OGDEN — Araceli doesn’t want her full name used.
But it’s not because the woman, now living in Ogden, came to the United States without papers. She doesn’t worry that immigration officials will boot her from the country. She’s seeking asylum. The feds know she’s here.
Rather, she’s worried what could happen back in her native El Salvador. Though she’s now more than 3,000 miles away, she still worries about the gangs there, groups like MS-13.
“Every day it’s getting worse and worse,” she said from her family’s cramped one-bedroom apartment in Ogden’s older central core. A mattress leans against a wall awaiting nightfall, when it will be placed on the ground, converting the living room into the master bedroom.
Story continues below the map. Click on each point to read more about Araceli's journey.
After facing extortion twice from a Salvadoran gang, she closed the small clothes booth she ran in a market in the southeastern city of San Miguel, hoping to distance herself and her family from the reach of the nation’s notorious criminal network. Last year, she crossed illegally into the United States with her two kids — her husband came later — and turned herself in to U.S. immigration authorities.
Drawn to Ogden by a relative’s reports of job opportunities, Araceli is now more at ease, though her immigration case is far from resolved. The Standard-Examiner agreed not to use her full name after consulting with her lawyer, Francisco Roman.
“We feel more protected. We live peacefully. We eat peacefully. We sleep peacefully,” she said.
But underscoring the grip in El Salvador of MS-13 and other gangs, she worries if her name gets out in the public, gang members will somehow come across it. Then they’ll track down relatives still in El Salvador and demand money, mistakenly believing her to be a source of riches to be exploited because she’s in the United States.
“You’re always afraid, having family there,” Araceli said.
‘We know where you live’
El Salvador, 2014 — Araceli was walking home one day when they first approached.
Two men she had never seen before sidled up to her as she walked, asked for the equivalent of about $200. They said they knew her movements, knew her kids’ movements, too.
“If you don’t give it to us, we know where you live,” one of them said.
The appointed date came and she put the money in her mailbox, in the wee hours of the morning, as directed. Terrified, she holed up in her home the whole day, didn’t look out the window, didn’t send her kids to school.
Things seemed to get back to normal, but about two months later, she got a call on her cell phone. Araceli doesn’t know how the caller got the number or the caller’s identity, but she wasn’t about to disobey. She had seen the results of those who don’t obey — slain motorcycle taxi drivers in the street, for instance, killed because their bosses wouldn’t pay protection money to gangs.
So again, she handed over $200, this time to a stranger in a park. But that was it.
“I didn’t want to be there putting my kids at risk and I didn’t want to give them money,” she said. “They keep at it, always. If you give it to them once or twice, they keep asking and the threats get worse.”
She sold her business, left San Miguel, and the family moved in with friends elsewhere in El Salvador. Eventually she headed north through Mexico, arriving in Texas about a year ago. There she turned herself and her two kids in to immigration officials, made her asylum request based on the violence she faced.
‘These are animals’
MS-13, at least the gang’s operation in the United States, generated tough talk late last month from President Donald Trump. The group has been tied to numerous killings in recent months in New York, among other places.
“These are animals,” Trump said. MS-13 members in the United States, he went on, “kidnap, they extort, they rape and they rob. They prey on children.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in its annual Global Trends study for 2016, released in June, that just over half of the 262,000 asylum applications in the United States came from Mexico and Central America. El Salvador accounted for the single biggest chunk of applications, 33,600, up from 18,900 in 2015.
“A surging tide of violence sweeping across El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras forces thousands of women, men and children to leave their homes every month,” says a 2015 UNHCR report, “Women on the run.”
“The region has come under increasing control by sophisticated, organized criminal armed groups, often with transnational reach, driving up rates of murder, gender-based violence and other forms of serious harm.”
For her part, Araceli says the relief she now feels being in the United States extends to her kids.
They can play outside now — something they wouldn’t do in El Salvador — and her daughter has received counseling at school to help her deal with the trauma she faced in Central America and on the trip north. Their artwork decorates the door to the room they share, the modest apartment’s sole bedroom, and some of their toys are scattered around the floor.
Yes, she harbors nostalgia about El Salvador, Araceli said. But only to a degree.
“I miss it, but I can’t live there,” she said. “I prefer to live here.”