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  from Surviving La Bestia by Sharron Grodzinsky

The Barrio


They were after him.

Javier dared to look back and saw they were close behind, still chasing him. The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang was trying to recruit Javier Salazar, and if he didn’t join them he knew they would probably beat him senseless or kill him. He ran toward home, but a gang member cut off his path. His lungs were burning, his legs were cramping, and his heart beat like a drum in his ears, blocking out all other sounds. He was almost there when he stumbled in the dirty street filled with trash, fell, and couldn’t get up or go any further. The gang members caught up with Javier, and when he refused to say he would join them, they beat him, their fists pounding up and down on his face and head. Then they viciously kicked and pummeled his body

Finally, their leader whipped out his switchblade knife, carved a small gash on Javier’s face and said, “You ... you’re lucky this time. Next time, little one, we’ll cut off your balls and stuff them in your mouth before we kill you.”

The gang members finally left, and Javier struggled to get up. When he was able to stand, he clasped his hands together and thanked God they hadn’t killed him. It was a message to him and all the others in the barrio who resisted joining them that they meant business.

Less than a week ago, the gang had murdered his auntie while she was sitting in San Andre’s Church. They’d followed her into the church, where she thought she would be safe. Her blood still stained the pew where she’d been hiding from them. The memory of her death lingered in the village like smoke from the many cooking fires.

They had killed her because she’d gone to the police when the gang had threatened her daughter, Isabel. After they killed Javier’s auntie, the gang members went to her home, raped and beat fifteen-year-old Isabel, then dragged her out of the house and left her in the street bleeding and unconscious. Her father found his Isabel in the street, and he carried her in his arms the twenty blocks to the hospital. She survived, and the doctors patched up her injuries, but they would never be able to repair the wounds they couldn’t see. She no longer spoke at all. The trauma she’d endured would follow her all her life. Her father reported it to the police, but they did nothing. She was just one of the many people left in the streets like garbage by the gang.

After Javier dragged himself home, his Nana cleaned his face and put a Band-Aid on the gash. “Javier, you’re covered with bruises. How did they find you?” she asked.

“They caught me coming home from school. For the last few weeks I’d noticed them looking for me, because I refused ...

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