MADRID – Manuel (a pseudonym) left prison a month ago as a former member of the Salvadoran MS-13 following a process of reflection that led him to leave one of the most dangerous gangs on Earth.
“In the gang, we only fear God,” he said.
Before he left prison, Manuel began writing his story down by hand. He’s still writing it now he’s out – still by hand and not on a computer.
He agreed to speak to EFE about his story, though on the condition that his identity not be revealed – not a strange ask as not the MS-13 nor any other organization of this kind easily forgives betrayal.
Manuel, who is trying to rebuild his life in Spain, was born amid a civil war in El Salvador – a hard fight that lasted 12 years between 1980-1992.
Many Salvadorans who fled settled in the United States – the “mecca of the gangs,” according to Manuel.
And it was in the US that the rival MS-13 and M-18 gangs formed.
Manuel was born in 1982. His father’s family supported one side of the war and his mother’s the other.
He remembers the streets being full of “burned, dismembered, machine-gunned” bodies.
“You get that landscape, you start to see it as normal,” he told EFE. “War teaches you to hate.”
He was an only child until the age of 10, when his brother was born.
At the time, the Salvadoran government was recruiting children (“kidnapping them,” according to Manuel) and training them to use weapons.
“At 12, they knew how to arm or disarm a rifle,” he said.
When parents managed to rescue their children, they would send them to the US, “the country of dreams and freedom.”
But it was in this land the gangs were established.
When he was 10, his father kicked him out and he was taken in by his war-hardened uncle – a member of the MS-13.
“My uncle wouldn’t let me into the gang, but I fell in love with it,” said Manuel.
He was young but because of who his uncle was he had money and earned respect.
“The others were afraid of me,” he recalled.
To get into the MS-13 a candidate had to pass a cruel rite of initiation, and once in, a member could leave one of two ways – dead or by becoming God, he said.
Things didn’t pan out as he had wanted. “They killed my lover,” he said, and he was plunged into illicit activities while fending off death threats.
He had to get away, and he did.
He went to California and ended up contacting the MS-13 for whom he had to demonstrate he was able to “make the leap” to become a member.
Manuel moved to Boston and worked as a cleaner in a brothel for $250 a month, plus tips.
There, he met a Salvadoran and clients of the women who were MS-13 members.
At 17, he had not been initiated into the gang and so was not a full member.
“This boy wanted his lyrics,” he said – he wanted a tattoo of the letters M and S on his back as this would give him “power, respect, women...”
But for that he had to kill – preferably a member of the rival M-18 gang.
“He didn’t know how to crawl and wanted to run,” he said, explaining how he wanted to become a gang member.
He visited many gangs, including that of the Bronx in New York. He got involved and only thought about “killing (a member of) the 18.”
All these “gangs” were small and he ended up with one in Houston, which was more violent owing to less police control.
His criminal activity grew to the point that the US Prosecutor’s Office gave him 100 years in prison for premeditated murder. He won his trial over a lack of evidence and was released.
Manuel left prison and was deported to his home country, where he had thought he would be welcomed – after all, he had earned his stripes.
But back in El Salvador, violence raged on. “There, killing was free,” Manuel said.
“There, I was nobody.”
He tried to live a more normal life – working in the morning and studying in the afternoon. His uncle had been killed by “200 shots,” but even when he was dead, “he kept protecting me.”
Manuel had a daughter and met with Father Toño, a Spanish priest who helped him get a passport to travel to Spain – he went first and two months later his wife and 6-month-old daughter followed.
But life somehow led him back to the gang – he met Salvadorans who were living in Spain and who wanted to organize.
Barcelona, Alicante, Ibi, Madrid, Seville... The MS-13 got to Spain, though in 2014 it was practically dismantled by the security forces.
Manuel landed in prison and was classified as an especially dangerous inmate.
Separated from his wife, he fought to become a second grade inmate so that he could be transferred to jail and allowed to do a paid job.
Then he worked his way up to third grade and is now free.