Leaving Barrio 18

A Barrio 18 leader after his arrest in San Salvador, El Salvador, in 2015. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

At The Intercept, Danielle Mackey writes about what it’s like for young El Salvadoreans to try and leave gangs like MS-13 or Barrio 18. Of the four young people she followed, one is in hiding, one is being forced to buy her child’s safety with criminal favors, and one has been murdered.

Kids like Benjamin try to leave their gangs by hiding in plain sight. They bury their pasts and attempt to start over. They do it in myriad ways and so well that often they’re even unaware of each other. Alone, they shed skin like any wild creature and take on a new identity.

But their needs are akin to those of child soldiers or war veterans — and the devastating cruelty wrought by gangs leaves little public will to provide that kind of support. As a result, the process is like burrowing through a boulder with a screwdriver. Exhausting. Seemingly impossible. You sweat it out alone.

Benjamin, who joined Barrio 18 at age 12, is the fourth. He managed to negotiate a retirement from the gang, but it’s not an easy or peaceful one.

The first thing Benjamin did on his first morning of freedom was smoke pot. “Habit,” he told me. Also terror. Still in bed, he burned through five blunts, paralyzed by a refrain: “What will come of me?”

Every day of the past decade of his life had been determined by the gang. The gang’s interests were his duties, its members were his peers. The gang’s risks were his and its forms of protection were too. But not anymore. He didn’t even have a place to live; he had woken up in the gang house, and today he must leave. Then, a scarier thought: There was a trade-off implicit in his decision. Yesterday he had an identity, but today he had freedom.

He bounced between hostels until just before Christmas, when he found an affordable apartment in an old brick structure near the National University of El Salvador, four stories tall and packed with people. He was relieved to have a room. He needed to lock himself in it for protection from former enemies and police — “people who want me dead” — but also from himself. He had spent most days high on marijuana or acid or cocaine before leaving the gang, and his zealous new evangelical identity prohibited drugs, so he was antsy to wean himself off them. He needed to whittle himself down to his acceptable parts, his holy parts.

Read the story