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For many in El Salvador, life hangs in the balance, amid fears of brutal gangs

Extraordinary violence is among the factors pushing Central Americans north toward the U.S. In El Salvador, rival gangs like MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang kill thousands per year, despite a harsh crackdown by law enforcement. Special correspondent Danny Gold reports from San Martin on how these brutal groups control the population and drive one of the highest murder rates in the world.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, as we just saw, President Trump is using the migrant caravan as rallying cry for his base voting bloc in the midterm campaign.

    But, in many instances, the people walking through Mexico are escaping extraordinary violence in Central America.

    One of the most violent countries is El Salvador, which had the highest murder rates in the world in 2015 and 2016, although, this year, the rates are somewhat lower.

    Rival gangs like MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang kill thousands per year. They use extortion to control entire neighborhoods, leading people to flee for their lives.

    From San Martin in El Salvador, special correspondent Danny Gold reports.

  • Mauricio Villanova (through translator):

    This is a memorial of the gang leader known as Tiger, who was killed about five or six months ago. Who was he? He went from a local leader to a hit man. He basically ran the drug business in all of this territory.

  • Danny Gold:

    This man here put out a hit out to have you killed?

  • Mauricio Villanova (through translator):

    He gave an order to kill me and other cops.

  • Danny Gold:

    In this rural area in the region of San Martin, the 18th Street Gang is in complete control.

    We're being shown around by the mayor of the nearby town of San Jose Guayabal, Mauricio Villanova. He's forced the gangs out of much of his community. But, right here, the gangs are still in charge.

    Graffiti marking this area as gang territory is everywhere. This is a memorial wall for the gang that controls this neighborhood. All of these graves represent dead gang members. Despite harsh crackdowns from law enforcement, El Salvador's gangs are still growing and killing.

    Just five minutes away from the area we were in, with a heavy 18th Street presence, we are in an MS-13 neighborhood right now that is heavily controlled by them. But in Mayor Villanova's town of San Jose Guayabal, he has managed to do the impossible.

  • Mauricio Villanova (through translator):

    We have faced a metastasis of gangs. We have seen MS-13, 18th Street Gang. But we have made our own special teams, and we never let them take control.

  • Danny Gold:

    The mayor has also coordinated efforts with citizens and the police, creating local information networks and patrols that have created a protective ring around his town.

    This peace has not been easy to come by. Police have engaged in shoot-outs with gang members, and there have been large-scale military and police operations in gang areas, with over 200 arrests made.

    Salvador, who asked us to protect his identity out of fear of reprisals by gang members, earns his living catching crabs by hand in a muddy swamp to support his five children.

  • Salvador (through translator):

    They asked for $5,000. Of course, I can't pay that. That's what I owe them, allegedly, and if I don't pay them, they will come and kill me.

  • Danny Gold:

    Gangs here earn their income primarily from extorting residents and local businesses.

  • Salvador (through translator):

    We are basically trapped. We cannot go out to work like normal because it's a serious threat. That's why we are in crisis in our home.

  • Danny Gold:

    He lives in a rural village alongside mangroves, a few hours from the capital of San Salvador.

    Have you tried to go to the police? Can — anyone in law enforcement, can they help you?

  • Salvador (through translator):

    The police can't be with you all the time. So you have to defend yourself by your own means.

  • Danny Gold:

    So you're like a prisoner in your own home?

  • Salvador (through translator):

    We are like prisoners in our own community. You basically don't live peacefully, but instead you think you're not going to make it another day, or maybe you think, what will your children won't eat tomorrow, because it will be too dangerous to go to work.

  • Danny Gold:

    Salvador says that the only way he and his family can survive in the long term is if he or one of his eldest son flees to the U.S., and sends money back.

  • Salvador (through translator):

    We know it's a pretty risky route and we probably won't even survive. But facing a situation like the one we are living in here, a lot of people take the chance. Why wouldn't we?

  • Man (through translator):

    People stopped for a while when the U.S. president was separating the children from their parents, but now the people who have problems are starting to do it again.

  • Danny Gold:

    This man is a coyote, or people smuggler. He only agreed to speak with us if we protected his identity.

    He arranges for networks, including Mexican drug cartels, to take Salvadorans up through Mexico to the U.S.

    Were you seeing more people trying to leave, you know, in 2015, or you're seeing more people trying to leave now?

  • Man (through translator):

    For me, it's the same. The reason people don't leave is because they can't afford to pay the average coyote. When people manage to get money, they just leave. But if you don't pay a coyote, pretty bad things happen. The migrants get raped or kidnapped in Mexico.

  • Danny Gold:

    He says that it can cost up to $9,000 a person to be smuggled into the U.S.

    What sort of people are coming to you? Is it families, young men, parents sending their children?

  • Man (through translator):

    Whole families. A family needed to flee because the husband was abusive, and he was a gang member. He used to beat his wife, who had a 1-year-old daughter. They contacted me, paid me, and six days later they're in the hands of U.S. immigration services.

  • Danny Gold:

    Gang members themselves have also sought to escape the cycle of violence in El Salvador.

  • Wilfredo Gomez:

    I guess I joined the gang seeking, I don't know, help, love, acceptance, you know, attention.

  • Danny Gold:

    Do you think that's a common story for young people here?

  • Wilfredo Gomez:

    Not only here, bro. I bet you do, if you do that back in the States, it's going to be the same thing.

  • Danny Gold:

    Wilfredo Gomez knows all too well about losing friends to the gang violence.

    What's the situation like for young people here in poor communities?

  • Wilfredo Gomez:

    The problem that we face over the years is the lack of opportunities.

  • Danny Gold:

    An ex-gang member himself, Gomez and his family fled the civil war in the 1980s for Los Angeles, where he joined the 18th Street Gang.

    He was in and out of jail, until eventually being deported. Gomez was able to escape the gang life after converting to Christianity in prison in El Salvador. He now runs a church program that helps ex-gang members after they have been released from prison.

  • Wilfredo Gomez:

    This is the church that we're trying to help out ex-gang members, you know, reintegrate and regenerate into society, Salvadoran society, and get back together with their families.

  • Danny Gold:

    But he says it's not only the gangs that are to blame for El Salvador's epidemic of violence.

    Three former presidents have been investigated for corruption in recent years. In August, former President Tony Saca confessed to embezzling $300 million from state coffers.

  • Wilfredo Gomez:

    It's very difficult, you know, because we are trying to convince the youth to see a different route. But then it's all over the news, corruption. You know we have presidents running from the law, stealing $50 million?

    Well, see, the gang members in there for stealing $20, $50, they got 10 years-plus. And they're not going to get out until they have finished paying their debt. You think that's justice?

  • Danny Gold:

    For Attorney General Douglas Melendez Ruiz, the gangs are a symptom of the corruption and impunity that speak to bigger social issues in the country.

    Your office has famously gone after a lot of high-level officials, including ex-presidents. Why is that so important?

  • Douglas Melendez Ruiz (through translator):

    Because corruption leads to providing a bad government for the people, not serving their basic needs, but instead stealing public money to keep it for themselves, the rulers. The public money they stole could have been invested in schools, in hospitals, in creating jobs for young people.

  • Danny Gold:

    The attorney general says that there's a direct correlation between the money stolen by corrupt officials and the major issues El Salvador is facing.

  • Douglas Melendez Ruiz (through translator):

    Let's be clear. The youth don't have job or education opportunities. So what happens is two things, one, becoming a gang member or, two, emigrate to other countries, mainly the U.S. So the corruption leads to both.

  • Danny Gold:

    Back in Mayor Villanova's town of San Jose Guayabal, there's a feeling of a different El Salvador.

  • Mauricio Villanova (through translator):

    Do you want gangsters to be here in Guayabal?

  • Children:

    No.

  • Mauricio Villanova (through translator):

    I didn't hear you.

  • Children:

    No!

  • Danny Gold:

    Children walk around at night. Teenagers play soccer in the park without fear of gangs. Public spaces are thriving.

  • Mauricio Villanova (through translator):

    The key is collective work, being informed, being organized, people defending their territory.

    I want you to look at the difference between what we saw earlier, where life isn't worth a dime, and look here and how different it is here.

  • Danny Gold:

    A small ray of hope in a brutal landscape.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Danny Gold in El Salvador.

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