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In A Nation In The Grip Of Gangs, 2 Sisters Make A Bid For Safety

In Ciudad Delgado, a police officer guards a teen painting over gang tags. Conflicts between rival gangs are deadly, and hard for bystanders to avoid.
In Ciudad Delgado, a police officer guards a teen painting over gang tags. Conflicts between rival gangs are deadly, and hard for bystanders to avoid.

When Vanessa talks about home, she doesn't mean San Miguel.

Vanessa isn't from here. The town, just a few hours from El Salvador's capital, is only the latest stop on the 17-year-old's desperate flight from criminal gangs, known as maras.

"They would often come to our home looking for us," says Vanessa, who, like all the people in this story, is referred to here by her middle name for safety reasons.

She says that a few years back, marastargeted her 15-year-old cousin the same way.

"They would follow him everywhere, pushing him to join that gang," she says. "One day he walked me to school, hugged me and never came back."

Fearing for her life, Vanessa ran away with her 16-year-old sister, Flor, to San Miguel. The girls managed to escape the gangs chasing them; they haven't been able to escape the violence that's consuming El Salvador.

The Violence Pushing Out A Wave Of Migrants

In scores of poor towns and neighborhoods in El Salvador, rival gangs fight each other for control.

"It's a jungle out there. If you don't know, you might walk into the wrong street, and that's it for you," says one former gang member. He was deported from the Washington, D.C., area after serving time for gang-related activities. (Many gangs in El Salvador began in the U.S., and moved to Central America through such deportations.)

Now he lives in a shantytown outside of the Salvadorean capital, filled with cinderblock homes, dangerous alleys — and the gangs.

"They'll kill you right in front of your wife, your mother, your kids," he says.

Around 5,000 people have been murdered in El Salvador this year. The death toll puts the nation on track to become the deadliest country in the world that's not at war.

It's a jungle out there. If you don't know, you might walk into the wrong street, and that's it for you.

Things are almost as bad in neighboring countries.

"Circumstances in Central America continue to be terribly difficult," says Cecilia Muñoz, an assistant to President Obama and one of the key White House officials dealing with immigration policy.

The Obama administration has presented a billion-dollar aid package to Congress, aimed at helping El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala address violence and poverty, factors that continue to push undocumented minors into dangerous and illegal border crossings.

In the U.S. last year, thousands of migrants from Central America crossed the border in the attempt to escape violence in their native countries.

"The phenomenon of migration hasn't stopped," Muñoz says. "We're not seeing the huge influx that we saw last year, but we're not seeing zero either."

Far from zero, in fact: This fiscal year, 20,000 undocumented Central American children crossed the border illegally. That's roughly half the number of those who did so in 2014.

The decrease is due in large part to Mexico's crackdown at its southern border, but the actual number of Central American children endangered by violence and poverty hasn't diminished.

The Frightening View From The U.S.

Vanessa and Flor's 33-year-old mother, Emilia, now lives in Washington, D.C. She came to the U.S. about 11 years ago in search of work so she could provide a better life for her daughters — and events in El Salvador terrify her.

"Two of my daughters' former schoolmates were kidnapped and raped," she says. "As a mother, I'm doing everything I can to keep that from happening."

Emilia recently became a U.S. citizen, and has applied for visas so her daughters can come to America legally. Because of her new status, they move to the front of the line, but the process can take months.

Emilia says each day they wait is agonizing, because she feels the gangs are closing in on her daughters.

"You can't play with those people," she says. "Gang members don't stop until they get what they want."

The truth of that statement became very clear a few weeks ago, when Emilia learned that the gangs had tracked her daughters to San Miguel.

Desperate, Emilia flew to El Salvador. From there the frightened mother and daughters drove to another Central American country — which for security reasons we won't divulge.

There, they await their U.S. visas.

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