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Leaving in awareness of the risks

· Focus ·

“The secret is to concentrate on the drum. It is the drum that gives the rhythm. You must count up to four: three steps and then the pause”. Ada learned at the same time both to walk and to dance the salsa. It was thanks to of her mother, an experienced dancer. It was she who revealed to Ada the “trick” of the drum. And again, it was she who reminded her, on the threshold of the house. “Empty your mind. One, two, three, forward. On four, you stop a second then continue. This way it will seem less of an effort to you. And you will keep ugly thoughts away”. She didn’t tell Ada what she was referring to. It wasn’t necessary. They both knew, like all the other women of Quetzaltepeque, a small town 20 kilometres from San Salvador. Everyone had a relative, neighbour or friend who had left for the north. Most of them had been sent back without even reaching the frontier. Some had not returned, they said: they must have managed it. Whoever came back, however, confided the tale to another woman. And by then the rumour had spread. To go to the United States it is necessary to cross Mexico and there rape is almost inevitable. The danger is everywhere: corrupt police, assassins hired by the powerful drug cartels and common criminals. According to the studies of Argan Aragón, a sociologist from the Sorbonne – confirmed by a series of local investigations – seven to eight Central Americans out of 10 are raped during the journey. Ada did not know the statistics. However, she knew that it had happened to the others. Yet she left.

She says that she did it for her children. She didn’t want them to be recruited by the maras, the powerful criminal gangs that infest Central America. A heritage of the fierce civil wars of the 1980s, the gangs have turned little El Salvador – more or less the size of Lombardy – into the most violent country in the world with 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. It is not much better in Honduras and Guatemala. The whole region is one of the bloodiest – and yet invisible – frontiers of the “piecemeal world war” of which the Pope has spoken several times. The maras have won control of entire portions of territory, generally the poorest and most abandoned peripheries. There they impose their cruel law: plata o plombo, money or lead, money or bullets. And that’s not all. The gangs are hungry for “fresh meat”: young or very young soldiers to browbeat on the front and “baby-fiancées” to “remunerate” the bravest soldiers. For this reason they recruit everywhere: at home, at school, on the streets. It’s impossible to refuse one of their proposals. All that is left is to flee.

Migration from Central America to the El Dorado in the United States of historical: 500.000 people attempt it every year – obviously illegally: for people who come from that part of the world obtaining a visa is a chimera. Experts and NGOs, however, point to a change in the migratory flow: if previously it was largely due to financial reasons, it is now violence that fuels the exodus. Given that violence persecutes the weakest of the weak – children and women – with particular force, it is they who are the first to leave. Once again Border Patrol (the frontier authority of the United States) has indicated the emergency: unaccompanied child migrants at the border. Between 1 October 2015 and 30 September 2016 almost 60,000 were held up. At the same time the exodus is becoming feminized. If five years ago women accounted for less than 15 per cent, they now constitute at least a quarter of the total. Most of them are adolescents who refuse to yield to the enticements of the chiefs of the maras, or young mothers, anxious to bring up their children far from the “siren songs” of the gangs. Like Ada.

One morning last year, she told the children that they would not be going to school and took them away. In her rucksack she had a change of underwear for each of them, some biscuits and a rug. On the previous day she had purchased, without a prescription and for the equivalent of three euros, Depo-Provera. “The anti-Mexico injection” they call it, a contraceptive made up of a single hormone – medroxyprogesterone – which is effective for 90 days, more or less the time that the journey takes. And abuse is repeated. Consequently this drug now sells like hot cakes at chemists in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. With the increase in the migratory flow, it is now also sold in Africa. Yet many NGOs maintain that Depo-Provera causes serious hormonal problems and damages the bones. “A friend injected me with it. Everyone tells you ‘Don’t leave without having it”. So I had it. You delude yourself that you are little better protected. But this is merely a deception. The anti-Mexico injection may prevent pregnancy but not the emptiness that rape has left within you”.

Indeed, rape. Ada talks about it in ascetic tones. The first time it was a police agent who raped her. He stopped her at a checkpoint near Tapachula, in Chiapas, and asked her to pay if she didn’t want to be repatriated. Ada had no more money. The policeman took her body but at least, she adds, her children didn’t see. The second time, it was criminals. “They said that they were Los Zetas, but I think it was a small group of ordinary criminals. They kidnapped us not far from Tenocique in Tabasco. They wanted to ask for a ransom from a relative in the United States. But I don’t know anyone there. Then they did it to me again. Not only did they rape me; they also sold me on to others – many. And it lasted for a month. Then when they had seized other girls they said to me: “You are no longer any use to us, go away”. I answered “I will not report you but let me take my children away. They gave me back the children”.

Irene was attacked by her own travelling companions while they were crossing the Chahuites rubbish dump. They were Hondurans like her, from San Pedro Sula. Irene too was escaping from the maras: she wanted to go to the United States to work in order to be able to send money to her sisters. Thus they would be able to move to another district, to be far from the gangs.

To avoid such “inconveniences” Asunción, who now lives illegally in the United States, travelled as a “fiancée for the journey”. In practice this is a “consensual” violence. The emigrating girls choose a boy – one who they hope may be shrewder and more enterprising than the others– and offer him sexual services during the trip. In exchange he has to protect them; or, at least, attempt to do so. Pilar, a Guatemalan, tried instead to escape “the rule of rape” by disguising herself as a boy. At the age of 16, slim and bony as she was, she thought she would be able to deceive the ill-intentioned. She did not succeed. A gang of drug dealers grabbed her near the Isthmus of Veracruz, raped her and then sold her on to a clandestine brothel in Tamaulipas. Two years later she was released, thanks to a police round-up on the premises.

“Do you know what the worst thing is afterwards?”, Irene unexpectedly asks. “Not the blows, the pain, the slaps, no. You feel you have brought it all upon yourself because you knew the risk. Yet you left. It doesn’t matter that you had no other options. You left fully aware of it. Then your voice is strangled, you bottle everything up and keep walking. The road north is still a long one”.

Lucia Capuzzi




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 27, 2020