My face, their stories: Iván Chanis

Iván is lending his face so that Silvia can tell us her story.


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Iván Chanis is an international lawyer and president and founder of the "Fundación Iguales", a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and defense of human rights.

He is also a member of the Advisory Council of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture.

My name is Silvia and I am 50 years old, I am from El Salvador. I lived in Sonsacate with my three children, José, Vanessa, and Melanie. With a lot of effort, I opened a hardware store on the first floor of our house. A few years later, I was able to open a second store to bring more stability to my family.

Our lives changed when the extortion demands began in 2006. At first, they only called us to ask for cell phone top-up cards. A customer of the hardware store, who was a policeman, asked me about the business and if the gangs were bothering us. I told him about the calls and he suggested changing our phone number and disconnecting the line.

We listened to him, and it helped a little, but the peace didn't last very long. Two years later, when we opened a mini-market in the community, the gang began to charge us a steady "rent". It was a hundred dollars and we managed to pay it so they would leave us alone. But soon, they increased the extortion to three hundred and then five hundred dollars.

It was impossible to pay.

By then, José and Vanessa had already become independent with stable jobs and their own families. Melanie was studying at a school close to home, but I never let her go alone. I always made sure that she traveled by car every day because we no longer dared to go out on the street.

So when I told them I couldn't pay more, they threatened me. They broke into our home, broke into the second hardware store, and stole a car full of merchandise. I reported them, but nothing happened.

A few months later, on June 17 of 2015, they returned while my daughter-in-law and I were managing the hardware store. Armed with pistols, they took everything they wanted and told me they would be back in a month for five hundred dollars. They knew where Melanie studied and where José worked.

They knew everything about us.

That month I had no life. Being threatened means you no longer have a life, it’s pure anxiety. From one moment to another, they could kill you or kill your family. I spent that whole month wondering what to do. I couldn’t pay what they wanted and they themselves had stripped me of the means to do it. The business that I built out with so much effort was on the brink of bankruptcy thanks to extortion. How do you leave everything you have behind?

They arrived the next month on time and I didn't have the money. They told me they would give me until the afternoon to have it, and then I knew I had no choice. I picked up my daughter Melanie, we closed the business and went to where I knew they would not find me. My life changed overnight.

The police escorted us out of my house and took us to San Salvador to my daughter Vanessa’s. At night, we would think about what to do. It is better to lose everything you have than to lose your life. With my son José, his wife, my grandson, and my daughter Melanie, we bought tickets to escape to Panama.

In the end, I had to leave my home, the place where my business was, and the place where my children grew up.

I’ve been told that my house is now destroyed, dismantled, and painted with the gang's territorial mark.

The names shown in this story were changed to protect the identity of the displaced persons who are part of it.

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