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Women deported by Trump face deadly welcome from street gangs in El Salvador

Countless young women are killed annually and lots of face sexual abuse in the worlds most dangerous land. The president wants to deliver 200,000 more Salvadorans back home

That Inside a flat block in San Salvador under the shadow of the volcano which overlooks the city skyline, 20 girls aged between 14 and 18 have been in hiding, fearing for their lives. Recently deported to the country of the arrival from the US from Donald Trump as part of the evolving immigration clampdown, the teenagers are wanted dead from the road gangs which make El Salvador the most homicidal place on Earth.

Survival necessitates drastic measures once the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, or its rival 18th Street gang desire you murdered. First, the girls — branded traitors for bold depart El Salvador to set up home in America — have been given radical makeovers; fresh haircuts and new clothes along with sunglasses which are rarely removed. Then they learn to talk differently, walk differently. All trace of the prior existence is erased. Travel is arranged using bulletproof cars with tinted windows. Finally, the safe house is put on a short term rental; the slightest intelligence that the gangs have recognized its whereabouts and they’re gone.

“The gangs want to kill them because these girls have specific testimony about the gangs they need to silence them but also punish them because they dared escape,” said Mara Garca, of ISNA,an organisation which runs the key safe house as part of the complex steps required to protect young women in a country controlled by its barbarous gangs.

It is into this maelstrom of violence which the US president plans to deport almost 200,000 Salvadorans later he outraged the global community last week by announcing he’d terminate their temporary protected status, then denounced El Salvador as a “shithole”.

Twenty five years after the accords that ended the nation’s ferocious civil conflict, Trump’s deportees will return to the planet’s most dangerous country not at war. As with most hostilities, women are routinely caught in the crossfire. Around 10 a day are subjected to violence and sexual attack, with many afraid to talk. Others have been silenced forever. El Salvador ranks among the world’s deadliest states for women. Throughout 2016, 524 were killed, one in every 5,000, although such figures record only bodies taken into morgues rather than those found in hidden dumping grounds.

Those within the safe house are the fortunate ones. Few of the deported from the united states or who’ve fled the gangs are allowed such refuge in a country devoid of any state or witness security programme.

“Deportees from the US face being killed or sexual assault. Most girls try to conceal out of the violence. The issue is that most don’t have a place to go,” said Salvadoran attorney Laura Morn.

Salvadoran attorney Laura Moran, 30, who’s fought many cases of sexual abuse against women. Photograph: Mark Townsend for the Observer

Talking at a shopping centre with significant safety in San Salvador, Julia, 19, describes how to navigate life on the run from the gangs. The vital step involves resurfacing in territory controlled by the rival gang.

“It is because the gangs rarely communicate with one another, the trick is to materialise without feeling. You should have deleted Facebook, everything about you. You begin around,” she explained, carefully scanning passers-by.

If effective, prosaic but vital measures are adopted to stay alive. Every time Julia leaves home she takes $2 in change in case a bunch member randomly stops her on the road and demands a present. “Otherwise they will take your cellphone and if you are not carrying your cellphone then they may kill you”

She never conveys ID. When a gang member discovers you are from equal turf they may punish you by death. And scan the footwear of the nearby. Nike Cortez coaches, says Julia, are the preserve of the 18th Street with Adidas Concha worn by MS-13. Nevertheless identifying members is fraught, amplifying the risk for the girls and women in concealing.

The stereotype of tattoo-smothered thugs is gradually being contested. Many now wear suits. Some operate in government. “I might be speaking to one any moment. You can’t trust the authorities, the police are also infiltrated with informants,” said Julia.

Walking in San Salvador is dangerous, but public transport is notorious for attacks. The number 44 bus traverses the capital and is one of its most significant, nevertheless Julia and her friends never use it for fear of robbery or sexual assault.

Additionally off-the-shelf is wearing shorts, skirts or tight-fitting clothes: Julia and her friends uglify themselves. “You don’t need the gangs to consider you.”

Nevertheless, evading the gangs of El Salvador can seem futile. Boys aged between eight and 12 are recruited as lookouts and patrol street corners, the ojos — eyes — of MS-13 and 18th Street. Girls reside in dread of the minute a gang member determines she is his girlfriend. “If they select you, you can’t say no. If you say no to sex then they’re going to kill you,” said Julia.

Garcia, who has counselled dozens of gang victims, has recognized a structural solution to rape. “One woman is chosen from the palabrero (leader) and she is just his, but the other girls could be shared between 20 to 25 gang members. The girls can’t say no, they’re forced to have sex”

On north side of the city, behind a reinforced iron door and two guys with shotguns, Silvia Jurez is one of El Salvador’s most experienced authorities on the gang brutality faced by tens of thousands of girls and women. As co-ordinator of the violence prevention programme at the Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace, Jurez corroborates the reality that consent is dead for many girls and women in the country. “A lot of women have been murdered for saying no, a few handle to run away,” she explained. At least 1,200 Salvadoran girls and women simply vanish each year. Jurez recently finalised an exhaustive investigation — not published online because it would prompt attacks — according to interviews with women, government officials and, unusually, testimony from 25 gang recruits. “One answer from all the gang members regarded their nia, girlfriends, and deeply concerned us. All stated that if their nia say no they have to die.” Additional disquieting truths emerged. In certain areas suicides among teenage girls is growing. Rather than be mistreated, death is preferable.

Across the city, beyond another set of metal gates and armed sentries, Morena Herrera of the activist consortium Colectiva Feminista, says another dilemma facing Trump’s deportees is impunity. Herrera had only learnt that police had dropped an investigation into a 19-year-old woman abducted from the town of Suchitoto. Reading from a justice ministry accounts she stated the judicial system was neglecting the nation’s girls and women. “The community alerted the police who reached her before she had been killed but not until she had been raped. Subsequently the prosecutor realised that a gang had been involved. The case has been dropped.” The same outcome had happened with a different offense that had landed lately on Herrera’s desk, a case of “state kidnapping” where a gang member out of Cuscatln had taken and raped a woman repeatedly for many days before returning her to her family. “She’s busted,” Herrera said. Attorneys believe that impunity affects 80% of all cases of violence against women.

Regardless of the unrelenting tide of sexual abuse and targeted killing of women and girls, femicide continues to be largely ignored. Salvadoran attorney Laura Morn, 30, said: “Even in cases where a woman’s breasts have been cut it off is not classified as femicide. They should be investigated as hate crimes but rarely are.” Despite these attitudes, Morn said police classified 91 femicides in the country during the first quarter of 2017.

Julia, who worries she could be on the run, says the nation’s fundamental culture needs to be contested for change to take place. “We are living in a profoundly patriarchal system, we’re taught to say to guys, accept violence and think guys are superior. If you are a person you must prove you are strong, competitive, capable of violence.”

Some women sent back may select a fresh beginning in the distant uplands north of Chalatenango, where gang activity is not as febrile. Against a background of rainforest, Estrella Alfaro, 28, describes being caught by the US immigration authorities and the anguish of deportation. Alfaro was near Houston, dreaming of a new life removed from El Salvador’s gang violence, even when she had been arrested as an illegal immigrant in April 2016 and sent home. “They handcuffed my ankles and hands and place me on a plane. I think of the United States.” Another women deportee hiding in the far north is Betty Glvez, 30, who had been working illegally in a Texas warehouse which has been raided by police looking for migrants. She had been sent back to El Salvador shortly after Trump won the election. “You feel a loser, but in the mountains I feel safer.”

Betty Galvez, deported from the United States and currently living in the mountains of northern El Salvador, stands in the front of her home. Photograph: Mark Townsend for its Observer

Sixty miles southwest, in downtown San Salvador, lies the reception centre where the Salvadorans deported by Trump will arrive. The US has been running around eight deportation flights weekly. After the Observer visited, a flight holding 40 deportees landed shortly after sunrise. At 10am a bus carrying out a additional 36, a number of them unaccompanied minors, arrived from Mexico. Each has been given two pupusas — a thick tortilla — a bottle of soda and a pair of shoelaces. “They are extremely confused and psychological. Some don’t understand what the time is, what day it’s,” explained David Magana of the nation’s resettlement programme. Gangs target the new arrivals. Deportees are often considered wealthy and ripe for extortion.

A number of the teenage girls and young women return from the US traumatised. But even the 1,500-mile travel there, Garca stated, is treacherous. Most girls set off to the US expecting to be mistreated by traffickers. “Many have a contraceptive injection that protects them for 3 months. If they return to Salvador, many have psychological issues, sexual illnesses, many are pregnant,” she explained. And the hard work begins: protecting them from guys who want them dead.

Some names have been changed

M18 gang members in the designated ‘gang cage’ in the Quezaltepeque police channel. Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Pictures

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