A 1.4-acre plot of land east of downtown Takoma Park has long been eyed for development. While a neighborhood food co-op has sat on part of it for 20 years, a new plan to redevelop the space envisions restaurants, cafes, a parking garage and office space.
Kojo chats with WAMU 88.5 reporter Armando Trull, who traveled to El Salvador to report on the other side of the crises posed by waves of undocumented minors migrating from Central America to the United States.
- Armando Trull Senior News Reporter, WAMU 88.5
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, the little-known personalities and people behind the Star Spangled Banner 200 years after its creation, but first, tracing the flood of undocumented minors into our region to the beginning of their journey in Central America. For the past several months, WAMU 88.5 reporter Armando Trull has reported extensively on the local impact on the Washington area of the unaccompanied minors who have been migrating here from Central American countries.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis week he's been reporting in El Salvador to learn more about the places on the other side of their journey. He joins us now by phone. Armando Trull, buenos dias.
MR. ARMANDO TRULLBuenos dias. It is dias here. It's only 11:00. We're two hours difference from D.C.
NNAMDIYes, I checked. Armando, during the past several months you've reported on so many different ways this story is affecting families living in the Washington region and the neighborhoods where they live. What kind of perspective were you looking to get in El Salvador when you planned this trip, and what has been -- what have been the most illuminating things that you've learned so far?
TRULLWell, I think one of the things I wanted to do, like many people who have been watching this phenomenon from the north side of the border, is what is driving these young children to take this very dangerous trip? What is driving the migration and why now? And so as I set out on this story, I tried to do that. And I tried to visit towns and localities where you have historically a high migration of people to the United States and specifically to the metro D.C. area. And I also wanted to speak to the people that are working to try to address the many, many issues that are driving this phenomenon.
NNAMDISo where are you now?
TRULLWell, right now, Kojo, I am in Soyapango. Soyapango is a city or town about 30 kilometers away from San Salvador. It has the distinction of having the highest population concentration in El Salvador and unfortunately also the highest crime rate. That includes murder, extortion, violence, robberies. And perhaps that is because here, as in many parts of El Salvador, all three of the major maras, the gangs operate. And that's the teen Barrio Los Ocho, the 18th Street Gang and Mao-Mao.
NNAMDIOne of the people you spoke with is Hugo Salinas, a former mayor of a place in El Salvador that he calls the capitol of immigration coming into the United States. He told you what's pushing people on that journey, both legally and illegally, is a combination of violence and poor economic opportunities in El Salvador. Here's some of what he had to say.
HUGO SALINASIn the country if the government do something for the security, I'm sure we will have a better country. We were the leader country in Central America 20 years ago. Now we are the poorest country. At least we are the last in Central America growing economically. And the government needs to do something with security.
NNAMDIArmando, where you are right now, are you seeing exactly what Hugo Salinas was talking about? What perspective have you gained, from people like him who lived in Washington at one time, about the reasons why people come?
TRULLWell, I am fortunately in a place where I am not seeing the violence but I am seeing, in a way, the refugees of the violence. I am in a school. It is one of the safe places where children of El Salvador can actually escape the madness of the maras and the madness of the sometimes repressive efforts to contain the maras. This is a school called Don Bosco. It is a Catholic school.
TRULLAnd it's also a school where a coalition of local entities and USAID have begun to teach life skills and vocational skills to these children so that perhaps, perhaps then they make the choice not to leave. And why are they choosing to leave? It is incredible, Kojo. The majority of the children that I've spoken to, not only here but throughout this country, come from dysfunctional and broken families and families whose parents may have migrated to the United States years ago.
TRULLAnd then if they have to go to school, they have to live in a neighborhood they are surrounded by gangs. Not only a gang from a warring neighborhood but a gang from the same neighborhood. They are terrorized by both of them. And then should they step out in the streets to walk in their own country in broad daylight, they are sometimes accosted by police officials, treated brutally, sometimes even disappear. That is the choice that many young people in this country face. And then should they manage to graduate from high school, they can't find a job. What would you do?
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Armando Trull, WAMU 88.5 reporter who is in El Salvador reporting on the reasons behind we see the flood of undocumented minors, children coming to the United States.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. If you have questions for Armando or comments, you can also send email to email@example.com. You can shoot a tweet @kojoshow. So much of the conversation this year has been about how to treat the young people who come to places like Washington on their own. But Armando, you've met some people this week who came back to El Salvador after living in the United States, including one former gang member who did time in prison here. He asked that you not use his name for fear of his own safety. But this is how he describes his return journey to El Salvador.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEWhen I got here it was -- you know, the whole trip down here I was handcuffed to my -- both hands to my waist, my waist to my ankles. I couldn't move until we get here. When I got here, they were supposed to give you some money for the bus, food, (word?) and none of that (bleep) was here. They had told us, oh, we didn't even know you guys were coming. So we go through the whole process.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEBy the time I got to the police, it was -- there were trying to kill me. He say he was going to go look for me. He say, watch out. As soon as you walk out the door you're mine.
TRULLWho said that?
MALEThe police officer, Ramirez. That's his nickname. His nickname -- his name. I saw him on his plaque thing in here. So he asked me for my information. Of course, I wasn't going to give him the right information of the address because I wasn't stupid. So I told him I was going to another department like (unintelligible). And he was like, dude, I'm going to go look for you. You're the type (bleep) that ruined this country.
NNAMDINow Armando, that's obviously an extreme example but what struck you most when you learned about this young man's journey back home and especially about the life that was waiting for him in El Salvador? Because that police officer Ramirez isn't the only one who, in a way, wants him.
TRULLAnd not only that but you cut the piece of tape when I asked him, because what the officer said is, it's people like you that are screwing up this country and in a much harsher term. And then I asked that former gang member, do you think he was right? And he said, I think he's 90 percent right. So even among some gang members, they realize that they are part of the problem in this country. And of course when he returns, he is expected to join the gang with all of the experience that he gained being in a U.S. prison for years. And if he does not join the gang, he is basically what the term that they use green lighted, which means anybody who sees them can kill them. And he...
NNAMDISo he finds himself in a situation where he is being targeted both by law enforcement and by the gangs with which he used to be associated.
TRULLExactly. He had to go basically on bended knee to one of the people running the gang. They're called palabreros, meaning the one who gives the word. In this case the word is you live or you die. And the palabrero agreed to let him step away from his life of crime, but he was not allowed to remove his tattoo.
TRULLAnd having a tattoo in this country marks you. It marks you and it means you cannot get a job. It means you are as marginalized as you can be. And it also means that you could be a target for an opposing gang who recognizes that tattoo that you have as being the enemy.
NNAMDIArmando, since you have been there, what have you learned about how the political situation in that country is, and how that political situation may be able to assert itself more effectively in order to stop this problem, if you will. A new president is roughly 100 days into his administration.
TRULLWell, just a few days ago, President Sanchez Ceren gave his 100-day speech. He basically promised that during this quinquennial, which is the five-year period during which he will rule El Salvador, will finally achieve the dream of living in peace and harmony. That was the promise he made to the people of El Salvador. But he makes it during a month where there were 351 murders and where so far this year 2500 people have been killed. And that number could be understated because you have the (word?) that are not included in that tally.
TRULLSo there certainly is an effort by this administration to address the problem of inseguridad, insecurity, which is what they call it. This is a government that is a left wing government in the sense that the president was a former guerilla fighter, freedom fighter, if you will. It is a government that has made a large bet on using community policing as a way to address it as opposed to the previous government which it looked at militarization of the police force and the way to address the violent crime situation in this country.
TRULLJust yesterday I was at a community policing event with the deputy director of the national police, like would be the number two man of the FBI in our country, where he promised that there would be officers listening, looking out for problem areas in a community. But we've got communities in this country in El Salvador that are called red zones because they are controlled effectively by the mara.
NNAMDIAnd have you -- since you have been there, given that it is a very short time, you see where there are obviously policy changes that are going to take effect, but have you been able to see on the ground any indications that security for those most vulnerable children is improving?
TRULLI wish I could say yes but I think that the security that you see being provided to these children is coming from the private sector and organizations, whether big or small, many of them religiously oriented with the help of millions of dollars from the United States providing, as I said, safe places where they can learn, safe places where they can go after school, safe places where they can have some hope of some normalcy.
TRULLThe government is trying to do its best but we're talking about a government that spends about 3 percent on education. That is the lowest GDP investment in almost the world. And how can a government that is spending this amount of money on its children really expect the children to be competitive and to do anything but fail if they manage to get out of school, which is a question -- which is a very, very big question with them. So...
NNAMDIWell, as you know -- go ahead, please.
TRULLNo, no, I'm sorry. Go.
NNAMDIWell, I was about to say, as you know, President Obama has decided to delay acting on immigration until after these midterm elections are over. How have people reacted to that news there? Are people getting that message at all? Are they concerned about that?
TRULLYou know, that is a purely -- that problem is purely for the undocumented immigrant and the immigrant population in the United States. Here it bears no -- it has no bearing whatsoever on their decision to leave or not leave. It really doesn't. It doesn't even make the news. It just is a non-issue here. The issue here is the lack of security. The issue here is the lack of education and work opportunity. The doors that are closed to people that are in the gang.
TRULLBut I will tell you this. U.S. officials are spending about $150 a day to detain undocumented immigrant children. $150 a day, multiply that by all of the days that these children are in detention. Multiply that by all of the ones that are coming and then consider that perhaps investing here may just eliminate the problem at its root.
NNAMDIOne-hundred-and-fifty U.S. dollars a day in El Salvador obviously means a lot more than it means here. Armando Trull, thank you so much for joining us. Be safe.
TRULLThank you so much, Kojo. Thanks for speaking with me. Adios.
NNAMDIArmando Trull is a reporter for WAMU 88.5. He is now reporting from El Salvador. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, the little-known personalities and people behind "The Star Spangled Banner" 200 years after its creation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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