Guillermo’s family home sat on a hill in San Salvador. The houses there stood crowded, stacked one upon another with rusted metal roofs, and some nights, Guillermo could stand atop the hill and look across the valley of dark buildings to the bright incandescence of Estadio Custcatlán, Central America’s largest soccer stadium. Between him and the stadium ran a busy street. His side of the street was controlled by the gang MS-13. On the other side, the rival gang, Barrio 18, controlled its own territory. (Guillermo’s last name has been withheld throughout this story to protect his safety.)
One night last winter, Guillermo, then 15, walked outside with friends as it rained. He heard a car’s tires slowing as it splashed through the puddles until it stopped beside him. A Barrio 18 gangster fired from the window. Guillermo ducked behind a parked truck; his friend leapt into a cardboard box. Guillermo and his friend were fine, but a young father who had stepped outside to make a call was shot in the stomach. The father ran across the street to a nearby hospital. He died the next day.
By that time, the gangs had already shot Guillermo’s father in the chest. They’d forced his brother-in-law to his knees and shot him in the head. Both had survived—though his father had lost a lung, and for a year, his brother-in-law had carried a bullet in his skull. At night Guillermo saw the rising body count on the news. At school, friends told him how the gangs tried to recruit them. At the dirt field where Guillermo played soccer, he was told that gangsters had broken into a woman's nearby home, raped her with a broomstick, then murdered her.