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Risking It All, Part 1: Crisis in Central America

The crisis on the U.S. border begins with desperation and violence in Central America. In Part One of a Special Report, Fresno reporter Jack Highberger visits El Salvador to find out why one teen is among thousands risking their lives to reach the U.S. border, despite the uncertain fate that awaits them.
SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR -- One of the first things you notice in San Salvador are the guns. In this city of 1.5 million, it seems like there are armed guards around every corner. Police sirens have become the unofficial soundtrack of an all-out war for the streets, a war few know better than police sub inspector Edwin Sagastume.

"Most criminal acts are committed by gang members. In the country, we have two predominant gangs that are the Pandilla 18 and the Mara MS-13," said Sagastume.

The infamous MS-13 and 18th Street Gang both got their start in the United States, but it's in neighborhoods like Zachamil that they have truly thrived, taking advantage of desperation only extreme poverty can breed. That desperation and violence is pushing people to seek refuge elsewhere -- many, heading to the United States. To see it all for ourselves, we followed Sagastume out on patrol. With a pistol tucked to his leg, he pointed out a child riding a bike, a child he says is actually a gang member.

"We've known of children 7 years old who are given a cell phone and they are told, 'every time you see the police coming, the only thing you have to do is call this number,," said Sagastume.

Just five years ago, 17-year-old Santos Jr. was that kid. One day, he spotted a rival gang member and tipped off local gangsters. What started off as a child-like act of loyalty turned to torture and murder.

"I went along with it. I beat him, everyone beat him, broke his fingers, broke his arms so he would suffer. At last, because he was agonizing, I saw that a guy goes like this (points to head). The kid got him three times here," said Santos Jr.

Violent crime in San Salvador has become a fact of life. Nationwide, police estimate more than 13 people are murdered everyday. We shot this video during a gang raid not far from the home of Santos Jr. and his older brother Manuel. The entire family, three boys and their mother, live inside a small one room apartment made of sheet metal and cinder blocks. Nineteen-year-old Manuel is the role model, a seasoned survivor of the streets, he refuses a life of crime but worries it may cost him his life. 

"Accidents happen here, and one of the accidents that maybe could scare me a bit is that a gang member mistakes me for someone else. Taking someone's life, to me, it's not right," said Manuel.

Manuel's struggle for survival has landed him behind barbed wire walls but not the ones you might think. A few times a week he comes to the relative safety of a Jesuit-run school. The class is woodworking. He started carving a jewelry box a few months ago, and it's the last thing he will build. The box is for his mother but what he really wants to give her is a future. To do that, he will have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

This is the first episode of a three-part series by Fresno reporter Jack Highberger, following one undocumented migrant's journey from El Salvador to the United States.
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