Salvadorans fleeing street gangs find safety in Belize village
Juan Barrera* fled El Salvador alone when he was just 16. It was 1990 and, like thousands of others, the civil war forced him from his home. Juan bounced around Central America for years, scraping by until an uncle told him of a haven of peace just across the Guatemalan border in the small English-speaking country of Belize.
He found the village, scraped together enough money for a plot of land and began subsistence farming. Nearly 30 years later, he makes a comfortable living, growing cabbages, cucumbers, tomatoes and more to sell in the Belizean capital, Belmopan. One of his sons has gone to university and a daughter is on her way there.
Juan is one of hundreds of Central American refugees who found sanctuary in the aptly named Valley of Peace and he is hoping to pass the help and encouragement he found on to a new generation of refugees.
On a sweltering afternoon, he kneels over a beat-up motorcycle with Benjamin and Carlos Menendez, two teenage brothers from El Salvador who live next door with their mother and four other brothers. Barrera told the boys they could use the bike if they fixed it.
He met the Menendez in 2016 after the family of 10 fled a new wave of violence sweeping through their Central American homeland and he saw himself in the family’s six young sons.
“The first thought you have is ‘We’ve lived through that’,” says Barrera, now 50. “You see someone like that and you just want to help.”
Before the troubles that drove them to flee to Belize, the Menendez family was happy in El Salvador. Their father, Roberto, had a successful career in the army before retiring and becoming a salesman in their home town. The mother, Juana, spent her days in the family bakery. Then it all came crashing down.
“You see someone like that and you just want to help.”
In the northern part of Central America, murderous street gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 commit crimes ranging from murder and extortion to kidnapping and drug dealing. They force young men to join their ranks and recruit young women for sex.
Each of the six Menendez sons faced harassment and threats from the gangsters. They all resisted, even when that meant they could barely leave home. Every time they did leave, Juana worried that one of them would not return.
One day, Juan Roberto, 10, witnessed gangsters fleeing shortly after they carried out a kidnapping, and told his parents. That turned the family into a target. On top of that, father Roberto had refused to pay the so called “war tax” demanded by the gang. Since he was a former military officer, the gang labelled him an enemy.
Just days later, several gangsters came for Roberto. He was given an ultimatum: come out peacefully and we will finish you off or we will start killing your sons one by one. He chose to shield his family and was found dead by police later that day, shot several times and hacked with a machete.
Overwhelmed by grief and fear, the family left town the same day. They rented a house in another neighbourhood and lay low for nearly a month. Young Juan Roberto blamed himself for his father’s death, saying over and over, “God is cruel.”
A bureaucratic snarl-up meant they were unable to withdraw their father’s pension money and they were left destitute. It was then that a cousin suggested starting over in Belize and Juana and her six sons, plus the wives of the two eldest and one grandchild, moved to Happy Valley.
The community was founded in March 1982 by George Price, Belize’s prime minister at the time, as a haven for refugees fleeing the civil wars that then plagued the region, especially El Salvador.
“The children of refugees are now doctors, policemen, engineers or, like me, a teacher.”
It initially took a few dozen families, who began cutting back the thick jungle for farmland. They received international funding implemented by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners. Today, more than 600 families live in the village, says Jose Amilcar Amaya, a teacher and unofficial historian of the area.
“In this town, we are proud Belizeans but we are also refugees,” says Amaya, who came here with his family in 1982. “The children of refugees are now doctors, policemen, engineers or, like me, a teacher.”
“Valley of Peace is a wonderful example of refugee success stories,” says Andreas Wissner, UNHCR’s head of office in Belize. “It also shows how to welcome new refugees fleeing violence in the North of Central America.”
The Menendez family has felt this embrace.
“I didn’t think we’d ever find a place of peace again,” says mother Juana, as chickens donated by neighbours chirp at her feet. “We knew if we stayed in El Salvador, the gang would have killed us all.”
Financial support from UNHCR helped the family pay rent and buy food in their first months in Valley of Peace. They have also received support with their asylum applications from UNHCR and its implementing partner, Help For Progress.
Juan Barrera rents his second home to the Menendez family for a fraction of its value.
“We just hope to get our papers, find good work and then have enough money for our own land and a house."
As part of an agricultural collective, Barrera has helped the Menendez family get a small plot of land, where they plant corn and beans, which keeps them fed.
Neighbours in Valley of Peace know the Menendez boys as hard workers and they are often called upon for odd jobs.
“When there’s work, you can make a good living here,” says 24-year-old Alfredo, the eldest. On a good week, he and his brothers can earn up to US$90 each. In slower months, they only earn US$30 per week.
In Valley of Peace, Juana’s youngest sons Juan Roberto and Ulises ride a bike to and from school, where they learn in English and Spanish and gradually integrate into this bilingual community, where English and Spanish are spoken. Juana no longer worries about her boys being alone on the streets.
However, things are not perfect. All of the Menendez brothers work without authorization since the Belizean government has yet to approve a single asylum application in recent years. Two of the brothers missed the government’s strict two-week deadline after entering the country to apply for asylum and are in limbo.
“We just hope to get our papers, find good work and then have enough money for our own land and a house,” says mother Juana.
And her sons have a dream of their own: they want to help Juana get back to work again, doing what she loved.
“We want to earn enough to help her open her bakery again,” says Alfredo. “She has been strong for all of us so we want to do something for her.”
*The names of Salvadoran refugees have been changed for protection reasons.