“Central America’s Northern Triangle–Guatemala, El Salvador and Hondurasrecorded a total 17,422 murders in 2015 [. . .] The figures released this year confirmed the region’s reputation for the worst homicide rates in the world outside war zones, driven by gangs that wage vicious turf battles and seek to exert brutal control over citizens.”
San Pedro Sula, Honduras, 1991
He ripped out of the Cadillac and ran through the streets in a flurry of panic, red henna coloring his shirt seconds after the first shot rode through the air. Hours later, the mass of people gathered around the car he sprung from will say the assailant was part of la Mara. They will shake their heads in disbelief and flock around the black vehicle to get a glimpse of the victim whose name will appear in tomorrow’s Prensa with a headline that alludes to gang retribution. They will mention the two bullets in his head and describe the event as a “tragedia.”
I’m seven years old and witness the homicide from inside our large minivan that we’ve driven for the past four hours from Santa Rosa. The small diner south of San Pedro Sula had been a welcome detour from the hundred degree heat, and I hungrily anticipated stretching my legs when we parked next to the car with dark windows. Jay, my older brother, had buried himself in his new Walkman when we saw the first sparks light up from inside the Cadillac. “Papi, why is that man running?” I motioned to my father as the tattooed figure sped off and disappeared into a sea of faces.
There is a legend in Central America of an evil Black Cadejo, who is malevolent with glowing red eyes, and who stands on two feet like a man. El Cadejo is said to look like a dog but is not a dog, ranging in size according to different tales in various regions, lurking in graveyards and dark alleys, waiting to attack a passing victim.
Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, 1994
“No hay lobos afuera,” my Abuelita whispers over the covers as I lie face up on a small mattress on the floor. Wisps of ashes fall from the spiral insecticide next to the door as I glance toward the window. I watch as the smoke lifts above the green coil, filling our lungs with incense. “Cómo sabes?” I ask cautiously, raising the large blanket to my ten-year-old chin. Splintered streams of light fall on a path of crumbling wall. How could she know the wild dogs I heard outside weren’t in fact wolves?
I imagined the wilderness covered in dark, imagined tails swaggering, inching toward my grandmother’s finca. Her farm wasn’t well guarded, and several campesinos had already stolen ducks and geese before—once even a swine. Neighbors who often received afternoon café con leche in her small kitchen had later crept into the farm after midnight, taking what wasn’t theirs. These men with their muddied shirts, stained pants, and mustached upper lips climbed over the tattered gate and stole animals that moaned and cried out in the dark. On many nights I could hear these coyotes howling from a distance, vicious teeth gnashing behind pink dusted boulders, waiting among shadows. “Están lejos, solo son de cuento,” she murmurs, half asleep—her small braid nestled beneath pillow.
Wolves are only in fairytales.
The Black Cadejo is said to first demoralize his victim with a series of sounds and other signs that it is nearby. Then, after the victim is scared, it leaps forward and kills him.
During the civil war of 1970-1992, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled to other countries seeking refuge from the political upheaval and alarming poverty in the region. Many of them made their way across the continent, migrating into the United States and settling in Los Angeles. Young boys arrived forlorn in this strange new land, saturated with memories of war while trying to navigate their way into their new environment.
The lack of access to education and employment opportunities drove packs of lost boys to survive marginalization by banding together and forming their identity through robbery, extortion, and the trafficking of drugs and arms. Many of them were later deported as criminals sent back to El Salvador where they continued to compete for strategic territories—recruiting unemployed teenagers and underage children who joined for the money and protection.
“Our country lives a history of blood, a violent history. We learned the only language spoken by our parents. Those who govern today, who publicly bathe themselves in purity, call us the worst in the world. They have forgotten that they also solved their problems with the language of bullets.” ―MS-13 Gang Leader
Santa Ana, El Salvador, 2004
“Let me teach you the right way to walk,” my friend Evi says after one of my first trips to the market. “Take off those earrings, and get rid of that purse.” She motions to the colorful bag I’ve brought back from the US. “You have to look up, not down. Never look scared or you seem weak.”
Her paranoia causes me to chuckle as we head towards the park. “I know how to walk,” I say after passing by several homeless men on the pavement. “The war is over, you know, you can relax.” I jokingly pat her on the back. Evi, a jubilant woman past forty, reaches into her bag for coras—the Salvadoran slang for “quarters”—and pays one of the merchants for half a pound of green peppers.
“Esto no es broma—you’re going to get yourself killed if you don’t pay attention.” Her eyes scan the street corners before pulling me to the other sidewalk. “See over there? Those two boys who look harmless? Son mareros. You can’t see the tattoos under the clothes because they hide them now. Mira cómo caminan esos bichos. See how they walk? Antes eran cipotes sanos—they used to be harmless kids.” Evi’s forehead glistens with sweat before she places a protective hand on my shoulder.
I’ve been living in Santa Ana, a small colonial city just below the country’s capital, for only a few weeks and have yet to learn my way around town. I’m a biracial Honduran/Gringa with olive skin, easily confused with other Salvadorans if it weren’t for my thick American accent and aloof way of walking. Growing up in the suburbs of Georgia has left me unprepared for vigilance.
“You’ll learn soon enough,” she says before inspecting a plump mango from a nearby vendor.
When I first arrived in the lush country, we spent the first week touring the small streets and alleys—strolling up to the Parque Libertad, the beautiful central park facing Santa Ana’s famous gothic Cathedral and National Theater.
On my fifth night in town, we attended a musical play of El Cipitío, a beloved Salvadoran folktale about a small, big-bellied boy condemned to eternal childhood. The performer interpreting Cipitío appeared to the audience as a husky grown man, wearing a large pointed hat, acting as a spurned spirit who jested and danced around his victims at night. The story depicted the forbidden love affair between Cipitío’s mother La Siguanaba and Lucero de la mañana (Morningstar). When Siguanaba’s husband learned of the torrid affair, he sought the help of the powerful god Teotl who condemned Siguanaba to the life of a wandering woman, and for her son to live forever as a small neglected child, never growing into a man.
On our walk back home after the play, Evi explained that the tale had become symbolic because of the many children left behind in the country after their mothers migrated up to the US in order to provide for their families through remesas—monies wired back home.
The boys and girls who live near wolf lairs in El Salvador fly their piscuchas in the sky during the day, watching as the bright comets dance wildly in the air. They are nine, ten, eleven, and twelve. Some of their mothers live in the rich land and occasionally send down 100 dólares. Some of them sell pupusas and work long hours in the market to make two hundred a month. Many of their fathers spend all of this money drinking.
These boys and girls live in adobe homes punctured with bullet holes from the war. They wear tattered second hand shirts and chanclas, while racing each other on rusted swing sets. They are befriended by the wolves who give them cell phones and bicycles, and pay coras for them to deliver messages to other neighborhoods.
“You are my ears,” they whisper. “Sos mi familia,” they say.
Some of these children refuse to participate, and then the wolves become very angry and attack their friends and family.
San Salvador, El Salvador, 2010
“My kids, they don’t remember the war, but they’re still living it. Seguimos en guerra—it never ended,” Don Emilio explains while driving us through crowded parts of the city. His musty Nissan blares Daddy Yankee’s La Despedida while quickly cutting off two large buses—attracting the wrath of both drivers. His small cab swerves between lanes before halting behind traffic. “And los políticos corruptos…they do nothing. But who created this mess? Ellos…the politicians.” He presses a damp cloth to his forehead and gently tilts the rear-view mirror toward me. “No work. No opportunities. Estos cipotes have nothing better to do. Por eso se meten a estas pendejadas.”
I stay silent as we pass by several blocks of decayed buildings smeared with large loopy letters. Bold colors swallow entire alleys in fuchsia pinks and electric blues. “Son buenos verdad?” Emilio motions to the array of graffiti lining the walls before stopping at a red light. Distorted human faces and comical fonts stare back at us. Two large eyes appear several feet high with the word Mara and a signature 18 spray painted below. The artist had chosen shades of black and grey to line the contours of the eyebrows and irises, leaving the right side in a bright hypnotic amber. “Sí…” I agree. “Some of it is really beautiful.”
More than a decade’s worth of war had left El Salvador in an aggressive tailspin of poverty and violence, leaving the most vulnerable unprotected from criminals deported back from Los Angeles. International funds that were sent to create job opportunities were rumored to remain in the deep pockets of corrupt politicians. These same government officials held large media campaigns, blaming the lack of resources on street gangs or pandillas.
Santa Ana, El Salvador, 2007
Drunken howls and cackles drift in from the streets as I awaken from a dead sleep. The wild dogs of my childhood have changed shape now that I’m twenty-three. They morph into men, blood-hungry as they roam the streets tossing glass bottles into the late hours.
Están lejos, I tell myself. They are far. I press my phone to my chest as the battery slowly blinks to empty. My thighs are clamped in place before another angry burst of air thrashes on the roof. The noise causes adrenaline to spike up my legs before hastily jutting from the bed. Mareros were known for breaking into homes in the dark, taking what wasn’t theirs.
I had seen their dark eyes glow from park benches and street corners—the precision of black irises greedily staring back at me. At times I saw them glide off of buses, their silent footsteps a cloud of threat when walking home.
On street corners, there were rumors of desaparecidos. People who have gone missing or asesinados—those who have been murdered during the night. “Las cosas van de mal en peor—things go from bad to worse,” they murmur, careful not to take out cell phones or valuables, lest they call attention to themselves.
The bus stop in front of la Universidad attracts shady figures with painted arms and necks. Some display faces with black splotches that form a visible 18 or MS-13. Most are hidden beneath short sleeves and cotton cloths that clamp on their skin during the hot season. Students stand idly, chatting with peers, simultaneously frayed with apprehension.
“Nunca me subo a los buses—I never get on any buses,” Miguel tells me before class, avoiding my gaze as he washes down his coke. We’ve studied at the same university for the past three years and I’ve never seen him waiting at the stop.
“When I was fourteen, on my way back from San Salvador, two armed mareros robbed the bus I was on. They stole cash, phones and jewelry from all the passengers…” He takes a bite out of his pupusa, its ripe insides spilling out.
“But when they came to my seat, one of the men aimed his gun to my head and said he didn’t like the look of me. Called me cerote and hijueputa. That he hated my stupid face and should kill me…” Miguel stares at the ground, wiping his stained fingers on a napkin.
“My hands were so cold…I didn’t speak. Bien yuca.”
“After that, I worked two jobs and took out a loan to buy my car. No ha sido fácil—it hasn’t been easy because I’m supporting my mother and sister…but I’ll never ride another bus in my life.”
A vapid wind bristles against a January sky in El Congo, as ravenous wolves stealthily wait alongside highway Panamericana in large trucks. Cars slow frantically when waved down by their 9-millimeter fangs. Surrounded by their attackers, the prey can choose to flee, and if lucky, the fangs will only pierce glass as their tires screech on gravel in a flurry of escape. Victims, who do not choose flight and are halted by these predators, are later known as desaparecidos.
El Cuerpo has lain strewn across warm concrete since early morning. Bystanders aren’t dismayed by the trickles of blood splayed over matted hair. Children going to school in passing chicken buses do not cry out from the clothes ripped apart by bullets. Asesinado lingers in the air, wafting along with the tortillas and panes con pollo.
A woman of fifty-four shakes her head while crossing the street, her stained ruffled apron tied neatly around her waist. This isn’t the first time she’s witnessed a body stretched out on gravel during the day. Just last week, her son received death threats for not paying his renta on time. The small piñatería he owns with his wife has been targeted for the past six months by men who keep careful watch on the business. Together they recited prayers at the evangelical church where they’ve congregated for the past five years, pleading for ayuda. Together they sat at the small kitchen table with a list of names for coyotes who could take them up to the border and into safety.
No one goes out after eight in Santa Ana. Shop owners close early and bar their doors, lest un marero come to collect renta. The calls start coming in from days before, telling them they know where they live, who they love, and where they work. They explain it is all very simple. Pay a monthly sum in the amount of X. Pay X or everything you love disappears. The daughter who studies in the evenings? She has large brown eyes, a mole on her chin, and studies in el colegio on the corner of Sexta Avenida. They give one week to pay.
San Salvador, El Salvador, 2010
I stand at the edge of my bed in complete darkness—the house alarm blaring in symmetry to my chest. Are they inside? I nearly topple over shoes trying to peer out of blinds. My mind racing to every possible outcome: They will rape us. They will kill us.
The small apartment I share with my best friend is located at the other end of the house’s entrance. There is only one exit from our side—a large glass wall dividing us from the outer courtyard. After a few minutes, my eyes grow accustomed to the dark and try to discern movement behind shadows. Since the moment the alarm first set off, my mind has demanded Gun, Gun, Gun in raw succession—the impulse for survival both immediate and primal. At three in the morning, I forget that we’ve been working on an anti-violence campaign for the small TV company we’ve interned at for the past five months. I forget how often we frequented Gandhi’s words, “Non-violence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another.”
With the alarm still blaring, I stagger back and forth searching for potential weapons in my room—careful not to make a sound. At twenty five I have unlearned civility and become feral. My hands clench into tight fists, prepared to strike at possible attackers. I grab a pointed object within reach, convinced of stabbing my assailant without remorse.
The first week we’d moved into the house in San Salvador, our next door neighbor had been murdered in the patio outside his home. That same night, we came back from eating pupusas to find la policía crowding the sidewalk. A large figure lay in front of them—deep gashes extending the length of his torso.
Another scene surges from my memory of only five years before. The day my father was hospitalized for seizures in one of the public hospitals of Santa Ana. We had waited anxiously, watching as nurses scuttled back and forth between dozens of patients in the emergency room.
A lone figure on a stretcher caught my eye from the hallway. Dried blood covered his face, meshing with the tattoos on an ample ribcage. “Why haven’t they covered him up?” I ask an older lady accompanying her mother in a wheelchair. “Es marero,” she nods emotionless toward the young disfigured man. She informs me that he was brought in just a few hours ago after being involved in a shoot-out with a rival gang. My eyes carefully scanned the man’s limp body and soiled clothes.
Before the doctors wheeled my father into surgery, I walked up to the stretcher and pulled a thin sheet from one of the adjacent beds. His eyes still closed as I draped the cloth over his shoulders.
Marero, I whispered.
According to legend, if a Black Cadejo successfully hypnotizes his victim with his burning red eyes, he will steal their soul. People who survive an encounter with Cadejos are left haunted by their spirits for the remainder of their lives.
Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, 1994
“We have to save him!” I squeal alongside my nine-year-old friend Nina, pleading with her father who first carried the stray dog into my Abuelita’s kitchen. The poor animal heaved quietly on the floor, his tail covered in blood and feces. My grandmother shakes her head and grabs at her apron. Una camioneta se lo pasó encima al pobre—some pick-up truck had hit the poor creature on the freeway directly in front of my abuelita’s farm. A weekly occurrence for many of the lost dogs who lived near the surrounding finca.
“No hay nada que se puede hacer—there’s nothing to be done.” She assures as we cry and watch the small animal writhe in pain. “Solo es un perro callejero—he’s just a street dog.”
La Policía never showed up the night of the false alarm. There were no spectators to bear witness to the hours of surveillance spent within our small walls as we crept with bated breath. There were only whispers of possible weapons and silent prayers offered in desperation. We learned to discern shapes in the dark, to tiptoe silently around objects—to survive.
We learned that wolves are not only in fairytales or in forests hidden from day. They exist as El Cadejo, circling their prey and hoarding innocence—growing in stature to their victims’ fears.
“We are fathers, we are brothers, we are sons. Mothers and wives.
“We are not a gang, we are a community—a race.”
–Carlos Mojica Lechuga (“El Viejo Lin”), Leader of Barrio 18
Feature Photo (Wolf Mosaic): © antomoro (Own work) [FAL], licensed under Wikimedia Commons
Photo #2 (Woods) Provided by Author
Photo #3 (Fountain): © David Stanley licensed under Creative Commons / Cropped from original.
Photo #4 (Mural) © Alison McKellar licensed under Creative Commons / Cropped from original.
Photo #5 (Statue) Provided by Author
Photo #6 (Wolf Graffiti) © David Art Poskanzer licensed under Creative Commons / Cropped from original.