[NOTE: Due to the serious nature of this story, it seemed unwise to include any photos.]
The pigs, chickens, and growling dogs baring their teeth are following us down the dusty road. Normally I would be on high alert watching their every move, hiding behind my partner, and trying to recall the date of my last tetanus shot. Today is different. I ignore the critters altogether. My partner and I are numb as we amble down the lonely, rural Salvadoran road. Our minds are in a deep fog; we are in a state of shock. My stomach is queasy as I am trying to process what we just heard.
We read and hear of homicides in El Salvador on nearly a daily basis, but rarely do we know the names or recognize their faces. This began changing for us a couple of years ago. We personally interviewed a young man who was assassinated two months after our interview.
And now – not again!
This event that stuns us today happened one month after our last visit. We just learned about it moments ago when we tried to visit the family. The two brothers in their early twenties (and their friend) we have watched grow up were killed. We know the family of six –the boys, their parents and sisters– and make a point of visiting every year. We have photos of them from over the years.
We are walking away from talking with their older sister. We are sick, shell-shocked, outraged. Our sense of equilibrium is thrown off kilter. We want to know details while still showing sensitivity to their sister’s grief. It is difficult navigating these turbulent, uncharted “waters” of discovering the tragic events on the one hand, while being respectful of her grim situation on the other hand. She seems to understand our turmoil.
In many ways this family appeared typical of most poor families living along El Salvador’s Pacific Coast who make their livings by fishing. The family was composed of Juan, his wife, two sons, and two daughters. We became acquainted when wanting to interview a fisherman for our historical memory project.
At first appearance the lifestyle of a local fisherman seemed difficult and arduous, but the more Juan talked, the more details he revealed of his life beyond the water that pulled us spellbound into his story. They were living on the beach, squatting without a shelter other than a lean-to with a couple of hammocks for rest.
Juan was also a lay pastor of a small group of worshippers in this community doing his best to bring the Word of God. He was pleased to show us his small church and to take us along to an outdoor service of combined congregations one hot afternoon.
But the truly bothersome part of his story was the oppressive condition under which his family lived. The woman who owns the nicely constructed, two-story house next door and whom Juan and his wife provided some maintenance and domestic service for, was taking advantage of them by requiring they not leave the property in order to protect it for her, and then often not paying them as she agreed to do. They were captives of her whims.
Juan had to rent a boat, rent the motor, rent the nets, earning barely enough cash to cover the price of the gasoline for the motor. Depending on the season, he often was just barely feeding his family and unable to sell any of his catch.
We came back to our congregation and shared his story. Members of our own church asked, “Why don’t we buy Juan a boat?” and the adventure began. We set about putting the offerings from our Sunday School Stephen boxes toward buying Juan a boat, motor, and nets. Juan and his family were so excited when we succeeded. He took part in selecting the specs for the boat construction and met with the boat-maker.
Every year on our annual sojourn to El Salvador, we made it a point to visit Juan and check in on his growing family. Sometimes things were good; other times we heard of menacing pirates off the coast interfering with local fishermen by throwing them overboard and stealing their boats. He reported to us that the local Coast Guard was not helpful to them, so the fishermen themselves would band together in groups in order to protect one another.
His problems escalated when we discovered his wife was suffering from kidney disease and required medications and treatments he was having trouble affording. (This is common in sugar cane producing areas.) Still he always was happy to see us each year.
It has been 19 months since we last visited El Salvador due to some medical issues we’re dealing with. We made the long drive to see Juan expecting his usual cheerful smile eager to hear family and fishing updates.
Instead we were shocked beyond belief to find out what happened.
First, the family was not at their usual spot along the beach. As we began inquiring, we found out that the older daughter is the only one who remains along this narrow stretch of road in this community. With the help of a third party, she and her infant son met us to share the difficult news.
A month after our last visit, in April, 2016, at 2 A.M. both her brothers (and a friend of theirs) as well as Juan were kidnapped and taken to another community down the road. Her brothers and their friend were shot and killed. We assume that their father, Juan, witnessed the killings before he was released. The boys were buried the same day. In El Salvador homicides, particularly of youth, are not routinely investigated.
The back story we got was that one brother had been in prison for seven months and the other one for a year. We do not know why they were in jail, but their sister guesses it is because they associated with this friend who was involved in a gang. (She believes it was MS-13.) She told us her brothers were unaware that the friend was involved in a gang. The murders occurred eight days after her second brother was released from prison. Whether it was gang members or police colluding with gang who murdered them remains unclear.
After Juan was released from being kidnapped, he and his wife immediately moved to another beach community where he continues to fish. Her younger sister quickly fled to another department in the country to live with their maternal grandmother.
This girl we interviewed was already living out of the house with her boyfriend’s family when the homicides occurred and chose to remain there. She does not feel targeted, nor does she feel supported in any way by the community. She seems to live for this precious baby she holds tightly. Her affect is flat when she talks about the 2 A.M. event. We don’t understand that lack of emotion and what it means. Has she told this story so many times that it no longer registers in her psyche? It has been 1 ½ years now.
We have more questions than answers. Were the boys involved in gangs? It is possible. We also know that Salvadoran authorities are known for picking up any groups of young people congregating and throwing them in prison whether or not there is a charge simply to keep them off the streets and justifying it by saying they are gang members. Youth rarely have legal representation in the massively over-crowded prison system. OR did they not give into gang recruitment in prison and were targeted as soon as released? OR did they have too much information and pose a threat after release so were targeted by gangs? OR did the gang put a hit on them through the local authorities? We’ll never know the answers to any of our questions.
The sad tale is this family went from being a small, cohesive fishing family of six members living together eking out a subsistence living with the dad and boys fishing together, to a now shattered family of only four living members scattered in three locations around the country fighting for anonymity and safety while the remaining two are dead in a grave somewhere unknown.
Shattered and scattered.