El Salvador gang violence reaches US

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Maria Reyes holds a dress of her 15-year-old daughter Damaris whose body was discovered February 11. Photo / Dan Morse, Washington Post

By Michael E. Miller

Her daughter had been missing for about a month when Maria Reyes hacked into the 15-year-old's Facebook account and discovered the death threats.

"Those guys want to kill you," warned one private message in Spanish. "They have already given permission to take you out."

"Get ready," said another.

The profiles of the people making the threats featured skulls, guns, coffins and gang signs that Reyes immediately recognised as emblems of Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13. The 36-year-old had witnessed the street gang's brutality in El Salvador. And in the summer of 2014, she had sent for her daughter to join her in the United States to escape MS-13.

Now she looked at the threats and realized that she had lost her daughter to the gang after all.

Four weeks later, on Feb. 11, police found Damaris Alexandra Reyes Rivas' body near an industrial park in Springfield, Va. She had been dead for about a month.

Police have arrested ten people in connection to the gang-related killing, as well as six more for a related slaying - a sobering sign of MS-13's resurgence in the Washington region.

The rise in MS-13-related violence comes at a time of intense national debate over immigration and law enforcement. As a candidate, Donald Trump often warned of "bad hombres" being sent from Latin America to the United States. As president, he has vowed to speed up deportations, especially of those with criminal records.

Police blame MS-13 for a series of murders in Montgomery County, Maryland over the past two years. Authorities also are investigating whether the gang is responsible for two bodies found in a Fairfax County park earlier this month.

In many of these cases, the victim or the alleged killer - sometimes both - were young teens who'd been smuggled into the U.S. from Central America, just as Damaris was. Her fate offers a window into the way unaccompanied minors are falling prey to MS-13, bolstering its ranks but also becoming its casualties.

"I didn't know people like that existed in the United States," Reyes said of the gang. "I thought it was super safe to have my daughter here with me."

"Why did you leave me?"

Damaris' life was upended by violence before she was old enough to remember it. In 2005, Maria Reyes was raising her daughter on her own in San Vicente, El Salvador, when she witnessed a bus robbery. She cooperated with police, but then worried the robbers would seek revenge on her.

Reyes fled in the middle of the night, leaving Damaris with her grandmother.

"It was hard to leave her," Reyes said. "I was still breast feeding. But I had to."

She caught buses to the U.S.-Mexico border, then walked six days through the desert. She joined her sister in Maryland, working long hours in a restaurant to send money back to El Salvador. She eventually married and had two boys.

All the while, Reyes watched her daughter grow up on a cell phone screen. For a decade, she saved to bring Damaris to America. By the time Damaris was 12, she couldn't wait any longer.

"Gang members coveted her" because of her delicate features and eager smile, Reyes recalled. "They walked behind her in the streets, saying things to her, following her everywhere she went."

Reyes paid coyotes $11,000 to bring her daughter by car to Gaithersburg, Maryland. But Mexican police pulled over the car and arrested Damaris. She spent 15 days in a facility for unaccompanied minors before Reyes was able to get her daughter sent back to San Vicente.

Damaris spent two days in El Salvador before embarking on the 3,000-mile trip all over again. This time it took her a month but she made it. When the 12-year-old stepped out of a truck and saw her mother for the first time in a decade, she joked that Reyes was slimmer than she appeared online.

"I thought you were a fat lady!" Damaris exclaimed.

Damaris hadn't seen her mother, left, in 10 years when she arrived in Maryland in 2014. Photo / Family photo, via Washington Post
Damaris hadn't seen her mother, left, in 10 years when she arrived in Maryland in 2014. Photo / Family photo, via Washington Post

For her first American meal, she requested McDonald's. She was quick to learn English at Montgomery Village Middle School and quicker still to learn to shop, assembling a closet full of sneakers from the local mall.

But the decade apart from her mother had created distance between them, even once they were in the same house. Reyes didn't work but she was often busy taking care of her two young boys, ages 4 and 7.

"Why did you leave me?" Damaris once asked, her mom said. "Why didn't you bring me sooner?"

That sense of alienation, advocates said, have left thousands of unaccompanied minors susceptible to MS-13.

"These kids have suffered trauma from what they had to go through to get up here," said Mark Edberg, an associate professor at George Washington University who studies unaccompanied minors. "They are highly recruitable in that vulnerable stage."

When she arrived at Watkins Mill High School in August, Damaris was approached by Identity, an organisation that supports at-risk Latino youth and knew she'd been an unaccompanied minor. But she wasn't interested in its after-school program. Identity employees grew more concerned when they spotted her hanging out with a gang member.

Damaris was "looking for something very normal, which is to belong somewhere," said Diego Uriburu, Identity's executive director. "That's what killed her."

Reyes said she began noticing problems weeks into the school year.She would drop her daughter off in the morning and watch her go inside, only to get a call from the school later saying she wasn't in class.

Damaris began to disappear from home as well. One school night, Reyes went to check on her around 1 a.m. but found her bed empty. She was out partying.

Continued below.

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And then there was the day in November when Reyes went to pick her up early from school, but the school couldn't find her. She was missing for a week.

When she finally called, asking to come home, she told her mother to be careful picking her up.

"I don't want them to see you," she said, "because something could happen to you."

The next morning, Damaris refused to divulge what she had been doing.

Reyes decided she would send her daughter to live with relatives in Texas, away from trouble, after they'd spent Christmas together.

Gang graffiti marks a highway bridge in Springfield, Virginia, where police found Damaris' body. Photo / Michael Miller, Washington Post
Gang graffiti marks a highway bridge in Springfield, Virginia, where police found Damaris' body. Photo / Michael Miller, Washington Post

But on the morning of December 10, Damaris was gone again - this time for good.

Reyes reported her missing to Gaithersburg Police, who assigned a detective to the case. For weeks after her daughter's disappearance, Reyes sent Damaris messages asking her to come home, but received no answer.

Instead, her only window into her daughter's life was Facebook, where she saw hints her daughter was in love - and in trouble.

"Fall 'n love with a girl like me," Damaris posted next to a photo of her in a black balaclava with emojis of guns and cash. She posted memes about marijuana and showed off a new tattoo. And on Christmas she posted a selfie with one of the men who, two months later, would be charged with her murder.

On Jan. 4, Damaris finally answered her mother's call. Reyes begged her daughter to come home, but all Damaris said was, "I can't."

Once she read the private death threats aimed at her daughter, Reyes began knocking on doors to find her. She and her brother eventually drove to the Springfield Square apartments in Virginia, where they circulated a missing poster.A woman pointed to a group of young men smoking near a basketball court. "Be careful," she warned Reyes. "They're dangerous."

Reyes handed the tattooed teens the photo of her daughter, but they denied knowing her. As they walked away Reyes' brother heard one of them say in Spanish, "We've got to shut her up."

A week later, Reyes's car vanished from in front of her home. "I suppose that was them trying to send me a message," she said.

They were more direct after Reyes spoke to police and reporters about Damaris' death.

"You've got a loose tongue," a male caller told her. "You're next."

The brief call has inspired the same fear she felt in El Salvador before she fled to the U.S., she said. This time, though, she refuses to disappear.

"I love it here"

Damaris was interrogated and tortured before she was killed, according to a search warrant filed in Fairfax County Circuit Court. Her death was retaliation for the slaying of Christian Alexander Sosa Rivas, 21, an aspiring rapper possibly killed for claiming he was a gang leader.

Her execution was captured on video by her alleged killers, at least two of whom came to the country as unaccompanied minors. One girl, only 17, arrived around the same time as Damaris and hailed from the same city in El Salvador. She and Damaris had reportedly both dated Sosa.

Damaris was missing for weeks while her mother frantically searched for her. Photo / Family photo, via Washington Post
Damaris was missing for weeks while her mother frantically searched for her. Photo / Family photo, via Washington Post

Moments before she died, Damaris begged for forgiveness, according to people familiar with the case, but the 17-year-old allegedly slashed her with a bowie knife.

A month after her daughter's body was found behind the Springfield Square apartments, near a highway overpass marred with MS-13 graffiti, Maria Reyes sat in a dark living room, watching a different video of her daughter.

It's a clip of Damaris when she first arrived in Maryland. "Hello abuela," she says into the camera, addressing her grandmother and laughing. "I miss you, but only a little, not a lot, because I love it here."

Reyes is now preparing for her daughter's funeral, which will be held at the same church where they had planned to hold her quinceaƱera. Damaris had already picked out her pink dress and silver shoes, which are still in her closet.

Her mother recently had a dream in which Damaris spoke to her from the other side of a gilded glass door.

"She said, 'I love you, Mami,' " Reyes recalled. "And I said, 'I love you, too, mi hija.' "

In the dream, Damaris begged to be let in, but Reyes replied, "I can't, daughter. I can't."

"I don't know what that means," Reyes said, gazing at the video of her daughter on her phone, and again pushing play.

- Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.

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