San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Central American Refugees

'I feel like they cut me down to the roots': A Salvadoran refugee's story

Jonathan knew something bad was about to happen but the punch to the head took him by surprise. The blow, landed by one of four members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang who had surrounded him, knocked him to the ground. Then came the kicks.

They told Jonathan, who was then 27, he had to leave his home or “wake up dead.”

Jonathan says there has always been “conflict” in the neighborhood where he lived in Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second largest city. But he tried to keep his head down: he worked at a hardware store, went to church and minded his own business.

In his mid-20s, he started to study currency trading and investment. He had big plans.

But that was before his cousin Kenneth came to live with him.

Jonathan, whose full name and that of others have been withheld because he has family still living in El Salvador, is one of more than 800 Salvadorans who have requested asylum in Costa Rica so far this year, according to figures from the Immigration Administration.

The number of new asylum applications from Salvadorans fleeing violence in their homeland has increased dramatically in recent years. Salvadorans are poised to replace Colombians as the largest nationality applying for asylum in Costa Rica.

The following is Jonathan’s personal account of what drove him from his home. Most details could not be independently verified by The Tico Times.

Jonathan’s cousin Kenneth had been living in Atlanta, Georgia before he was deported and moved in with Jonathan, his mother and little sister in Santa Ana.

Kenneth returned from Atlanta with tattoos on his arm: a spider web on his elbow and a Playboy bunny. The tattoos might have been harmless back in Atlanta but they were deadly in El Salvador.

The neighborhood in Santa Ana where Jonathan’s family lives is controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, a notoriously violent criminal organization with roots in Los Angeles, California. Years before, the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, wiped out its rival, Barrio 18, in Jonathan’s neighborhood. The tattoos on Kenneth’s arm were symbols associated with Barrio 18.

People took notice. Gang members would approach Kenneth on the street and try to intimidate him, asking what the tattoos meant. Jonathan says Kenneth didn’t take the threats seriously. Eventually, the threats became more direct: if you stay here, we’ll kill you.

It was July 2008 and there were parties all over the city in honor of Santa Ana’s patron saint. Jonathan was out with his father, and his mother had taken his younger sister to a birthday party. When they returned home they found Kenneth dead. Jonathan says three different types of bullets were found in his cousin’s body.

“If I had been there that night, it would’ve been me, too,” Jonathan says.

In the weeks after Kenneth’s death, local gang members shifted their attention to Jonathan. He was walking home one day when two MS-13 members called him over.

“You can’t run, you can’t ignore them,” Jonathan says. “A wrong word and they’ll kill you.”

One of the men told him: “We haven’t seen you here before.” Jonathan had lived in the neighborhood his whole life.

One of the two grabbed Jonathan’s arms and held them behind his back. The other lifted his shirt to see if he had tattoos. Jonathan had none.

Jonathan did not want to risk falling to the same fate as his cousin. In August 2008, Jonathan left his neighborhood to stay with his grandmother, who lived in another part of Santa Ana.

Two years later, police raided his old neighborhood and rounded up several MS-13 gang members, including a leader known as Pantera and two others allegedly connected to the killing of Kenneth.

Jonathan moved back home and the next five years passed without incident. He was working at the hardware store and studying business. He dreamed of becoming a currency trader and making enough money to take care of his mom and younger sister.

Then, in April 2015, Jonathan was walking down the street when he rounded a corner and saw Pantera. He had been released from prison. The intimidation started again.

Another MS-13 member, Coco, focused in on Jonathan.

Jonathan says he felt like he saw Coco every time he left the house. “I don’t know if death was looking for me or if I was looking for it,” he says.

Jonathan says Coco would seek him out to harass him in the street or intimidate him. The only time Coco would let him be was if Jonathan’s grandmother was there — a strange chivalry.

One night Jonathan was walking his bike across a bridge when a white car rolled by. The car stopped and then backed up until Jonathan could see in the windows: he saw Coco and three more MS-13 gang members.

Jonathan got on his bike and tried his best to pedal away without looking like he was running for his life. The car followed. The driver pulled alongside Jonathan and repeatedly swerved into his bike as if to knock him over. On one swerve, Jonathan’s handlebar scratched the car. It was the excuse Coco had been looking for.

He and the others got out of the car and surrounded Jonathan. They accused him of being a member of the police or military. One of the four punched him in his head and Jonathan went down. Next came a blur of kicks.

“It was so unfair,” Jonathan says. “You can’t defend yourself.”

Coco told him he had leave or “wake up dead.”

So Jonathan left. He went to his grandmother’s home again and stayed indoors for three days.

Jonathan remembered a neighbor who had also had trouble with the gangs who stayed inside “pacing like a lion,” until one day he couldn’t take it anymore and left the house. No one ever saw him again.

Jonathan knew he couldn’t stay indoors forever. He steeled himself and left to find another place to live.

But Coco was everywhere. MS-13 moves freely around most of the city, regardless of neighborhood boundaries.

In a totally different part of Santa Ana, Jonathan again crossed paths with Coco. Jonathan sat outside a police station and pretended to read a book as Coco and his clique waited across the street in an idling car. Finally they left.

Going inside the police station was not an option. Jonathan says many police work for the maras. Even if he could trust the police, ratting out gang members could mean a death sentence for his mother and sister.

Jonathan decided his only option was to leave the country.

The distant relative of Jonathan had family in Costa Rica and said it was safe there. No maras. He bought a one-way bus ticket and was gone.

Jonathan arrived in Costa Rica without a plan. It wasn’t until he was eating lunch at a soda that he struck up a conversation with someone who asked if he was planning to apply for refugee status. It was the first time Jonathan had considered he might qualify for asylum.

Since he arrived in May, Jonathan says he’s started to recover from the trauma of the last several months. He and his family struggled with constant anxiety, fearing that someone could come through the door at anytime and do what they did to Kenneth.

So far, Jonathan says Costa Rica seems like a “wonder.”

Despite the risks, there are times he thinks about going back to El Salvador. His mother and sister still live there. The family has already started discussing sending his sister, who’s on the cusp of adolescence, to live with relatives in the U.S. to keep her from ending up the “girlfriend” of a gangster.

Fleeing his home ruined Jonathan’s plans of going into business for himself. “I feel like they cut me down to the roots,” Jonathan says.

He misses Salvadoran food. Jonathan smiles remembering pupusas and a list of other comfort foods back home. He says sheepishly he regrets not learning how to cook.

Jonathan says he’s lucky. He knows others who have fled similar situations and are here with less than he has. Jonathan has family in Canada who has been keeping him afloat as he waits for refugee status or a work permit.

He doesn’t like to be idle. He’s been spending his days studying, brushing up on the business books he read before the maras derailed his plans.

“Providing for my family is what motivates me,” Jonathan says. “That and making something of myself.”

His first appointment with the Immigration Administration is Tuesday, Aug. 16.

Contact Zach Dyer at zdyer@ticotimes.net

Log in to comment