Jonathan Hernandez


“Now when I walk past a person I can think, maybe that is a person I helped instead of maybe that is a person I hurt.”


Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish here.

Editor’s Note:





We teased good-natured Jonathan, who was accompanied today by his beautiful girlfriend, that he is like a cat with nine lives. Just a week before this interview he was hit by a public bus, and we thought our chance to speak with him had evaporated. Not so. Jonathan was determined to make this interview happen and came despite a decided limp and look of pain in his eyes. As our interview unfolded, we discovered that this incident was merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to traumatic incidents that Jonathan has experienced and been able to overcome during his young life.

For background information: In El Salvador two rival gangs dominate certain areas, 18th Street (Barrio 18) and 13th Street (MS-13 or Mara Salvatrucha). Both have strong roots in the ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Those who run the gangs in L.A. determine their rules throughout Mexico and Central America. These gangs succeed and proliferate by appealing to young people who are searching for a surrogate family. And when you join a gang, it is extremely difficult to get out.


Andrea, Jonathan, and Jenna who serves as our translator

Andrea, Jonathan, and Jenna who serves as our translator


Jonathan’s story:

I believe the focus in our country should be on the children. I would like to see good spaces where they can learn positive things and become involved in learning skills such as metal working or carpentry. Currently kids growing up in city neighborhoods walk outside, and the first thing they see are gang members; they naturally become curious, and then next they become involved. That is what happened to me. Everyone has a different reason for joining a gang. Some join in order to escape parents beating them. Others join to avenge rival gang members killing someone close to them, such as in my case of the rival gang killing my son. Many join gangs looking for help and support because they are vulnerable and there is no one to go to and they have a family within the gang who offers love and rigor; it is a second “mother.”

Growing up in San Salvador, I used to help my mom sell candy and other items in the park. That is where I began getting involved with gangs when I was twelve. My uncle tried to take me to his house to get me away from there, but I returned to the park and soon was involved with the gang. My dad was an alcoholic. He committed suicide by hanging himself when I was fifteen.

By age 14 I was in jail for a role in a murder. (It was not gang related but personal revenge motivated by drinking with friends.) The guard announced that I had a visitor and I was excited thinking it was my pregnant girlfriend but it was my mom. When I saw her in the visitation area, I started to cry on her chest asking for her forgiveness for the things I had done. She had always told me she would never visit me in jail. She carried a very small portion of chicken and rice and three tortillas.

During our visit a friend approached me with terrible news. Someone from our rival gang killed my girlfriend as a punishment because one of her previous boyfriends had switched gangs. They shot her in the mouth, threw a big stone in her face, removed our baby from her, and shot her in her stomach. I asked my mom to leave when I heard all this, and she asked me not to do anything crazy. All I could do was lie on my bed and cry. It was that night that I officially asked to join the gang. The next day I received permission from a gang leader and was beaten by four gang members as my induction, and they gave me a nickname.


Youth in prison.  Courtesy Rev. Brian Rude

Youth in prison.
Courtesy Rev. Brian Rude


Four days later I was released from prison and returned to the streets where I was to commit my first gang murder, my indoctrination to the gang. My brother, who was also a member, was with me. We began drinking heavily, and when we returned home the next day, we were both covered in blood. Our family asked what happened, but we hid the truth. As I worked my way up in the ranks of the gang, I was put in charge of a clique.

I was never personally involved in recruiting young kids into the gang. Because of the way the cliques are set up in small local neighborhoods, it is easy to spot the most vulnerable kids; the ones who are looking for support; the ones who have no parents; the ones who spend a lot of time alone and are most fragile. They idolize gang members as cool. If that kid sees another one dressed better than he is, it is tempting to want to have those things that the gang members have.

Often there are rumors that corrupt police officers, legislators, and even members of the judicial system are involved in gangs and are reaping financial profits. Often police officers will pick up gang members and throw them with their hands tied up into rival gang territory. That happened to me more than once. There is no due process for officers who kill in the line of duty.

One day at a disco I chose not to drink and left with my friend Eduardo to go to our gang house when on the way another friend, Giovanni, approached us with two 9 mm guns asking if we wanted one of them. We did not and continued walking. Soon a car began following us, and the passengers approached using our gang sign asking, “What’s up with you guys?” We didn’t respond and they got out a 45 mm gun and began shooting at us, letting out all its bullets as we ran to a local bar to escape as well as check our bodies to make sure we were not hit. (They were not members of our gang but tried to trick us by using our gang’s sign.) Later we returned to the street and gathered all the bullet shells and thanked God we escaped unharmed. The following day a member from that rival gang came to our house very drunk. We put him in a car and took him to another area and killed him. I was arrested for that homicide.

After I was released from prison, I spent two years jail-free, and then the police began arresting anyone who was gathering in groups in an effort to break up gangs. I was arrested for being in a group when I was 16; while I was held in custody, they tried and sentenced me for a homicide, which I did not do, and sent me to a juvenile detention facility. After I turned 18, I asked to be transferred to the Ilobasco prison to be re-united with my friends and brothers from my gang. Eduardo went with me.

At first I took advantage of the various workshops the prison offered, including bread baking and sewing as well as school classes, but then I became depressed and stopped attending them. Later I became re-involved with classes. I finished my first year of high school, although prison education is not the best quality.

My life changed dramatically at 4:45 AM on November 10, 2010. Our cellblock caught on fire as a result of an electrical short circuit, and we all screamed for help. The guards did not respond to let us out of the burning cells for 33 minutes. By that time many of us were hanging on rafters and falling like mosquitoes or putting our heads into the water in an effort to get oxygen. Many of my friends were burned, and 27 of them were killed. My friend Juan Carlos died.

I fell beneath 16 friends who were killed in my cell. I had died and was put in the hospital morgue but life came back to me. With the little strength I had left in my body, I was able to get up and walk to the door and begin pounding on it. I was very cold. The nurse outside was startled and asked, “What are you doing?” I said I didn’t know. She was frightened when she realized I was one of the dead they brought in, and she fainted.


Burn victim from Ilobasco prison. This picture of unknown origin.

Burn victim from Ilobasco prison.
 picture from unknown origin.


They put me on a stretcher and took me to get treated for my burns. I fell asleep from exhaustion and awoke at 11 AM. The hospital returned me to the same prison the same day. Human rights workers came to the prison and asked me to help identify the bodies of those who died in exchange for a five-minute phone call. I agreed because I had spent so much time with my friends that I knew every detail, every tattoo, and every scar on their bodies. The last body was difficult to recognize because he was so very, very badly burned.

Two days later I returned to the hospital with Hepatitis A and anemia. I required two blood transfusions. (In El Salvador a patient’s family is required to find their own blood donors.) My mother said she would find donors or give her own. I told God that I wanted to live and not leave the world so soon. As the day progressed, I began to feel better. Two days later I returned to prison but was released to recuperate at home for 15 days and then returned to prison again.

The news media had a heyday with the fire incident at the prison. The attitude was basically, “Let them all burn. No one cares about the lives of prisoners, especially gang members.” As a survivor of that fire, I felt bad about the prevailing negative attitude about the catastrophe that had taken place. I would never wish anything bad against any other person. We are all human beings, and all of us commit errors. It hurts to see people die.

Those of us living in the Ilobasco prison were not at all surprised about the fire. It was a tragedy waiting to happen. The wiring is very old, so it was only a matter of time until a fire broke out. It could be considered borderline intentional by the prison system, which must be aware of conditions inside its prisons. Prisons are extremely overcrowded. We had 43 men living in our small cell. In terms of prison conditions there are some thin mattresses, but others of us slept on the floor. There is a hole in the floor to use as a baño (toilet). Scabies and other skin diseases are common. We are generally refused medical treatment for anything. Water is turned off throughout the day making it difficult to wash ourselves or our clothing, which we are required to do. We are not given any hygiene products to use but are at the mercy of any visiting family member to bring us these items. When I first arrived at the prison, we were permitted to go outside afternoons for recreation; we played soccer. But after the division in the gang, the guards discontinued that privilege, and we stayed in our cell 24/7. After the fire there was no support in terms of groups or individual therapy or anything for those of us who survived the fire and watched our friends burn to death. While I was in prison, my motivation to live was for my family and son.

I began observing how many of my friends were getting killed and started getting fed up with people killing one another in the gangs. Gang members were killing one another within the same gangs. They asked me to kill my own fellow gang members, but I refused to do it. Instead I chose to be beaten as an alternative. I didn’t care what they said about me. I decided I was going to get out and dedicate my life to my family, though my parents were no longer alive. I was grateful to God that I was still alive and able to enjoy a new family. Some people say we can never change, but I knew I could turn my life around.

After my release from prison, I returned to gang life for only a short time. I had a different mentality and no longer wanted to continue suffering inside the gang. I told them I was done; I no longer wanted to continue. They took me to a community, beat me for 36 seconds, and said I would not be involved with them any longer but was welcome back any time. That was my exit from the gang. I was confident they would allow me to get out because I had worked my way up through the ranks and had been cooperative with them, had served prison time, etc.


Jonathan & Andrea in a happier moment

Jonathan & Andrea in a happier moment


Now I just wanted to get a job to help my family financially. Because of my gang tattoos it is extremely difficult to get a job. My aunt invited me to join her in a Christian group which at first didn’t appeal to me but eventually I tried attending the meetings and I accepted God. A leader in the group offered me a job in a storage warehouse for a used clothing store. He explained that others with similar backgrounds as mine worked there also. I was happy to have a job and began forming relationships with some of the other co-workers who began to feel like my family. I met Andrea, my girlfriend, who worked at a different site but as part of the same business.

I worked there a year before the police picked me up, accusing me of robbing a bus. Thank God I had all my paperwork to prove I was working at the time of the robbery. But I was in prison for a month before I could prove this. My employer allowed me to return to work. On September 15th I picked up my paycheck when two guys approached me for my money. I told them I needed it for my family. They got angry and stabbed me in my neck, my heart, my back, my face, my lungs, and left me for dead in the streets of San Salvador. I hailed a taxi which took me to Hospital Rosales. I was very dizzy and the staff asked if there was anyone with me and I said no. They said they couldn’t operate on me unless someone was with me. The taxi driver said he would be responsible for me. The doctors inserted two tubes in my lungs and did neck exploration. I spent a week in the hospital.

After 15 days recuperating at home, I was bored and returned to work but was unable to stand long, so I returned home to rest another week. I went back to work again. On October 31st my mom disappeared and no one wanted to tell me anything. They found her dead. Her husband had killed her, and they were planning to bury her in a common pauper’s grave where no one would be able to find her gravesite to visit her. Once again I was overcome with a desire for revenge, but I had promised God that I would not seek revenge against anyone ever again; I could not break that promise to seek revenge against the man who killed my mother, so I did not. We buried my mother in a dignified gravesite.

Andrea and I have been living together even though many people have discouraged her from being in a relationship with me because of my past. Still she remains by my side thanks to God. We have moved around a bit to avoid pressure from the gang wanting me to return. I continued to work at the warehouse until I became sick and Andrea took me to the hospital; I missed a day’s work. Then my brother got angry at me and he and my step-father beat me badly. I missed work a second time, and I was off work for 15 days. Although I had a slip from the hospital saying I needed time off to recover, this time they fired me. On January 1 of this year, a public bus ran over me and broke my arm, and the wheel ran over my foot, but I am here.

I am now able to feel many things that I could never feel when I was in the gang. I did love my friends like brothers, but there is no substitute for my family. You enjoy life more when you live it calmly without trouble. I cannot go many places, but knowing my family is close to me is enough. I keep struggling every day. My son’s mother is problematic and can be violent and demanding. She will not allow me to be part of my son’s life. {In El Salvador a child born to an incarcerated parent often cannot receive that parent’s last name if the prison does not allow the prisoner to be taken to city hall to register the child (such permission is granted inconsistently and is often denied due to lack of transportation, etc.) Jonathan’s son, born when Jonathan was in prison, does not bear his name, and Jonathan has no legal rights to him.}

Andrea has lost her job now also because employees within the company that formerly employed us are not permitted to date even though we worked at separate facilities. When management discovered we were dating, she lost her job. It is really, really hard to find work. If I try to get my gang tattoos removed, the gang will kill me. If I apply for a job with them covered, the employer may ask me to remove my shirt or even do a lie detector test. Going to these lengths to find former gang members applies to even the most menial jobs. It hardly seems worth continuing to study beyond my 9th grade education if the odds are stacked against my getting a job even with a higher level of education.

I participated in a US-AID funded program called Youth Build designed to give young people job skills. Though the program is designed for “at risk youth,” it prohibits youth who have been locked up from joining (supposedly for “security” reasons). Since I didn’t say I’d been locked up, I joined the program anyway and learned many things. However, I couldn’t be placed in a job after the program ended because of my tattoos. Now the program is no longer running because the funding ran out.

My advice to youth is to think hard before joining a gang. This is NOT a game. A friend of mine asked for my advice before joining, and I advised against it. When he saw how hard it was going to be, he asked to get out, but the gang already tattooed his back and beat him very bad and now he cannot return to his community. The three points we tattoo on ourselves represent the three places we will end up: the hospital, the jail, or the cemetery. In one sense you make a family you grow to love a lot, but the hardest part is watching them die one by one and saying goodbye to them in eternal sleep. It causes so much pain. Getting into a gang is easy; getting out of a gang is the hard part. What is a gang even fighting for? For nothing. They say we are fighting for territory but territory stays there and we are the ones who die.

Andrea and I continue to attend Christian meetings at the Christian Mission ELEM. It is like a second family and is supportive in that we feel free to share joys and sadness, good things and bad things we are experiencing; its members can offer advice, but most of the people are poor, also.

What keeps my spirits bolstered is knowing that people love me. I have positive role models in my life. God willing, I hope to find a job and then marry Andrea, and we hope to start a family, if God allows. God knows that I am a different person than I was and He loves me. Now when I walk past a person, I can think, maybe that is a person I helped instead of maybe that is a person I hurt. That gives me hope. I keep moving forward.


Editor’s Note: Hearing one harrowing story after another such as Jonathan’s in El Salvador literally makes me shudder from the tips of my fingers into the depth of my very soul; I always ask the questions How did Jonathan survive these horrendous situations without anger or vengeance? How did he survive without any kind of counseling or support whatsoever?

Even as he recounts his story, his language changes when talking about life within the gang to life outside the gang as he frequently uses, “God willing” and “if God allows.” It is clear he has accepted God’s guidance for his life.

Sitting across from us is a soft-spoken, sincerely repentant young man desperate to be a productive member of society who wants a chance at a “normal” life. He is forward thinking and goal oriented. He wishes to get a job and to marry this gorgeous girl sitting beside him and start a family. He has skills in several different trades including a certificate in tailoring and wants to use them. However, no employer will hire him with his gang tattoos. It is like another life sentence looming over him and holding him in limbo.

What is he to do? And, as important, what are WE to do?

Jonathan with his son on the night before he was killed

Jonathan with his son on the night before he was killed 


He said, “I believe the focus in our country should be on the children. I would like to see good spaces where they can learn positive things and become involved in learning skills such as metal working or carpentry.”

Like Jenna, we also dedicate all monies from our projects to providing scholarships for the students of El Salvador.  For a richer and fuller understand of Jenna’s experiences click here:

For Scholarship information contact:

Caroline J. Sheaffer and Pastor Emeritus Donald J. Seiple
Dedicated to Preserving oral histories of Salvadorans

The authors of these accounts grant permission to readers to make one copy of a story; however, please include the following statement on the copy: All materials in these stories, text and photographs, are copyrighted by Caroline J. Sheaffer and Donald J. Seiple ©2015.


    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
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