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Seeking asylum in the U.S., Part 1: THE PROMISE

Estéban Gonzalez’s life changed when the threats started. Whatever sense he had of childhood innocence narrowed like his breathing room when a group of men surrounded him after he left his school in Lourdes, El Salvador, one day.

The five gang members, young but still several years older than he, began with questions:

“How old are you? Where do you live?”

The 14-year-old is not especially shy with strangers; an enthusiastic evangelist, he would often go door to door to talk about his Christian faith. But he gave these men, whom he knew to be pandilleros, no answers, he says.

He knew what they wanted and that they wouldn’t be satisfied with his tacit refusals to engage.

The gang members insisted that he join them.

Even had Estéban responded, a yes alone would not have convinced them of his commitment.

“To embark on that lifestyle, (you) have to prove it,” he says.

They told him he would have to shoot someone.

And if he refused?

“They told me they would kill me,” he says.

Estéban and his family’s choices from then on became matters of survival. Even today, as Estéban and his 11-year-old sister, Lizet, build a new life over 3,000 miles away in the Rogue Valley, their long-term security remains at risk.

The Gonzalez children, along with their mother, Gabriela, and their father, Jonathan, are a single local example of millions of families worldwide affected by not only the violence plaguing some Central American countries, but also the ever-turbulent tides of the United States immigration system. To protect their safety, all of the names of the Gonzalez family have been changed. Interviews with them were interpreted from Spanish.

The children live with Jonathan, who immigrated into the U.S. illegally about 11 years ago for better work opportunities. With the help of local immigration lawyer Kevin Stout, the siblings are navigating immigration processes that have separated them from their mother and ultimately will determine whether they stay here or are sent back to El Salvador and the threats on their lives.

By the time his mother decided to bring her children to the United States, Estéban says, the focus of the gang’s threats had shifted onto Gabriela and Lizet. Gang members began to tell him they would kill his mother and sister in front of him if he continued to resist them.

“I was always scared,” Estéban says. The fear made his body shake.

He had little reason to believe the men wouldn’t follow through on their ultimatum. The ruthless Barrio 18, a Los Angeles-born gang like rival Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, had established a presence in the Gonzalez family’s hometown of Lourdes a couple of years prior.

Barrio 18 quickly had taken hold of Lourdes neighborhoods and begun recruiting young men.

Just weeks earlier, Estéban says, one of his classmates had told him gang members were targeting him and he was trying to refuse. Within days, the boy was murdered.

A Facebook page for Lourdes news reports murders as they become public. Curators update the page multiple times each day with posts detailing juvenile arrests, drug busts and murders with impunity, including beheadings.

Such serious yet commonplace danger may be hard for some to fathom in Southern Oregon. But the Gonzalezes’ experiences echo in the testimonies of thousands of others in Central America, particularly those from the “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which has been hit hardest by gang violence.

During the children’s lifetimes, El Salvador consistently has ranked with other Central and Latin American nations at the top of the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime’s list of homicide rates. In 2012, the last year for which data is available, its homicide rate was 41.2 for every 100,000 people.

Jonathan and Gabriela knew that the income he sent them from the United States only would place a bigger target on the family when the gangs found out. Extortion is common, with deadly ransoms.

The parents began to make plans. They needed somewhere — anywhere — where the gangs could not reach them. They decided reuniting in the U.S. was their best option.

In 2014, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees released a report examining the reasons for skyrocketing numbers of unaccompanied migrant children showing up mostly at the U.S. southern border. From interviews with 404 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, the report found that Salvadoran children were most likely to merit international protection as according to the Geneva Conventions.

“The children described their everyday challenges of evading extortion; witnessing murders; and navigating threats to themselves and their families, friends and neighbors,” the report said.

Although those pushing back on asylum grantees often reason that the U.S. is taking on an unfair burden, data shows that migrants seeking asylum have increasingly fled to other countries, too: asylum applicants in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize combined increased by 435 percent from 2009 to 2012.

In Lourdes, however, Estéban and Lizet were unaware of the war of opinions ramping up in the country where their mother planned to relocate them for a new chance at life. The war raging in their own neighborhoods — one with daily human casualties — frightened them more.

Gabriela told the children one morning before they went off to school that this was the evening they would leave. Things were getting more dangerous, Estéban says. The family had been robbed while leaving church. Gang members had killed Estéban’s bus driver.

When the siblings came home from school, the three of them packed Estéban’s school bag with clothes, money and some food. They left everything else behind, including Lizet’s peluche, her favorite teddy.

Boarding a bus in the evening, the Gonzalez family left home and its repeated promise of death for the uncertain hope they saw beyond the U.S. southern border.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Editor's note: This article is the first of a three-day series on the Gonzalez family's experience pursuing asylum in the United States. To find out more about how we reported this series, click here.

U.S. played a role in El Salvador unrest

The gang violence driving families from their homes in El Salvador is rooted in a history of political unrest — one in which the United States has played a role.

Following a military coup in 1931 overthrowing oppressive oligarchs, El Salvador was controlled by a steady stream of military generals for close to the next five decades. Attempts to fully implement democratic processes were always quickly rubbed out under authoritarian rule — until factions among political ideologies dissolved into civil war after 1979.

El Salvador’s civil war raged from 1980 until 1992, with socialist-leaning guerrilla forces on one side and the military government on the other. Under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. sent about $100 million in aid to the Salvadoran Armed Forces annually for at least four years. The war was bloody and brutal on both sides, but rape, torture and mass slaughter were characteristic of mostly the military — researchers are still uncovering graves of civilians killed during the El Mozote massacre.

The decades that followed the war, which ended in peace accords, saw greater governmental stability, but United States policy again contributed to societal unrest. President Bill Clinton allowed the refugee status of thousands of Salvadorans to expire, resulting in an influx of young men back into the tiny country. Some of them were involved with Los Angeles-born street gangs, the most notable rivals being Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. The gang ties that traveled back with the men flourished among many poor youth. Salvadoran government policies aimed at deterrence through incarceration have had little curbing effect on membership and violence, as prisons also became gang-run.

Mail Tribune illustration by Paul Bunch