Risking It All: Part One

Risking It All: Part One

Amid violence and desperation, a Salvadoran teen faces one of the hardest choices of his life.
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. 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 seven 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 seventeen-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 finally 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 thirteen 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..

"Yes because 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 this jewelry box a few months ago, no one here knows it but 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 and to do that he will have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

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