San Salvador – Ana Martinez* sometimes cries of happiness and torment at the same time, relieved to be alive, but exhausted from living in fear.
The Salvadoran mother of two managed to slip through the fingers of a gang out to kill her two years ago, forcing her to relocate five times since then to save her and her two teenagers’ lives.
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“I want to leave the country,” 45-year-old Martinez tells Al Jazeera.
“I can’t take this agony any more.”
In March 2016, gang members abducted, beat and threatened to kill Martinez’s 16-year-old son as he walked in broad daylight between his school and his family’s home in territory controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, in San Ramon, Cuscutlan, located about 40km east of the capital city.
His kidnappers made it clear that his mother was the real target.
Martinez suspects she was singled out for her activism, especially her work supporting a victim of domestic violence in bringing down her abuser, an MS-13 member.
Her son managed to get out alive, and the family immediately fled their home, leaving everything behind.
Martinez is one of 220,000 Salvadorans uprooted in 2016 and 296,000 in 2017 by generalised violence linked to a more than two-decade-old gang war and 15 years of the government’s “iron fist” crackdown on violent crime.
Before people fleeing violence resort to making the perilous journey north to the United States, many are first forced to relocate within El Salvador in an internal displacement crisis the United Nations has dubbed a “hidden tragedy“.
Often trapped in a cycle of repeatedly abandoning their homes in the face on ongoing insecurity, many displaced people have one less option on the horizon after US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges to deny most asylum claims from victims of gang or domestic violence.
Arnau Baulenas, legal coordinator of the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University (IDHUCA), says US asylum changes will affect some of El Salvador’s most vulnerable.
“When you don’t allow people who have suffered gang violence or domestic violence to request asylum in the United States, you are de facto closing off the possibility of people leaving the country,” he tells Al Jazeera. “The phenomenon is not migration but forced displacement.”
A 2017 survey by the human rights NGO Cristosal found that 96 percent of displaced people relocated due to gangs, while 15 percent pinpointed police and other state security forces as victimisers.
According to Baulenas, internal displacement is usually only a “short-term alternative” for those fleeing violence.
About 93 percent of displaced people surveyed by Crisotsal believed leaving the country would resolve their displacement problems.
“In the face of a lack of alternatives internally not only at the national but also the regional level, the only option people seek is to migrate,” Cristosal representative Rina Monti tells Al Jazeera.
She added that closed doors for seeking asylum in the US likely won’t stop people from fleeing, but will instead push them to do so without documents.
Like many, Martinez also sees leaving the country as her only exit. She and her son and daughter spent less than a month at a shelter in 2016 before relocating to San Salvador, where they have bounced between homes four more times.
Their current residence is likely another short-term fix. The house has no property deed, making residing there precarious.
Martinez scrapes together a living selling fruit, vegetables, and nuts. She also has worked with NGOs on women’s rights issues. She chalks up her son’s survival and her resiliency to her support networks in women’s organisations she got involved in years prior after escaping her abusive husband.
Wearing a grey t-shirt reading “My body, my rights”, Martinez beams as she describes her independent business ventures. But like most victims of forced displacement, poverty makes it harder to escape insecurity.
“We’re vulnerable,” Martinez says. She and her children live near a boundary dividing neighbourhoods controlled by two factions of Barrio 18, one of El Salvador’s largest street gangs.
They try to take precautions such as tracing maze-like routes to and from home, but they never feel they can move freely.
Navigating gang territory as a displaced family can be a double-edged sword. Gangs often grill newcomers, especially families with youth, about where they hail from, making the family’s switch to a neighbourhood from a rival gang’s territory a risky move. But sticking to a zone controlled by the MS-13, the gang Martinez’s family fled in the first place, could have put them in jeopardy of being tracked down.
“We feel suffocated,” she said. “I want to breathe easy.”
Internal forced displacement has been on the rise in El Salvador in recent years.
There were more than 296,000 new displacements due to conflict and violence in El Salvador in 2017, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
According to Cristosal, children and youth are particularly vulnerable.
Leading factors heightening displacement include gang threats, the murder or attempted murder of a family member, and extortion. Advocates also highlight forced recruitment of children as young as eight years old as gang lookouts and police abuses as increasingly significant causes of displacement.
Fearing reprisal, many victims remain silent.
“It’s complicated because lack of trust in the state means people don’t report,” says Monti of Cristosal. “This makes it much more difficult to give [victims] dignified humanitarian support.”
High impunity rates for violent crime plague the country, while the United Nations has found police forces responsible for “extrajudicial executions and excessive use of force” in their bid to combat the gangs.
We feel suffocated. I want to breathe easy.
Critics also argue the government’s refusal to acknowledge the forced displacement crisis weakens state protections and assistance for victims.
Aquiles Magaña, secretary-general of El Salvador’s National Council for the Protection and Development of Migrants and Their Families or Conmigrantes, told Al Jazeera the United Nations refugee agency data on internal displacement are not substantiated.
According to government “internal mobility” statistics, only five percent of Salvadoran families cited violence as their reason for relocating between 2006 and 2016, while over half of families highlighted economic motives.
The government also claims economic issues overwhelmingly drive migration. According to official 2017 statistics, 71.2 percent of adult deportees said economic factors motivated them to migrate, while 14.2 percent cited insecurity and 13.3 percent cited family reunification.
Human rights groups question the government’s data, stressing that migration often stems from multiple overlapping root causes.
For Baulenas, solutions to the crisis must focus on prevention. “Any reactive policy to the phenomenon is a failed policy,” he says.
‘No future here’
The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy and asylum restrictions appear unlikely to dissuade many of those seeking to flee the country.
At the government-run centre that receives returned migrants in San Salvador, Armando, a 40-year-old deportee who said he went to the United States in 2002 to escape gang violence, says he planned to make the trek north again.
“There’s no future here,” the father of two tells Al Jazeera.
Another deportee, 24-year-old Diego, recently apprehended crossing into the US in search of job opportunities, was still weighing his options after arriving back in his home city.
Despite the border crackdown, which he describes as “racist against Hispanics”, he didn’t rule out migrating again.
Magaña of Conmigrantes also doubts Trump’s immigration rollback would slow the flow of migrants.
“These are fear policies,” he tells Al Jazeera. “They believe that with fear they will be able to diminish and dissuade migrant flows. In reality, this is not true.”
He slams Sessions’ asylum directive as a “contradiction” given Trump’s heated rhetoric painting El Salvador as one of the most deadly countries in the world.
“If there is generalised violence, why don’t they give asylum?” Magaña questions.
My life is a story I wish were a dream. But unfortunately, it is reality.
The Trump administration has also ended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans, giving TPS holders until September 9, 2019, to leave the US.
As for Martinez, she insists that if she were to migrate, she wouldn’t leave the country without her children.
Though she is optimistic, the stress weighs on her. She says she often has nightmares about escaping killers that leave her sweating and sobbing.
“My life is a story I wish were a dream,” she says. “But unfortunately, it is reality.”
*Al Jazeera has changed the name of the individual to protect her identity.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.