Story by TIM VANDENACK • Photos by BENJAMIN ZACK • Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN — First off, Rafael Moreira, originally from El Salvador, now seeking asylum here, didn’t come to Utah to get rich.
“I don’t want to be a millionaire,” he says. Lively music heavy on acoustic guitar and bass seeps from the main sanctuary of Light and Truth Pentecostal Christian Church, where he serves as a youth leader, to a side room within the southern Ogden church, where he’s speaking.
No, it’s much more basic than that. He left his home in Usulutan in southeastern El Salvador under threat of death from gangs there, coming to the United States last year.
As an evangelical Christian, his worldview clashed with the gangs — organized enterprises like MS-13 focused on extortion and violence that Ogden immigration lawyer Francisco Roman says control swaths of the country — and he had no choice. He had rebuffed their recruitment efforts, dangerous for a young man, and decided he’d better get out, coming to the United States even though he lacks papers.
“If I hadn’t come, they would’ve killed me,” says Moreira, 24, who regularly travels to Ogden from his Salt Lake City home to help with services at Light and Truth, where his uncle serves as pastor. “When I told them I was with the church, they sentenced me. They decided I was an enemy. If I’m not with them, I’m an enemy.”
The vast majority of Latinos in the Ogden area and across the state have roots in Mexico, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The second-largest group is simply labeled as “Spanish,” “Spaniard,” or “Spanish-American.” After that, the largest contingent has roots — whether born in the United States or not — in tiny El Salvador, located in Central America, followed by Guatemala, another small country just to the west along Mexico’s southern border.
Similarly, El Salvador accounts for the third-largest contingent of foreign-born people in Utah from across the globe, not just Latin America, census estimates show. Mexico tops the list by a wide margin — nearly 103,000 native-born Mexicans live here — followed by Canada, 8,439, and El Salvador, 7,083.
To be sure, many Central Americans come in search of work and a better life, the same big motivation for Mexican immigrants. But talk to many of the Central American immigrants here — overshadowed by the much-larger contingent from Mexico — and there are differences, notably an intense history of civil war and violence that looms larger in their backstories.
“There certainly is a fear and I think it’s an objective fear,” says Roman. “I think anyone who lives there learns. The gangs routinely rob people, extort people and they can’t rely on their government to help out.”
Rufino Bocel, originally from Guatemala and now living in Centerville, came in 1991 when he was a teenager, pulled by brothers who came before him to escape the civil war simmering in the country at the time.
“I remember the guerrillas used to force my dad and mom to make tortillas,” says Bocel, who, like Moreira, attends Light and Truth. “They would cause fear when you saw them. They told my dad, ‘If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll kill your sons.’”
His mom and dad did what the guerrillas asked.
Alberto Rodriquez came to Ogden last year from El Salvador, pulled in part by economic opportunity and his wife and other family members, already here. But he also had plenty of first-hand experience with gangs in the country — they had regularly extorted money from his family-run gym.
“Every day we contend with extortion and death threats. That’s a daily thing,” he says. “That’s why some decide to leave the country.”
Murder, domestic violence, civil war
One set of figures highlights the violence in Central America that seems to push many from the region — country-by-country murder rates from around the globe, tallied by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. El Salvador topped the list in 2015, with 108.6 murders per 100,000 people — giving it the dubious distinction as murder capital of the world — followed by Honduras, 63.8 murders per 100,000.
UNDOC didn’t have figures for Guatemala for 2015, but in 2014 the country ranked seventh on the list, with 31.2 murders per 100,000. Honduras topped the list that year, 74.6 murders per 100,000, followed by El Salvador, at 64.2. By comparison, the murder rates in the United States and Mexico in 2015 were 4.9 and 16.4 per 100,000, respectively.
Ogden immigration attorney Jonathan Bachison says domestic violence seems to figure big in many Central American women’s decision to come to the United States. A 2015 U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees report, “Women on the run,” says El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have among the highest female homicide rates globally — first, third and seventh, respectively — and that many flee the countries to get away from violence.
“Poverty, of course, is an issue. But you add in domestic violence, they have nothing there,” Bachison says.
Women will flee their abusive husbands, move in with relatives in their home countries. But because the nations are so small, the population so intertwined, their spouses can typically track them down, forcing the longer trip for some to the United States.
“A lot of people think asylum’s for government persecution,” Bachison says. But both he and Franco say the sort of problems many in Central America face — danger from gangs, domestic abuse — can be potential grounds for an asylum claim in the United States.
The history of Central American immigration to the United States due to violence isn’t constrained to the recent past, nor to street or domestic violence. It goes back further, to the civil wars that racked Central America in the 1980s and 1990s.
Marcos Candray, pastor at Shalom Christian Church in Ogden, which caters to a large Salvadoran contingent, came from El Salvador to the United States in 1969, when he was 3-years-old. That was before the 1980-1992 civil war there.
But he remembers stories involving relatives who came later, prodded by violence between leftist guerrillas battling government forces. Rebels once asked, at gunpoint, for 5,000 pairs of shoes from his relatives, who ran a shoe store. They complied but ultimately closed the business to avoid a repeat and came to the United States, where most of his extended family now lives.
“The civil war ended then the gangs started,” says Luis Pineda, a Salvadoran immigrant who now runs a Salvadoran restaurant in Ogden, La Cabañita Salvadoreña. “So El Salvador has never lived in peace. That’s why we all immigrate.”
‘A big challenge’
To make it to the United States, those coming from Central America — illegally, at least — face a much tougher trip than Mexicans.
“It’s another story because we don’t only have to deal with the distance issue, but also going through Mexico is a big challenge,” says Candray, a naturalized U.S. citizen. “For a Central American family to come to the U.S., it takes a really big need.”
Rodriguez says one of his brothers tried to come to the United States from El Salvador with a coyote, a human smuggler paid to help transport people across the border from Mexico. Mexican authorities stopped him in the country, though, suspecting he was a member of Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel.
He was eventually freed after many protestations of innocence, but not before the officers took all his money. He returned to El Salvador.
Beyond the longer trip, it can be a tougher adjustment here for Central Americans. What’s now Utah was part of Mexico until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, so Mexicans coming here feel more of a connection, Candray says.
“They have this mentality, they’re in their own land. You have people opening businesses, food stores,” Candray says.
Still, Moreira and Rodriguez aren’t complaining.
Rodriguez, a legal permanent resident working at a Salt Lake City propane gas plant, misses his parents and siblings, still in El Salvador. At the same time, he doesn’t have to constantly watch his back, look out for the unexpected.
“It’s more tranquil, a relaxed atmosphere,” he says. “I can take a walk, peacefully, no problem.”
Moreira spent time in a U.S. immigration jail in Denver after crossing illegally into the United Staes, but is now free as he pursues asylum, living with his uncle, who came to the country in the 1980s. He’s not here to en himself, he just wants an end to the nightmares he frequently has about life back in El Salvador, to help others in Utah through his church work.
“What I need is peace,” he says.