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El Salvador Again Feels the Weight of Washington in Shaping Its Fate

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — In the streets of this congested capital of winding streets and hillside warrens, shock is giving way to bitterness.

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AZAM AHMED, New York Times

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — In the streets of this congested capital of winding streets and hillside warrens, shock is giving way to bitterness.

Many older residents still recall with anger the United States’ support for the military government of the 1980s, which plunged their nation into a 12-year civil war and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to the United States for safety.

They remember, too, the return of some of those same refugees, who during their time in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Los Angeles formed violent criminal gangs — MS-13 and 18th Street — that now permeate every facet of life in their small nation.

And they have not forgotten how gang violence drove 120,000 fearful children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to enter the United States through Mexico from 2014 through 2016. Many others never made it.

On Tuesday, after the Trump administration’s decision to cancel a program that gave nearly 200,000 Salvadorans temporary status to live and work in the U.S. following a pair of deadly earthquakes in 2001, many Salvadorans feel the heavy hand of Washington will again shape the fate of this country.

“It’s going to be chaos,” said Bertila Parada, whose son built a life and a family in the United States since immigrating there after the earthquakes under the so-called Temporary Protection Status granted by the U.S. “He gave them 19 years of work, and how do they repay him? They tell him, ‘Get out of here.’”

Parada, speaking in San Salvador, said the country was “in no condition” to take back the 200,000 Salvadorans by the September 2019 deadline.

“When they return to the places where they were born, they’ll be unknowns,” she predicted. “They’ve been away for 20 years.”

Ángel Hernández, 26, worries that an influx of returning Salvadorans will worsen the unemployment rate, which is about 7 percent. “The lack of jobs currently in El Salvador will be even more critical when all those people come looking for work,” he said.

The effect of migrants is felt throughout society, especially in the economy, which is heavily dependent on the diaspora. In 2016, El Salvador received $4.6 billion from abroad, mostly from the United States.

“There are fathers who went up and left their children behind, and send back money for their education,” said Luis Alberto López, 37, director of Cofamide, or the Salvadoran Committee of Relatives of Killed or Disappeared Migrants, a nonprofit that works with Salvadorans whose relatives have vanished while trying to reach the United States. The influx of returning Salvadorans would saturate an already dismal job market. But there is danger, too, for those returning.

“People think, ‘anyone who comes back from the U.S. has money,’ so they’ll be extorted,” López said. “If they try to start a small business,” they will be asked for additional extortion payments.

He added: “The children who return will suffer cultural shock. Their parents can try to tell them what it will be like here, but it’s one thing to hear about it, and another to actually live it. And even their parents will feel like strangers.”

López lost a brother who was kidnapped and vanished while trying to reach the United States in 2001. He fears that Salvadorans who return “will find it so hard here that they’ll try to get back to the U.S.,” and will meet the same fate.

Anita Zelaya, 60, the secretary-general of Cofamide, still mourns for a son who disappeared in Mexico in 2002 while trying to enter the United States. She said the Trump administration’s decision had spread fear among Salvadorans in the U.S.

“Some kids are saying, ‘Will my mom go? Will we be separated?’” she said. “How will the kids manage if they’re left behind? It’s going to generate even more psychological problems.” She added: “I’m afraid there might be a hurricane of violence. It leaves me feeling anguished.”

Nonprofit organizations, community groups and scholars have denounced the Trump administration’s decision, calling it cruel and inhumane. Many view the change in policy as a lose-lose, inflicting damage on U.S. businesses, depriving it of labor, while devastating the families the policy was meant to protect.

“This policy does something rare: It has a negative impact for everyone concerned,” said Charles T. Call, an associate professor of international peace and conflict resolution at American University. “It will harm the U.S. economy,” he added, “by taking away hardworking immigrants who are incarcerated at 44 percent lower rates than native-born Americans. It will have a sad impact on El Salvador’s economy, as 200,000 people, some of whom don’t speak Spanish, will be seeking nonexistent jobs.”

“Young returnees will be fodder for El Salvador’s powerful and deadly criminal gangs,” he said. “And the decision tears apart families, most of whom would be model citizens.”

The nation that these Salvadorans will be returning to is far deadlier than the one they left. In the capital, the streets have been converted into urban killing fields that, as recently as 2015, registered a homicide every hour during moments of peak violence.

The government itself has also become an agent of violence. Police officers are granted an open license to go after the gangs under the government’s iron-fist policy, sometimes sweeping up innocent people.

“With more than 60 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017, El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world,” said Héctor Lindo-Fuentes, a Salvadoran historian at Fordham University in New York. “This extraordinary violence has a significant made-in-the-U.S. component.”

The violence that today gnaws at the fabric of El Salvador has its origins in the United States. During the country’s civil war, from 1980 to 1992, a U.S.-backed military government waged a scorched-earth campaign against leftist guerrillas. The conflict claimed 75,000 lives.

“First, they motivated us in the war with millions of dollars, but as soon as it ended, they abandoned us,” said José Guardado, 47, an artisan in San Salvador. “There were very few reinsertion programs for the ex-combatants.”

He added of the Trump administration’s decision, “It’s like yet another slap in the face.”

Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled the violence, and many wound up in Los Angeles, which was in the throes of its own crisis battling street gangs. The children of these refugees, consigned to impoverished areas patrolled by other gangs, came together to form other gangs.

In the ’90s and still today, U.S. authorities rounded up these gang members and deported them back to El Salvador. From there, the new seeds of gang culture, imported from the United States, grew into the vicious networks that operate with impunity throughout El Salvador.

“The U.S. has such a deep impact on El Salvador for its own foreign policy needs that it bears significant responsibility, not only for the flow of migrants out of El Salvador into the U.S., but also for the current conditions of violence that exist there,” said Erik Ching, a history professor at Furman University in South Carolina.

El Salvador has been struggling beneath the weight of these deportees and the turbulent dynamic they brought with them. Prisons are overflowing and have become cesspools of disease and overcrowding. On the outside, joblessness and violence are the broken realities of life.

The potential for 200,000 others to return will only exacerbate those problems. And in the meantime, the exodus continues: More than 250 Salvadorans leave the country each day, said López of Cofamide. Citing survey and medical data released last year that was gathered by its teams working with Salvadoran migrants traveling through Mexico, Doctors Without Borders said 55 percent of Salvadoran refugees and migrants reported being victims of blackmail or extortion. Another 56 percent had a relative lost to violence, and 67 percent said they never felt safe at home.

The Border Patrol apprehended more than 27,000 families in the year ending in September 2016, and an additional 17,500 children made the trip alone. And those figures were down from recent years.

“Thousands of families will be divided, and those who stay in the U.S. will be desperately worried about the safety of their relatives going back to a poor, unprepared country where their physical safety will be threatened every single day,” said Lindo-Fuentes of Fordham.

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