She says she got caught in Tampico, Mexico. This 13-year-old girl went more than 1,000 miles and was only a few hours from the U.S.

The girl says the smuggler her family paid for left her alone on a bus. She fell asleep, got caught by Mexican immigration and was sent back to El Salvador.

We ask her why she left. It is not a happy story.

The girl says her father is in one of El Salvador's two main gangs. He's in prison for murder. And now he says if his ex-wife, the girl's mother, doesn't give him $50,000 when he gets out, he'll have the girl raped and killed.

This is how gangs work in Central America.

The girl says the family doesn't have $50,000. The girl's mom is in the U.S. Her grandmother works in a street stall. Her grandfather doesn't have a job.

It's a Catch 22 — one that so many girls in El Salvador find themselves in.

If this girl stays, she could be killed. But if she tries to go to the U.S. to claim asylum, she'll probably get caught again in Mexico. Or, worse. We know from people who study these migration routes, she could be robbed or kidnapped or raped along the way.

"I don't want that to happen," she says. "I'm not one of those kids who waits till the last minute to make things right. I don't have to let these things happen to me."

Pretty soon, it's time for the girl to go. Her grandpa is here to pick her up and take her home.

We get her family's phone number and make plans to see her again. But we don't see her again.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Being 15 years old means very different things depending on where you live. In some countries, for girls, it's the point at which choices are made about whether you should continue with your education, get a job or get married. These choices are often made by family members or dictated by your culture.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Over the next few weeks, we'll meet girls from around the world who are trying to make their own choices. And Kelly's going to start us off today with a look at what being a 15-year-old girl means in El Salvador.

MCEVERS: El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world. It's a place where street gangs rule, so the choices girls are making can mean life or death. I recently traveled to El Salvador, and I should mention that some of the details you'll hear in this story, right from the start, are tough. We witnessed some disturbing scenes.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks for the warning. And let's take a listen to how that trip began.

MCEVERS: So it's our first morning in the capital, San Salvador. We've just woken up. We're eating breakfast, and we get a call from a local reporter we know. There's a crime scene, he says - a girl. You should come. We take a taxi to what looks like a major intersection in the city.

Where's the actual scene? Do we know?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The girl is over there.

MCEVERS: Oh, that's her. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

The girl is dead. She's 15 years old, and her name is Marcela. Witnesses say she was executed by a gang member. All we can see are her plaid pants, gray T-shirt. Her family's here now right behind us in a pickup truck. We can't tell you their names because it would put them in danger.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Sobbing, Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: Marcela's mother is too upset to talk, so we talk to her grandmother. She says Marcela left the house that morning with her sister.

When did they go missing? When did they go missing?

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Through interpreter) This morning. They were going to work.

MCEVERS: Marcela and her sister made tortillas.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: Marcela's grandmother says the girl's boyfriend was a bus driver in a gang-controlled neighborhood. First, he got threats. Help the gang, or we'll kill you. Then he disappeared. Then Marcela started getting threats and now this. Her body's just laying on the ground while people drive to work.

Her head's resting up against her arm, and her other hand is on her arm. I mean, she does look like she's asleep.

We find the police investigator on the case. He says Marcela was attacked from behind.

But she was shot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: Shot twice in the head - OK.

He says Marcela's sister witnessed the killing. She's now in police protection. We ask him, why would a gang member kill a 15-year-old girl?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He speculates that it might be because she didn't want to be someone's girlfriend or she didn't want to do a favor for the gang.

MCEVERS: Is this normal? Does this happen to young women a lot?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Every day.

MCEVERS: It happens every day. The police later release Marcela's sister from their protection even though local reporters tell us the gangs will probably now go after her too. The family tells us their only option is to leave the country, ideally, go to the U.S. But they've got about $200 to their name. It's not nearly enough to pay a smuggler.

All of this happened on our first day in El Salvador. If this is how bad it is, we wondered, how do girls live their lives?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: So answer that question, we go to a school and start interviewing 15-year-old girls.

ABI SALAS: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: One stands out. Her name is Abi Salas, and she wants to study law. She says her favorite thing is to sit down with some hot chocolate and a book - that and go to church. It was at church that Abi met her best friend, Jessica. Abi and Jessica used to go to school together. Then another girl at the school started threatening Jessica.

ABI: (Through interpreter) At first, it was kind of like a game. Like, if you don't give me this, you're going to be in trouble. If you don't do this, you're going to - you know, like a little game.

MCEVERS: Give me that blouse, the girl would say to Jessica; give me those jeans.

ABI: (Through interpreter) And it got to the point when she wanted help cheating on tests. And the threat was always, like, we're going to be waiting for you outside of class to beat you up.

MCEVERS: It might sound like pretty typical bullying, but this bully's brothers were in a gang. One day, the girl asked Jessica for a pencil. Jessica only had one pencil, so she said no. A few days later, Jessica went to the store.

ABI: (Through interpreter) Her mom says the girl left at 3:30 in the afternoon. And then it was 4, and then it was 5. And this was a store that was right on the corner. And we haven't heard from her since.

(Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: And now, ever since her best friend, Jessica, disappeared, this is where Abi spends her time.

OK.

>>ABI (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: It's not messy. What're you talking about (laughter)?

Her bedroom. If she's not in school or helping with dinner, she's here. And it's her choice. It's basically a self-imposed lockdown. After what happened, she's too afraid to go out, and her parents are cool with that. But her parents won't talk about what happened. They don't want to scare Abi's little brother and sister.

But who does she get to talk to about it?

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Through interpreter) It's too dangerous to talk about that. If someone hears you talk about it, it - something bad could happen to you.

MCEVERS: The family of Abi's best friend, the girl who disappeared at the store that day, has moved away. They're now in hiding from the gang, and they're planning to come to the U.S. Then I'll have nothing left of my friend, Abi says. She'll just be in my head.

After we meet Abi, we start asking people in El Salvador, is it normal for girls to shut themselves in the house all day? Oh, yeah, they tell us; it's the only way to stay safe from the gang. In other words, El Salvador is a country of girls with two main choices. Hide from the gangs, or give in to them.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

MCEVERS: We do find an exception to that rule. Her name is Stephanie Noemi. Her friends call her Mimi. She's 15 years old, and this is what she does on a Friday night.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

MCEVERS: Puts on bright-yellow coveralls, chants this prayer and starts the overnight shift as a volunteer ambulance worker with a group called the Commandos de Salvamento - The Rescue Squad.

STEPHANIE NOEMI: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: Mimi joined the squad when she was 10. Relatives suggested she try it. Now, she says, it's the only way to get out of the house but stay out of trouble. Her neighborhood is completely controlled by gangs. As a paramedic, Mimi says she likes being able to help people who are victims of the gangs.

MIMI: (Through interpreter) It feels good to be somebody else's shield.

MCEVERS: And then again, we see El Salvador's gang violence up close. A woman stumbles into the Commando's headquarters, and there are two men with her.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: She what?

GARSD: Gang members threw her from a bus.

MCEVERS: Get her in quick, the men say. There might have been witnesses.

So her little boy is with her. He's got blood on his shirt. One side of her face is totally bloody.

The Commandos bandage the woman. Mimi cleans the boy and puts them both into an ambulance that will take them to a hospital. Mimi tells us she wants to stay in El Salvador. She says if she helps people like this, maybe somebody someday will want to help her too.

This is one of the last places we went in El Salvador. Last year, tens of thousands of migrants from Central America came to the U.S. Many of them were under 18. Now Mexico is catching them and sending them back before they ever get to the U.S. If you're from El Salvador and you get caught, you end up in this room. It's where we meet a girl who we're not even sure will make it to 15. We can't tell you her name because to do that would be to put her in a lot of danger. We ask her where she got caught.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: En Tampico.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Tampico.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: En Tampico.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Look at you two.

My colleagues and I are laughing because we can't believe a 13-year-old girl made it all the way to Tampico, Mexico. That means she went more than a thousand miles and was only a few hours from the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: But the girl's smuggler left her alone on a bus. She fell asleep, got caught by Mexican immigration and was sent back here. We ask her why she tried to leave El Salvador, and that's when the laughing stops.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Crying, Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: The girl's father is in one of El Salvador's two main gangs. He's in prison for murder, and now, he says, if his ex-wife, the girl's mother, doesn't give him $50,000 when he gets out, he'll have the girl raped and killed - his own daughter. This is how gangs work in Central America. The family doesn't have $50,000. The girl's mom is in the U.S. Her grandmother works in a street stall. The grandfather doesn't have a job.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: It's a catch-22, a catch-22 that so many girls in El Salvador find themselves in. If this girl stays, she could be killed, but if she tries to go to the U.S. to claim asylum, she'll probably get caught again in Mexico. Or worse, we know from people who study these migration routes, she could be robbed or kidnapped or raped or killed along the way.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: "I don't want that to happen," she says. "I'm not one of those kids who waits till the last minute to make thing right. I don't have to let these things happen to me."

Pretty soon, it's time for the girl to go. Her grandpa's here to pick her up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: We get her family's phone number and make plans to see her again, but we don't see her again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: The voice of the interpreter you heard in this story is NPR's Jasmine Garsd. Since we reported this story, the last girl we heard from is still in El Salvador with her grandparents. They've taken her out of school, and they won't tell us anything else. Mimi the paramedic is still with the Commandos. Abi, whose best friend disappeared, is still staying at home. Her latest aspiration is to be the director of NASA. We were not able to make contact again with the family of Marcela, the girl who was killed in the street. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.