My face, their stories: Tatiana Ríos & Miroslava Herrera
My name is Gabriel and I am from El Salvador. I am 39 years old. I opened a carpentry business in Sonsonate with my wife, Carmen. The business was very successful beyond what we ever imagined, it grew to 15 workers and we exported products to Honduras and Guatemala. Everything was going great, we bought some cars and another house to expand the business.
But in 2013 things began to change. All of a sudden, a gang started to extort money from us that we could not pay. They asked me for thousands of dollars because the business was stable and solid. The first extortion demand was 8,000 dollars but they came back month after month to demand money from us. There was never a fixed amount, we only gave them what they asked us at the time.
Unfortunately, I did not know that my nephew was part of a gang, and as a way to help him we allowed him to stay at our home. He started hiding guns and drugs in his room without us realizing it. We found out when the police raided the house. From that moment, he and another of our nephews started hating us, they thought that I had informed the police. The heads of the gang told us that we had to pay for the drugs that the police had confiscated.
It was more than 40,000 dollars. We did not know what to do.
They kidnapped my father-in-law to make me pay. With nothing more to do, we gave them all our savings and asked for a loan to pay off the debt.
When they released my father-in-law, he reported one of the people who kidnapped him, and police captured the criminal. The gang took revenge on my family and held us hostage in our home for 15 days.
My children didn’t go to school, we ran out of food. They asked us to give up my father-in-law and asked us for more money. Someone had to pay for the arrest, they said. We were able to get the money they asked for, but we didn't tell them where my father-in-law was.
We ended up living in hell on the border between two rival gangs. My carpentry business went bankrupt. It hurts me deeply to have built a business from nothing and to have been left on the streets, because of our own family.
I decided to report my nephews to the police and we moved to my wife's family house. A month later, I was told that some gang members were waiting to kill me at my in-laws’ house. They had investigated me, they knew that I was the uncle of two members of the other gang and I had to hide.
I bought a ticket to Panama and traveled overland on January 30 of 2016. My wife and our two children stayed in El Salvador with my in-laws.
Two months after I arrived in Panama, my father-in-law told me that the gang members I had reported to police had been released. The investigator in charge asked him to get my family out of El Salvador immediately. Without a work permit and as an asylum seeker, I had to find work wherever I could and asked for help from the local church to buy tickets for my family to get them out of there.
On November 26, 2016, they arrived in Panama. Life has been unfair, but we are not disappointed. We seek peace, a quiet life, and a new opportunity to get ahead.
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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