SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — In his rotating wardrobe of team jerseys and visors, Jose Aquiles often stalked the sidelines of his students’ soccer games, shouting instructions and praise.
A pro in his younger days, Aquiles lived for the sport, never missing a chance to play or coach. But at a tournament one Friday in April, he appeared pensive, foregoing his usual perch for an out-of-the way bench — a towel slung across his head to block the sun.
“That was the last time I saw him,” said Luis Winfredo Montoya, a fellow teacher at the school in rural Santa Lucia, in western El Salvador, where Aquiles taught English and social studies.
The following Monday, word spread through school that Aquiles’ body had been found dismembered and buried in a scrubland controlled by the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, street gang. His eighth graders sobbed and refused to enter his classroom. At his funeral, days later, hundreds filled the streets and thronged his casket, which was closed because of the damage to his body.
Aquiles’ murder outraged his teachers union, which demanded justice. In the past several years, 27 Salvadoran teachers have been killed, and thousands extorted, as gangs have gained hold over even remote areas of the country, said Paz Zetino, the union’s director.
Some have been killed over as little as a failing grade.
Students of slain teacher Jose Aquiles wear soccer jerseys in his honor. (Seth Robbins/GlobalPost)
“The gang problem is incredible,” said Zetino, a principal in Santa Tecla, a town just outside San Salvador. “It’s complete insecurity. We are all passing through this crisis of terror.”
The same terror is driving a flood of Salvadoran youths toward the United States. Since October, some 52,000 unaccompanied minors — mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — have arrived at the US border with Mexico, taxing shelters and causing what President Barack Obama’s administration has called a humanitarian crisis. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, about 1 in every 240 Salvadoran children has been detained at the US border.
While the motives behind the exodus of Central American children are complicated, with some seeking possible reunions with family members already stateside, experts say gang violence in these countries is a strong driver. And schools struggle to provide kids refuge.
Gang members in El Salvador recruit even in grade schools, where parents themselves are often involved with gangs, known here as “maras.” Principals are forced to collect money from teachers to pay “la renta,” the cynical term for extortions, and many have found themselves caught between opposing gangs trying to extort the same school.
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Zetino said one MS-13 gang member recently offered to provide his school protection from the rival Barrio 18 gang. “It’s a sick joke,” he said. “What security can they offer me? But they are that bold now.”
Educators under threat often keep family members in the dark about it, so as not to involve or alarm them.
Raul Antonio Parada, 54, principal of a grade and middle school in eastern El Salvador, was only two years short of retirement when he was murdered. Parada had never shared his fears about the gangs with his family, but told a close friend that he’d been threatened.
On the afternoon of May 21, an approaching storm caused him to dismiss his students and teachers early, but he stayed behind in the mostly empty school, organizing papers. Gunmen entered about 5 p.m., found Parada in the director’s office, and shot him 10 times in the head and abdomen. They strolled out of the school without saying a word, according to witnesses.
Days later, Luis Alonso Sandoval, a 22-year-old member of a local MS-13 cell known as the Sailor Locos, was arrested and charged with aggravated homicide.
Oscar Rene Melendez, the lead investigator on the case, said he had two theories about Parada’s murder. “It could have been related to extortion,” he said. Or it had to do with Parada’s high academic standards. “Some students associated with the gangs felt uncomfortable over issues with their grades, with his level of discipline,” Melendez said.
Discipline was at the heart of a shooting that nearly killed Ana Hebe Alvarado five years ago. Today Alvarado, 49, has few visible scars besides a mottled upper lip where a bullet tore through her front teeth. But her psychological wounds remain fresh: Tears streamed down her face as she recounted an attack never intended for her.
Alvarado was the principal of a grade and middle school in Lourdes, a working-class district on the fringes of San Salvador, when on June 12, 2009, she hopped a public minibus to work with her friend and colleague Julio Cesar Gomez, who taught literature.
The pair got off the bus and were crossing the street toward the school when bullets struck them from behind. Gomez received two shots in the heart and died instantly. Alvarado was hit in her neck, arm and chest.
Later, she discovered the motive for the attack: Gomez had confiscated marijuana from a student whose boyfriend was a gang member.
After the shooting, Alvarado’s sons demanded she find work elsewhere, but other schools refused to hire her, fearing gangsters would hunt her down to silence her. Eventually, she found work teaching literature in Santa Tecla, though she still has debt from medical bills. She avoids riding buses.
But she never lost her love of teaching or her students, she said on a recent morning in her school’s teachers’ lounge. A schoolgirl in thick-framed glasses stopped by to give Alvarado a message, and a hug.
“That hasn’t been taken away from me,” she said. “We’re in the classrooms, trying to reinforce values in the few that remain to be rescued.”
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In the school where Jose Aquiles taught, his absence is still felt three months after his death. In the front of his classroom hangs one of his favorite sayings: “Studying should be a pleasure, not an obligation.” His students’ English workbooks still retain his notes, and on a recent visit, they shouted out to a reporter that his favorite soccer team was Barcelona, and that he always wore No. 10, Lionel Messi’s number.
That afternoon, the boys’ team took to a muddy soccer field, wearing navy jerseys printed with Aquiles’ name. Montoya, his friend and colleague, stood in his place as coach. Local men sat on tires or hung on the surrounding chain-link fence to watch.
Two soldiers stood guard by the field. They had been assigned to the school in the months since Aquiles’ murder.
Just a few blocks away, on a brick wall along the lone street leading to the school, loomed a gang tag in large gothic script: MS-13.