This story was originally published in De Wereld Morgen and is republished on Global Voices with permission.
Dawns in El Salvador are fresh and humid. Whenever I go to this tropical, warm and volcanic country in Central America, I would be woken up at 6 a.m. by the voice of the young man selling bread: “El pan, el pan,” he calls, while ringing the bell on his bicycle. Even a sleepyhead like me enjoyed this mundane experience of everyday life there. During my latest trip to my mother’s country, however, my nostalgia was replaced by a familiar feeling of suffocation.
I was told that this young man keeps an eye on the neighborhood on behalf of the deadly gangs who live at the end of the street. The bicycle is a cover-up—the bread we buy every morning is a form of surveillance. My fondness dissolved and no morning has ever been the same.
Whenever I go back to this country tucked away a few hundred kilometers under Mexico, the space left to breathe shrinks. Being from a Salvadoran and Belgian family, I would sometimes visit relatives and work as a journalist there.
For many, the neighborhoods where my relatives live are perceived as “favelas,” slums prone to violence and doom, but for me, they meant wonderful times with a loving family, games with cousins and delicious home-cooked foods. Throughout the years, however, I noticed how anxiety would fill my relatives’ existence.
Spiral of violence
Life in El Salvador is one of sun, beaches and tropical weather, famous among surfers. It is also a country where people love to dance as they never know when they might dance again. In El Salvador, we have to calculate every movement outside of the house to stay alive. Gangs exert their control over every aspect of life with invisible, but real, social norms that people have to strategically navigate. Salvadorans flee from the vicious cycles of poverty and crime, an unresolved legacy of civil war in the 1980s, weak and untrustworthy state powers, and the effects of climate change which lead to food insecurity and, therefore, more poverty. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans, including members of my family, have applied for asylum in the United States, Mexico, Spain, and Belgium in recent years.
“Nearly 20,000 Salvadorans were killed from 2014 to 2017. That’s more violent deaths than in several countries that were at war during those years, such as Libya, Somalia and Ukraine,” reports Brussels-based think tank Crisis Group. El Salvador has also one of the world's highest rates of femicide.
Asylum seekers often mention violent threats of gangs, which are organized social groups of underage and adult people who live off extortions and low-scale drug-dealing. These gangs were originally born in the United States during El Salvador’s civil war (Editor's note: Hundreds of thousands of El Salvadorans had fled the death squads trained by the US, to Los Angeles, but were left to their fate and many young people ended up in crime. In the late 90s, many of them were deported to El Salvador). Now, they set their own rules parallel to those of the state.
For example, I could never enter my family’s neighborhood without a relative, who lives in that specific barrio, to fetch me at the entrance. I would be seen as a stranger and therefore a threat to the gang members. If entering by car, its windows need to be rolled down and its headlights turned off, too. Those who do not obey the gang’s rules are seen as an affront and can be killed on the spot. Those—from the wealthy transport business owner to the humble market seller—who do not pay their monthly extortion quota are also killed.
One day, annoyed, I complained to an older relative about how irritating it was to walk on eggshells around teens smoking pot on the street. “Yes, they're bichos, those little kids,” she answered me. “But they already have blood on their hands.”
In El Salvador, to talk about an acquaintance who was killed or gone missing is part of everyday conversation. Between two sips of coffee and a bite of a cookie, my cousin would explain, on his Sunday visit to his mother, how his neighbor, a taxi driver, was found killed because he did not pay his extortion fee.
Teenagers are accustomed to fearing for their lives when hopping on a bus to school and many have seen bloody bodies covered with white sheets on the street. Young adults avoid taking the car after the sun sets at 6 p.m.—“What would happen if it broke down in an unfriendly place? A school mate of mine was assaulted and killed this way.”
Every Salvadoran knows someone who had to flee the country, who was killed by gangs or who was murdered by their husband. People who did not have a family member murdered are considered lucky. Nowadays, conversations rotate around the disappearances of young people, which is believed by some to have replaced more blatant murder scenes.
So, when a Salvadoran receives a death threat, they take it seriously. They first try to seek a safe haven within their own country, a difficult task considering that El Salvador is only slightly larger than Belgium but with half the population. Nearly half a million people were internally displaced in 2010, in a country where 94 per cent of municipalities are controlled by gangs. It is difficult to hide from well-organized mafias when, through a couple of contacts, you can easily track anyone down.
“Eric” (a fictional name, for his safety) is a former asylum seeker in Belgium who was sent back to El Salvador in November 2020 on the highly publicized government charter flight of “voluntary returnees.” He found a job in a restaurant when he got back to El Salvador. Now he sleeps at his workplace and only goes out to buy food.
“It's been a long time since I've lived here, so I don't know where to go,” Eric told me over a WhatsApp call in December. “In some encounters [with gang members], they would inspect me from head to toe, sometimes question me on where I am from. I’m scared, very scared that it might bring me problems again or that I may leave the house and never come back.”
Eric, 25, had left for Belgium two years ago when gangs went to look for him at his house, stole his belongings, and threatened that he would “be a corpse” if he reported anything. “Before that, I had simple, small problems,” Eric said. “Robberies or assaults on the bus,” sometimes ending with gunshots. But for him, the threat that changed everything came from the gangs finding out where he lived. Even while he was in Belgium, they kept looking for him at his former home, he said.
Eric did not qualify for asylum in Belgium because of a lack of evidence. When his asylum procedure resulted in a refusal, he slept on the street in Brussels for a few months.
Gangs are within the social fabric
He claims it was impossible for him to get more proof or help from the Salvadoran authorities. It is known that gangs do not only operate in certain impoverished neighborhoods; they are embedded in the fabric of society, from police stations to the mayor’s office, to children’s classmates and their parents. Successive governments and political parties have secretly made deals with them for campaign favors or to artificially lower the homicide rate.
A few days after Eric returned to El Salvador, he found that one of his acquaintances had gone missing. Only the young man’s motorcycle was found.
Like Eric, many Salvadorans have sought refuge in Belgium. In 2015, 35 Salvadorans applied for asylum in Belgium; four years later, 1,365 Central Americans knocked on Belgium’s door. In 2018, Belgium recognized nearly all Salvadorans (96.5 per cent) as refugees. By 2020, that rate had dropped to 9.5 per cent, according to the latest figures available from the European statistics office, Eurostat.
While Belgium acknowledges El Salvador as an extremely dangerous place, its independent office which judges who can receive refugee status and who cannot, claims that most people who now arrive in Belgium are in no real danger in El Salvador and, as a result, asylum seekers feel pressured to return to Central America.
The walls have ears
Meanwhile, in El Salvador, people continue to speak about violence and disappearances at home with hushed voices because “the walls have ears.” Many windows are protected with steel bars but do not have window panes; walls are simple concrete blocks, and people—like the bread seller boy—can always hear a conversation if it’s not spoken in a whisper.
Eric plans to continue studying French and English for when the time comes for him to migrate and save his life again. As for me, I am unsure when I will risk going back to El Salvador, to hug my family, and feel the fresh, humid dawn again.