Children, wives of gang members on their own in El Salvador

ATHENS, Ohio, March 10 -- After putting her four children to bed, a mother retreats to her bedroom and lies down. She silently weeps and caresses the cold spot next to her, where her husband once slept.

A woman stands behind the counter at a bodega, carefully kneading dough in preparation for the day's tortilla sales. A toddler grasps her leg.

A little girl climbs into a city bus stopped at a red light. She hopes to trade her small smile for some spare change.

And inside a dirt-floor shack, a boy feeds his baby sister a morning bottle while their mother works another 12-hour shift.

That's how Daniel Menijvar describes the daily lives of women and children in Duarte Melendez, a small community in El Salvador.

Two years ago, an estimated 85 percent of the community's men, many of whom were associated with MS-13, one of the most violent gangs in the western hemisphere, were jailed on charges of murder, robbery, extortion and the sale of illegal weapons and drugs, Menjivar said. Their children were left fatherless, and many women were left without financial stability.

El Salvador's government doesn't keep statistics that show how many gang members have been arrested in Duarte Melendez. Menjivar's estimate is based on his years working closely with families in the small community. Menjivar shared the stories of those families in a recent visit to Ohio University.

“The mother has to create a plan to support the family, and most of the time it has to involve their kids selling things on the street and other jobs,” said Menjivar, director of the Center for the Complete Development of Children and Their Families, a non-profit organization based in the region.

Merlin Lemus said she was 18 years old when her father was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the murder of several people. When he left, she said in a telephone interview, he took with him the family's protection and financial security.

Lemus said she had to quit school to help her mother work and care for her siblings, Oscar and Silvia, and her elderly grandfather.

Prior to the arrest, Merlin said her mother sold homemade snacks and fruits in the community.

But financial pressures of having a husband in jail forced the older woman to start selling tortillas in the morning as well, Lemus said. Lemus quit school, she said, to help her mother work and take care of her siblings. Oscar, 8, began delivering tortillas in the morning throughout the neighborhood. He missed his morning school classes. Silvia, 4, does the dishes and cleans house, Lemus said.

“Life changed totally after (my father) left," Lemus said. "His presence gave security to us and he supported our family in many ways. When he was sent to jail, mother had to get more money to go visit him at least once a week and he is far away because he is at the maximum security prison."

Moy Ramirez, a volunteer who has worked extensively with Menjivar in the Duarte Melendez community said that when fathers are incarcerated, families often experience severe consequences.

“In the beginning, they try to continue their lives, and begin to work more, but most times it is not enough and the children have to give up more than the mothers intended,” he said in a phone interview.

The father of Victor and Jonathon Mendez was among those arrested in 2009, Menjivar said, on charges of murdering rival gang members. He was away for 14 months, during which the boys had to care for their baby sister while their mother, Johana, sold items on the street.The children were left at home alone or under the supervision of families of the MS-13 gang. In Nov. 2010, Johana Mendez was killed, Menjivar said, by a member of rival gang. Jonathon was with her, he said, and "saw when his mother was killed brutally with a shot in the head."

Three months later, the boys' father was released from prison, Menjivar said.

“He got a job in a factory and he works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday so Victor is still taking care of the little ones," Menjivar said.

Menjivar said he has seen the psychological and behavioral affects while teaching English in a small school in the Duarte Melendez community.

“The children are now very silent, do not play, they have no motivation and their grades are going down," Menjivar said. "Some others are very aggressive in classes and they do not want to participate in anything."

A psychologist who works with Menjivar's organization meets with the most severely affected children once a week, Menjivar said.

For children who lose a parent to prison, "the psychological impact is strong," Jorge Aranda, a professor at the University of El Salvador in San Salvador, said in a phone interview.

After her father left, Lemus said she saw a difference in Oscar and Silvia.

“They are very sad and lonely," she said. "They do not play much like before and they are very shy. In the school, they are slow and do not want to go."

Last month, Lemus's mother died from cancer. Now, Merlin is fully responsibility for her family, which includes her own daughter, 9-month-old Brenda.

“This is about love," Lemus said. "My mother was a brave woman and I have to honor her by caring for my siblings, my grandfather and my little daughter.”