Student Who Fled Central American Gang Violence Finds Opportunity at UACCM — My UACCM Story

An UACCM student shares his personal story about fleeing El Salvador after a gang threatened his family

San Salvador
San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Oswaldo Martinez/Unsplash
The threats against Diego’s family arrived as they usually did: they were left in the mailbox. As far as anyone could tell, a gang in San Salvador—the capital city of El Salvador—made threats because the family renovated the house and expanded. The addition of a second level displayed a sign of wealth that called attention, making them targets for extortion. The demands for money were clear, and the gang was transparent about everything that they knew about the family. The gang listed where Diego’s father worked and where Diego and his sisters went to school. The letters included details like the color of the family car, and of course, their knowledge of the family’s home address was evident. 

At the bottom of each letter, the gang proudly signed with “18”, likely identifying as Barrio 18, the largest organized gang in Central America. The first letter came soon after construction was completed, but at 12 years old, Diego did not yet know of them. 

“I remember because after that one year, my parents wouldn’t let me check the mailbox,” he said. 

Because the letters didn’t look official as they lacked stamps or return addresses, his parents knew that Diego’s curiosity would get the best of him; he would accidentally read the threats against his life. Despite the neighborhood adding a gate with a security guard, Diego’s family decided to seek asylum in the United States, where they settled in Russellville, Arkansas. Today, Diego attends the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton.

The toll of violence in El Salvador

It might seem like a fantastic story, but to many Salvadorians, the threat of gang violence is common and has forced many to flee the country over the years. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, recent studies have measured the country’s homicide rate at 51 murders per 100,000 people. Only Venezuela bests that number in the Western Hemisphere. To provide context, the rate in the United States is only 5.3 per 100,000. 

Violence has taken its toll on the population in Central America. Together with Honduras and Guatemala creating the Northern Triangle, people fleeing the region accounted for 75% of all apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019. 

By any measurements of a democracy, El Salvador is a free country. According to Freedom House, an independent watchdog that issues its annual Freedom of the World report, El Salvador has free and credible elections by design. A vibrant free press and civil society is present, but gang violence undermines the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Corruption in the government is rampant. Journalists are threatened on a regular basis. It’s also common for political parties to have transitional relationships with gang leaders. 

For families like Diego’s, leaving is necessary to feel safe and free.

Life in El Salvador

El Salvador is never far from Diego’s mind, nor the life he had there. The country has awesomely beautiful views, with the Boquerón Volcano dominating the landscape of the capital, and a dense jungle stretching into the horizon. The country has many spots to play. The Pacific Ocean is nearby, as is the crater-shaped Lake Ilopango. Salvadorians flock to the beach, Diego included, where he spent much of his time. He always went there after school to play soccer, he said. 

Diego’s family often attended carnivals that celebrated different aspects of Salvadorian culture. One tradition that he enjoyed takes place in a small town of Nejapa called Bolas de Fuego—meaning balls of fire. The festival is well attended, where people wear long gloves and throw rubber balls doused in kerosene and lit on fire. Opposing parties throw the flaming objects the size of softballs at each other in good spirit, knowing that they are going to get burned in the process. But the tradition has meaning. It celebrates community and endurance, marking the anniversary of a volcanic eruption in the 17th century that threatened the town. Diego can’t help but smile thinking about the festival.

In San Salvador, he attended a private school. Private schools were better in most ways to the country’s public schools. The facilities were better constructed and included more technologies. The curriculum taught English that would later prove helpful for his journey to the United States. Students are also less likely to join gangs, as they have more economic opportunities and more chances to go to college.  For students in public schools, who generally live in poorer areas of the city, gangs are omnipresent. 

Lives depend on the rules of real estate: location, location, location. “Teenagers who enter the wrong neighborhoods could get killed because they might think you’re from an opposite gang, so they ask you for your identification,” Diego said.

Many get recruited into the gangs, while others join for a chance at earn more income or gain a sense of purpose. “Those are the ones who get killed first because they send them out when they are little,” he said. “Then they disappear. Their parents can’t find them.”

In the United States, as the policy debate about refugees escaping gang violence continues, families in Diego’s situation are less likely to be able to get asylum. His personal history can be a carbon copy to the lives of others fleeing Central America. Diego feels that it is reasonable to have protections against a “funnel of people” to come to the United States. For someone who grew to despise the criminal underworld, he doesn’t believe that people who commit crimes have a place in the United States. But for those in his situation, he stressed his belief that the U.S. alone has space for refugees to settle here. 

“They have a right for asylum if they aren’t part of gangs to commit crime,” he said.

From El Salvador to Russellville to UACCM

Three years after the first letters arrived, at age 15, Diego stepped off the airplane in Arkansas. Unlike the other members of his family who were nervous about leaving their home country, Diego was excited. 

“I told them that I wanted to come here,” he said. 

He saw the upside of the United States, when his family told him about the move. “I was thinking about the future. I can have a job over here and the American dream—a house and a family. They can grow up in a safe neighborhood and go to a good school.”

That he already knew English would benefit him was beyond doubt, but Arkansas did pose some challenges. 

“The hardest part was the accent,” he said, thinking back with humor. “I would go into stores and they would go, ‘Hey, y’all.’ I would ask my cousin, ‘what are they saying?’ I had to get used to it. I got friends who helped me a lot with the southern accent.” 

Diego’s family found a welcoming Hispanic-American community in Russellville. A big immigration of people from other countries settled in the city that year, he said. There were many Hispanic students in his classes at Russellville High School, and they helped him communicate better and taught him slang like y’all. There was always a Hispanic person in his classes that he could count on.

“I would have to stick with them until I felt confident to talk to others by myself,” he said.

Being part of a diverse class helped him in ways other than communication. He was able to explore cultures in Central America, as several families had settled in Russellville. There were a lot of people who settled in Russellville during his sophomore year, he said. He recalls one classmate, a student from Costa Rica named Denzel, that broke his assumptions about Central America. Due to his name and dark skin, Diego assumed he was African American. That changed one day when Denzel heard Diego's accent, and they shared stories about their homes. The moment was an enlightening experience for Diego as it demonstrated the range of backgrounds in Central America.

In the classroom, he discovered how El Salvador’s educational system was different. While lacking in infrastructure, Salvadorian schools better prepare students in subjects like math, and teachers behave differently. Salvadorian teachers expect students to do their work without asking them, he said. 

“In high school, [American] teachers would say, ‘Hey, turn in your homework. Hey, do this because I don’t want you to have a bad grade.’ But over in El Salvador, it’s like college here,” he said. “Like at UACCM, they’re not going to want you to get a bad grade. You’ve just got to turn it in. If not, then it’s your fault.”

In 2019, he enrolled at UACCM in the Industrial Mechanics and Maintenance Technology program. While Arkansas Tech University is closer to home, he ultimately chose UACCM because it was more affordable and he received a scholarship. 

After graduating with his IMMT degree, he plans to enter the workforce.  

Author’s note: The subject of this article expressed the wish to be called Diego due to the personal nature of the content. UACCM supports that wish of privacy.



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